My Little Polish Shop of Horrors

Whining about Polish customer service is a Polandian tradition, and what better time to indulge than our first birthday.

My local shop, conveniently situated about 100 meters from the front door of my building, has a lot of points in its favor. It sells about 50 percent of the things one might normally need, the roof doesn’t leak, and it’s open 24 hours a day. I really have nothing against my local mini-market. The majority of the employees are angelic and entirely capable of handling the worst that mass-market tourism can throw at them. I’ve often witnessed the till girls coping with semi-paralytic British tourists trying to buy “some kind of Polish vodka.” But for every angel there must be a demon. About a third of the staff are made up of hard-core old-school Polish sklepowa. These Evil Till Ladies have a multitude of tricks up their sleeves.

The basket caper

Simply bringing you laden basket to the cash register is not enough. While most till jockeys can cope with the idea that they might have to lean over and move items up to the scanning device one at a time the old guard are far from convinced that this is a reasonable expenditure of their time. Evil Till Lady demands that items be handed to her one at a time. Lining things up on the counter will not be tolerated, it’s just far too confusing. Evil Till Lady will replace the items she has scanned at random locations on the counter more or less guaranteeing you will hand her the same item at least twice. Having paid for most of your shopping multiple times you are free to leave with only a withering glance and a radically lightened wallet.

The misplaced-decimal ruse

On the frequent occasions when the scanner doesn’t work Evil Till Lady will attempt to enter the product code and price by hand. At this point the customer is clearly doomed, but it’s worth hanging on to witness the full horror of the situation. Completely failing to enter decimal points is a favorite ruse. Attempting to purchase a bag of frozen fish, a jar or mayonnaise, and a KitKat the following conversation took place:

Evil Lady: That’s 2,234 zloty.
Me: 2,234 zloty! Isn’t that a little expensive?
Evil Lady: What?
Me: 2,234 zloty. Isn’t that quite a lot for some fish, mayonnaise, and a chocolate bar?
Evil Lady: Well, that’s what it says.
Me: Perhaps you entered the wrong price.
Evil Lady: Well why didn’t you tell me!!
Me: I’m terribly sorry but I assumed you knew what the hell you were doing.
Evil Lady: Idiot.

The blindness dodge

I wouldn’t believe this if I hadn’t seen it, several times.

Evil Lady: The scanner is broken and I don’t have my glasses. Read the barcode for me.
Customer: Errm.
Evil Lady: Come on read it! You are young, I am old.
Customer: The whole thing?
Evil Lady: Yes the whole thing, are you an idiot?
Customer: Errm, ok. 54449 67777 7888 9332…
Evil Lady: What?
Customer: Errm…
Evil Lady: Again! Read it again. We have 14 items here, what are you waiting for?!

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50 thoughts on “My Little Polish Shop of Horrors

  1. DC says:

    Come now. They’ve softened up quite a bit from the sounds of it. I remember once back in the mid-70s being chased around the store by a clerk who was positively screaming at me. My offense? I had not taken a basket when I entered the store. There were 2 or 3 other customers in the not-too-small store and a pile of unused baskets. I was in my teens and absolutely mortified by the experience. Today I still get sweaty palms if I can’t find a basket immediately in a Polish store.

  2. Bob says:

    Always an amusing experience that is certain. You should have been here when I came in 1990! There was not a shopping cart in the entire country. You could not even enter a ‘sklep’ unless there was a free basket on the bench and if you tried they would go on some type of rant chasing you around the store. At the end of each aisle there was a girl with big open toed slippers on and baggy toed stockings hanging out the toe area – I always measure the quality of the store by the length of what I called affectionately ‘toe flop’

    How times have changed (and in many cases have not changed!)

  3. guest says:

    Honest rudeness is better than a fake “Bernie Madoff” smile…

  4. Bob says:

    guest – agree 100%

  5. MaterialGirl says:

    Bob,

    it was really hard (it’s still hard) for normal shop-assistant girl wearing shoe from Manolo Blahnik or even from Bata (both Czech of origin, so Czech must be good in shoe). :-) They wore what they had got and could bought at shops with the very little choice of shoe and stockings. If you really were at Poland in 1990 you had to see how empty of goods were the shops then. After all what is bad in opened toe slippers if only they are clean? (Personally I don’t like wearing them).

