The fine art of browsing

Starting next week I’ll be switching to day shifts at the Big Box. Overnights made sense when the girls were younger, because it meant one of us was always free to drop them off or pick them up. But they have licenses now — and college degrees, and their own apartments. So now I’ll get to spend more waking hours at home during my wife’s waking hours at home, and we’ll get to spend more time together than the 15-minute, “I fed the dog, don’t believe her lies. Gotta go, love ya, ‘bye” interaction we’ve had most weeknights.

Dayshift will mean an oddball schedule — the rotating days off that all retail workers love so much. And, of course, it will mean I’ll be doing a lot more interacting with customers. I’ve gotten better at this.

Broadly speaking, Big Box customers fall into two categories: People who are looking for a specific thing, and people who are Just Looking. I think it’s important for retail salespeople to respect Just Looking. Give ’em their space and let ’em Just Look.

Back off, Friedman. How’s ’bout you learn some techniques for not being a pushy human version of an algorithm nobody likes?

One of my first summer jobs in high school was as a lifeguard at a little-used Holiday Inn pool. The hotel was across the street from the Middlesex Mall, so I’d stop there most days to pick up something at the Paperback Booksmith. Their slogan — written over the doorway and printed on all the little bookmarks they tucked in the bag with your purchase — was “Dedicated to the fine art of browsing.” I’m a big believer in the fine art of browsing.

“Browsing” would take on new meanings once the Web arrived a decade later. You’re likely reading this right now in a “browser,” the same browser you use when you visit the world’s biggest (and soon to be only) bookstore.

The name “browser” has become less and less appropriate as the Web has evolved. Like many people, I have the homepage of my browser set to an incredibly powerful search engine. It’s not a tool for “Just Looking.”

The Web seems to have become gradually less and less hospitable to Just Looking. It’s becoming more like that pestering sales associate who won’t take “No, thanks, just looking” as their cue to go away and leave you alone. Even the algorithms that were initially designed to facilitate “just looking” have become less serendipitous and more aggressively restrictive, like the kind of pushy, up-selling sales associate most of us try to avoid.

Facebook is even worse. It’s like a sales clerk who greets you at the door, hands you an already filled shopping cart, informs you it’s already been charged to your account, and then sends you on your way.

Whether on the Web or at the Big Box, we’re all sometimes like customers from both categories. Sometimes we’re searching for the specific thing we need or want at that moment and other times we’re Just Looking. I prefer an Internet that allows for both.

And, starting next week, I’ll try to allow for both at the Big Box. First, though, I’ve got to go shopping myself because dayshift folks have to wear collared shirts.

 

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