Blogging Against Disablism: It’s On Aisle 5

It’s on Aisle 5
  Good customer service is an equal opportunity opportunity

By L. Legendary

Little else in my life could be described as more of an exercise in frustration than grocery shopping.  As a person who is legally blind, each trip is a time-consuming game of roulette, with odds on as to whether or not I’ll arrive home with what I thought I bought.  Of course, some sections of the market are easier to negotiate than others.  The produce section, for example, is no problem. It’s a tactile paradise.  I mean, really, bananas are quite distinctively shaped, so is broccoli and zucchini and a head of lettuce.  What cannot be discerned by shape can almost certainly be discerned by scent.  Orange or grapefruit? Tangerine or lemon? Each has a lovely, distinctive citrus bouquet.  No problem.

The seafood counter is also no problem.  There stands a very nice person who will tell me what is fresh, what is frozen, and what is on sale.  The only potential pitfall is the possibility that he or she could choose for me a less than desirable cut that a discriminating sighted-shopper might pass over.  A few kind words to the counter-person should make this possibility a non-issue, though.  Seafood counter?  No problem.  Deli counter?  A breeze. I can simply ask the nice person to slice up a half-pound of this, a quarter-pound of that, and which soup do you recommend today?  Gather up the bundles and move along.

These few tasks covers about one thousand square feet of what is an otherwise fifty-five thousand square foot stadium-sized obstacle course of boxes, bottles, cans and cartons, the contents of which are indeterminate.  Houston, we have a problem.

Warily, I approached the customer service counter.  In my experience, anything that identifies itself as “customer service” should be regarded with suspicion.  Usually, it turns out to be a disappointing misapplication of the term.  Awaiting the attention of a young lady behind the counter, I pasted on my “I used to work in retail, so I feel your pain” patient smile.

“What do you need, ma’am?”  The young lady called out from a distance of twenty-five feet.

Instead of yelling back, I smiled warmly and beckoned her over.  I had no way of knowing she was even talking to me.  She could have been calling out to any number of people standing nearby, so the beckoning gesture was modified to look like a friendly wave in case I was mistaken.

She walked over.  “What do you need, ma’am?”  she repeated.

Turning up the smile, I said, “I could use some assistance out on the sales floor.  I’m looking for something in particular, and I’d appreciate it if someone would walk me over and help me to locate it.”

She hesitated.  “Okay.”  She said, stretching out the word as if she were a little annoyed. Then, for the third time, “What is it you need, ma’am?”

Why, I daresay I already answered that question.  I persisted.  “I’d like some help out on the sales floor.  Could you assist me or find someone who can assist me?”

Now she was getting impatient. “What exactly are you looking for?”

Ah.  She was beginning to catch on to the fact that I wasn’t going to tell her.  Not that I was trying to be difficult, mind you, but because I knew that I wasn’t about to get the information I wanted from her by answering her question.  I didn’t want to tell her what exactly I was looking for because I was anticipating her response, which would most likely be a dismissive wave of the hand and the curt, “It’s on Aisle 5.”

Well, all I can say is that for a person who cannot see, this kind of cryptic gesture is utterly meaningless.  I’m not interested in knowing it’s on aisle five, because I have no idea where aisle five is.  Do the aisle numbers begin at the right side of the store, or left?  Do the aisle numbers begin before the semi-permanent half-aisle of chips and salsa, avocados and Roma tomatoes, or do the numbers begin after that?  Do the aisle numbers include the brand new, just-installed-since-the-last-time-I-was-there “Wine Cellar” section?

I didn’t ask her to tell me on which aisle to look.  I asked her if she could help me to locate something on the sales floor. It was a battle of wills.

I broke first.  "I’m looking for an item that is brand new. I don’t even know if you carry it. It’s a particular brand of pesto in a jar.”

“All pasta sauces are on Aisle 5,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand, and began to walk away.

“Excuse me!”  I called out to her receding back.  “I could really use some assistance in locating the item.”  I held up my white cane, and, pointing to it, said, “I’m visually impaired.”

“Oh!”  She exclaimed, really seeing me for the first time, and whirled into motion.  Practically leaping over the counter, she called out to a nearby checker, “Hey, Vic, we have a special needs customer with a question.”  Standing at the end of a busy check stand, she whispered loudly, “She’s sight-challenged.”  Then asked of the checkout man, “Do we have Brand X pesto sauce in a jar?”

“It’s on aisle five.” He answered, without looking up from his task, then waved his hand dismissively,  in the general direction of the entire store.

Now I was getting impatient.  “Could you please find a customer service person to help me locate the item?"  I implored.  "I don’t care where it is, I’m not asking you to tell me where it is, I’m asking for someone to please assist me out on the sales floor.”  

“Well sure, ma’am, we can do that,” she said, in a tone which suggested that she was growing concerned that I was about to go ape-shit on her ass.  Then, cheerily:  “I’ll do it.”

When we arrived at aisle five, she informed me triumphantly that she saw no such brand of pesto in a jar, letting it hang out there that if I had just taken her word for it, I could have saved her the trouble of helping me.  Turning to me she said, “So are you totally blind, or what?  Because we can assign someone to help you shop if you want.  Just tell them you have a problem and they’ll try to find someone to do it.”

I almost laughed out loud.  So far, getting help had been like pulling teeth.  Her sudden magnanimity had only broken from the bonds of apathy after I pointed out my disability.  I told her that customer service was customer service, and that I should not be forced to divulge my personal medical circumstances in order to get it.  Why should I be required to explain WHY I need assistance?  Other shoppers are not required to confess to being lazy or stupid or forgetful when enlisting the assistance of a customer service representative.

Furthermore, why is it anyone’s business what precisely constitutes the scope or severity of these circumstances?  Would I, for example, have been given better or even faster service had I admitted to being “totally blind”?  No one else is expected to provide an explanation as to why they are requesting assistance, or the degree to which they need it.  Nor should I.  Feeling put on the spot, I offered up a bit of education on the subject.

Fearing that surely she was about to be the recipient of disciplinary action by her manager as the result of a complaint, she listened attentively, then pointed out that anyone would be more than happy to accompany me shopping any time I needed it.  Incredulous, I hesitated.  I felt compelled to offer a reality check.

“First of all,” I began, “very few establishments have the staffing levels to accompany me or anyone else shopping.  "Second,” I assured her, “no one is happy about it.”

“I’m not asking for special favors,” I concluded.  “I don’t need anyone to hold my hand. Good customer service is an equal opportunity . . . opportunity.”

Clearly, she didn’t get it.  “Huh?”  she said.  “I’m lost.”

I sighed.  “It’s on aisle five.”

Copyright © 2005.  All rights reserved.

Author’s note:  This article was originally written years ago, and since then, many things have changed.  I am happy to report that I now order my groceries online, and have them delivered to my door.  What a wonderful world.