  6. Henry Grodsk says:

    I recently posted on this subject, if anyone’s interested:

    http://www.threemonkeysonline.com/our_man_gdansk/2009/02/deprecha/

    (I hope this is not a foul breach of internet diplomacy.)

  7. scatts says:

    Interesting, Henry, and yes, it is a foul breach of the Geneva Convention and we’ve informed the internet police! Time to rename the blog TWOmonkeys, methinks! ;)

  8. michael farris says:

    This is the kind of thing I don’t even notice anymore. If anything I’ve almost come to prefer the Polish school of customer service.

    On the whole Polish people find unmotivated friendliness to be suspicious and enjoy the flint and spark of a low stakes clash of wills. Petty disagreements with people in stores keeps them in fighting trim for the high stakes encounters and gives the people in the stores conversational topics at home (and no one worries about being the asshole in someone else’s tale of woe).

    By now I find my own countrymen (not to mention brits) to be thin gruel and at times even kind of emotionally retarded. Why do they need validation and emotional approval from a person behind the sales counter anyway?

  9. This is the most hilarious thing I’ve read in a good long time.

  10. adthelad says:

    I always say ‘dzieńdobry’ I always smile, I always wish them -‘miłego dnia’ and I always say do widzenia and 99 times out 100 I get the same courtesy in return.

    How do I do it? Skill!!

    (or maybe they think I’m local idiot and just humour me for safety’s sake)

  11. island1 says:

    It is of course true that the Polish shopping experience has improved hugely in the past ten years and, as I said, the majority of the staff in my local shop are diamonds – on a main street in krakow they get plenty of experience dealing with clueless foreigners and, in the main, they are great at it. But there are the one or two holdovers from a previous era who cause me endless amusement. I literally goggled at the woman who uses her customers as replacement barcode scanners.

    Okay, it was a cheap shot.

    And yes I do remember the days when not having a basket was punishable by death. How I marveled at the queues of people waiting to get into a half empty shop because they were waiting for a free basket. I even recall a local drunk who made extra groszy by keeping a couple in reserve and hiring them out to the highest bidder.

  12. island1 says:

    And by the way, why is the “rudeness is better than a fake smile” argument always the Polish response to this observation? For one thing, no it isn’t, and for another thing, there’s a whole lot of ground in between the two known as politeness and common courtesy.

  13. guest says:

    island1,

    And there’s a whole lot of ground in between 6000zl/month in London and 600zl/month in Krakow… And they work 10h or more (they have often a 2nd job)

    Do you think Polish saleswomen in London or LA are rude ?

  14. guest says:

    …If you want a western smile then you have to pay them like a western woman.

  15. island1 says:

    Firstly, no there isn’t much difference between 6000 zeds in London and 600 zeds in Krakow – shop work isn’t well paid wherever you are.

    Secondly, the degree of common courtesy you pay to the people you encounter in your job should in no way be related to the amount you are being paid to do that job. You may be working 10 hours a day for poor money, but most of your customers probably are too. I really think this is the critical distinction. I have absolutely no complaints about most of the guys and gals in my local shop, they treat me in the same way I treat them. But the old ways still persist among a few, the view that they are somehow doing you a favor by allowing you to buy things. I understand where this comes from and I know they will never change. As I said, it was a bit of a cheap shot.

  16. DC says:

    Island – Excellent on your “rudeness is better than a fake smile” response. Let’s hear it for honesty!

    Quirky or even bitchy can be great fun. I love the human bar code reader thing – maybe she’s promoting efficiency if she thinks the customer can read it faster than she can while she keys? Even if not, it’s pretty funny.

    But no, I don’t enjoy aggressive or hostile people. This does not make me “emotionally retarded” or mean that I am looking for a personal connection with the clerk (unless he’s hot of course).

  17. Ewa P. says:

    Well, rudeness is not better than anything, even fake smile. Cool professionalism without a smile can be better, I think.

