Friday, 1 February 2013

The Italian Shop-Keepers Manual

Picture the scene. Subbiano Post Office, 12 noon January 31st 2013. Flyers in the Soviet-style foyer declare deadlines and events weeks, even months out of date. Almost obscured by a leaflet display there's a yellowing funghi collection price list. You can buy a years licence for €16. Visitors can buy the privilege for about 300 times the price at €15 a day! Bizarre. Never heard of anyone popping down to the post office before going off to woods to get dinner. Above the heads of the assembled (it's not really a queue) a three and a zero clunk noisily into place. 3.30am 25 Settembre, Giovedi reads the digital clock. What? Perhaps I've just slipped backwards through a tear in the fabric of space-time. I'm not sure what year it is.

After about twenty minutes wait, during which the throng mill around and swan about but never actually get closer to the counter, it dawns on me the date and time might just be an indication of when its expected we'll be served. You know, like the call centre robots who say, “Your call is appreciated and will be answered in twen-ty sec-onds”. How do they know? But that would be too much like service culture. It barely exists here. Of course I don't mean that toothy-grinned assistant who says, “Hi, how are you today?”. (Paul deploys the acerbic, “I'm insincere, how are you?”) across the Atlantic. I mean some happy medium and a little human warmth.
Volterra: Roman Amphitheatre
Perhaps the shiny new drinks and snacks machine installed since my last visit is a nod to customer care. Crisps, chocolate, water & iced-tea are available so that nobody should succumb to hypoglycaemia or dehydration during the purgatorial wait. Too bloody obvious to install a stamp machine and cut the queue by half. Is it a symptom of the new Euro-crisis shaped reality here? Monti solutions should ring bells with the British. Get your state industries to start earning. McDonald’s in hospitals and nurseries: fine. That's progress. Bugger mission drift. Anyhow, I don't want to go all political on you because when we reached the counter we wrapped up our bill paying business inside about thirty seconds. The lady smiled and wished us 'Buona giornata'. Redeemed!

Public or private, I'm not partisan. In fact I'm an equal opportunity grouch. Business consultancy could be huge here. Except nobody can be bothered. For what it's worth – and this is probably as good as you'll get from Mary Portas – I offer it free, una volta solo! From experience:

Look open: This means having the lights on and the door unlocked. It's amazing the impact this will have on your profits. I've lost count of the number of places I've started to walk away from only to watch somebody walk in. I know it saves money on the electric bill, but so do low energy light bulbs!

Look interested: Yeah, I know it's a drag to look up from facebook and say hello but hey, we're customers and in England we know best. I'll tell you now, I once had to mime toilet tissue in Turkey so you got off lightly with mine for washing line. How on earth did you think I meant soap powder? Really, you shouldn't roll your eyes and gesticulate wildly. The minimum standard in this category is don't look hostile. Refrain from glaring at the back of the shop with your arms folded like a Russian shot-putter on testosterone. It's menacing. How was I to know the matches rule? It obvious the only place you can buy them is the Tabbachi and not the hardware. Stupid me! Don't laugh your customers out of the shop. And don't shadow your customers around your ambitiously priced antiques emporium so they can smell your breath mints. English folk do not like the two metre exclusion zone breached!

Display your hours and stick to them: Sure I know Thursday is your closing day (wait a minute, I was here last Thursday!!) because it says so on the door. Why does it always say when you are closed? Never your opening times. Am I supposed to intuit them? Innovative I know, but trust me it will expand your customer base. For a start I might come back if I could be sure you'd be there. And why, if you do display them, are they so arcane? Morning: 09.37 – 12.49 Evening: 15.32 – 19.44. Eh? What's wrong with half nine to half twelve and half three to half seven or eight? And it's no good when I show up at half three if you saunter up at five o'clock and the only explanation is “arrivo!” as I'm pointing to my wrist.

Tell folks what you sell: This can be done with a simple sign saying something like Giuseppe's Electrical Goods. (NB. You should only say 'electrical goods' if that's what you actually sell.) I know this is harder for some businesses like the one that sell pots and pans and, you'll never guess... tights. Unless it's customary and there's a specific local word for such retailers, what you need to address is mission drift! It's tights or pots and pans. Up to you. Be aware that Italy has a reputation for style and flair. Design awards might be a way off, but changing displays occasionally is a good indicator that the premises are not abandoned! The minimum standard to aim for here is to clean windows and remove all the dead flies. Anything else is a bonus.

Put prices on stuff: An English person will not ask what something costs but simply assume it's too expensive. I know it gets in the way of price flexing (American=astronomical, Northern European=Pushing it a bit, Italian=Nearer the market value but holding out for more). At the end of the day you will sell more stuff if you remove the ambiguity! To those almost permanently closed shops with a scribbled mobile number on a scrap of paper taped to the window, I say get real. You'll rarely get a call, but if I should leave two messages on your voice-mail and a send a text about a particular item displayed; it's good manners to reply!

Actually have a member of staff present if you are open: I waited. I drummed my fingers a bit. I whistled a happy tune and fielded enquiries, “Mauro non c'è” (Mauro's not here). His trade-mark D&G glasses were there on the counter and so were his car keys. So was the till and all the stock. Turned out Mauro had gone for a chat with the pharmacist. Nothing urgent or important, just to chew the fat. A friend of mine turned up for an appointment with the bank manager only to be told that he wasn't there, “but I've made an appointment and come into town by car”, he remonstrated. “He's down at the caffè” the teller nonchalantly explained, “so you can go and see him there.”

Tenuta Savorgnano Pool
Finally restaurant owners. I know you will protest. Pot, kettle, black and all that. I know I sprinkle Italian prepositions around sentences randomly, I know I use the compound perfect when it should be the imperfect. Subjunctives? You must be kidding. I know. You don't have to tell me. Message received. But cousin Giorgio who did your English menu isn't as fluent as you think he is. For a start he sounds like Bhorat on acid and interestingly speaks the English of google translate. You paid him in pizza I guess? Never noticed the barely contained squeal when folks order Munchrooms Tagliatelle or Rubbits Breast? The 'large slice of dry bread' just doesn't sound very appealing, but I love your bruschette! Ever wondered why you just can't shift those Tepid Hypocrites? And what about the waiter who had the hottest buns? Turned out it wasn't an outrageous claim! My advice in these matters? Don't change a thing. It had me snorting and shrieking.

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