  18. guest says:

    Of course i did NOT mean “rudeness”. Cool professionalism is what i really ment.

  19. michael farris says:

    “rudeness is better than a fake smile” argument always the Polish response to this observation? For one thing, no it isn’t

    Why not? That’s a serious question.
    Why are you assuming that behavior that’s rude to you is also rude to Polish people? Isn’t that a little arrogant?

  20. island1 says:

    Michael: “Always” is indefensible, yes. But I’m surprised at the number of times I’ve heard it. I just always found it a surprising argument, though I’m sure it’s informative for the same reason.

    I don’t believe I am assuming that my definition of rudeness is the same as the Polish definition (assuming there can be said to be a single definition). I agree that there is a real danger of cross-cultural misreading, but I don’t live in total isolation from Polish culture and most of the Polish people I know would have rolled their eyes at this behavior as much as I did.

    Again, I don’t want to get hung up on this. It was just a bit of a laugh at a particularly absurd singe case.

  21. Jacek Wesołowski says:

    I’m inclined to agree with the statement that “rudeness is bad but fake smile is worse”. I remember how I had to choose a veterinarian at some point; I could choose either a very polite guy who offered to put my pet to sleep if I wanted (I didn’t), or a person who got genuinely angry at me when I forgot to tell her about a potentially important symptom (it turned out to be false alarm after all). I chose the latter because I trust her more.

    Politeness is nice, but I really don’t appreciate it when someone pretends they actually like me. Or when they are trying to sound enthusiastic about something even though they’re actually complaining. And when someone seems to be enthusiastic about the fact that I’m browsing their store, then they’re either a liar (because they don’t care, really) or an idiot (because there’s nothing to be enthusiastic about). I guess good courtesy is transparent in that you don’t perceive it as one’s conscious effort.

  22. DC says:

    MF – I don’t think Island is the one being arrogant here.

  23. michael farris says:

    Jacek, ITA.

  24. guest says:

    OK, this might not be funny when you read it, but if you saw it…
    Once I went to a nearby grocery. It was owned and ran by a woman who was such a nice and positive person, so polite and outgoing a visit to her’s always made you cheer up and feel better. Awfully rainy day, mud everywhere. There weren’t any customers at that moment in the shop and she was just done with mopping the floor.
    So, standing on the threshlod of the shop I asked: “Można/May I….(come in)?” (I know, like it would change anything, the floor would get messy again and her job would be ruined either way, but was better to respect her work in a way and ask for permission to walk in).
    She replied in her most serious voice, I think: “Pewnie, niech pan tylko wpierw zdejmie buty/Sure, just take your shoes off first”.
    I would hear the command only entering my home or visiting (and I would do it), I got so confused I didn’t know what to do or say, it caught me so off-guard I obeyed and made a bending move to undo and take my shoes off. Luckily for me, she couldn’t take it any longer and burst out laughing. She got me big time.

  25. DC says:

    Jackek – Isn’t there more to the vet story? One vet offered hope and the other did not. That would have decided it for me right there.

    As for the second paragraph, I agree it’s nice when courtesy seems to come naturally. But sometimes the not-so-natural kind is nice too. I’m thinking about times when things have gone badly and I’m stressed out, like when I used to travel for a living (happily those days are over). There were times when I sought assistance and I know I wasn’t very pleasant about it. On some of these unfortunate occasions I encountered people who very pleasant to me even though they probably wanted to slap me. It helped me calm down quickly and helped me avoid further stress. Bless those souls.

    I really would not want to live in a world where no one ever restrained themselves for the benefit of others simply so they could be “real.”

  26. Bob says:

    From Material Girl

    “If you really were at Poland in 1990 you had to see how empty of goods were the shops then. After all what is bad in opened toe slippers if only they are clean? (Personally I don’t like wearing them).” (the slippers were fine but very foreign to see for an outsider – long story)

    I was certainly here in 1990 – spent Christmas at the lovely Marina Hotel in Sopot/Oliwa. Interestingly in 1990 the shelves were not empty at all just sparse in terms of choices. I believe the real ‘shortages’ (quoted as i have clear theories on that as well as the govt built apts are so small – but for another post) were in the mid/late 80’s but somebody please correct me.

    There was not much marketing of FMCG so most things were in pretty plain or poorly designed packaging, most often things were behind a counter so you had to ask for what you wanted or point and grunt up-down-right-left – OK!

    The only place you could buy western liquor or cigarettes (and other things) were shops called Pewex or Baltona and you had as I recall to pay with hard currency.

    Every day was a challenge – now Poland is easy

  27. boattown_guest says:

    Do you have ‘Społem’ shops in Cracow/ Warsaw? Sklepowas there haven’t changed. I have 2 shops here (opposite my work) – one ‘Społem’ and one ‘something.’ Something is smaller but the guy who owns it is soo nice, friendly and he always packs your things, and everyone is doing their shopping there. When you enter “Społem” with a smile on your face, you seem to be an anemy no. 1. You say hello- the master of społem: nada; you say: a roll and a cottage cheese; mos: puts them on the till and nada; you ask: how much do I pay; she says nothing and points at cash register. No, she’s not mute, she just doesn’t like talking to people (especially young, I guess.)
    On the other hand, ladies form Żabka which is near my house are angelic. Especially Pani Grażynka :)

  28. MaterialGirl says:

    I also prefered “honest rudeness than a fake smile”.
    From the other hand I understand DC and island1 who represent culture of smile, especially DC.
    I think these are cultural and experience differences.
    Poles still remember very good, communist system and people who smile a lot and after that plung the knife into your heart.
    Not very long ago I saw in TV a story of prof. Elżbieta Zawacka nick “Zo”, 1 of 2 first polish women general and first polish jumping out with parachute from the airplane Halifax or Liberator woman in the WWII, so called “cichociemna/darkquiet”. After war, polish political police put her into a jail.
    She said: ” The most nice and pleasant women with the most beautiful smile I saw in my life, my cellmate turned out grass/informer!”.

  29. MaterialGirl says:

    Bob,

    that’s what I said. You saw the polish world in 1990 rather from the position of the visitors living in the hotel, so in better condition with better money than a shop-assistant!

    We call it:
    Point of view is depending of the point of sitting (how high) / “punkt widzenia zależy od siedzenia”.

    As you wanted to agree good things to wear were at Pewex, but to buy there you had to got $ or Ł. Polish shop worker got about 20$ by month. How she could bought shoes for f.e. 15 $ ?

    After all as I remember that was the time of galloping inflation. Even polish shoes were very expensive with small income.

  30. Bob says:

    Material Girl – you have read into my comment a bit too much. I did not say I lived in a hotel, I spent the christmas period in 1990 in a hotel as I was looking for a house to rent in Sopot as that is where we started our business.

    Pewex and Baltona – only really carries booze (at crazy prices), cigs, perfumes, expensive scarves etc – only a place to shop when ‘needing’ a bottle of Black Jack or the always good ‘gift’ for business people Johnny Walker!

    Somebody mentioned Spolem – always my favorite ‘concept’ to joke with my wife (polka) and Polish friends about as it is the epitome of the ‘old system’ and actually as noted still exists (wonder how they do financially – anybody know?) I was even able to purchase a few spolem branded pieces of ‘dinnerware’ that are close to my heart as they bring back warm and funny memories of Poland in the early 1990’s.

    Did I ever tell you about ‘fear and loathing in the search for ice trays in 1991?’ a whole story in itself

    Sounds like time for more beers and ‘old time’ poland stories around the kominek!

  31. michael farris says:

    To be clear, I’m not in favor of unmotivated rudeness. But I don’t care anymore if the person working in a store smiles and says hello as long as I can make my purchases with a minimum of fuss and isn’t outright rude (which is very uncommon).

    A big difference between everyday courtesy in Poland and some other countries is that traditionally, by and large, using the appropriate verbal formulas is enough. Saying Dzień dobry, Proszę, Dziękuje is enough and the manner they’re said in isn’t so important.
    For Americans, the Hello, Please etc have to be accompanied by method acting suggesting that everything is wonderful (no matter if you’re dying inside).
    I used to perceive rudeness in behavior that I perceive as neutral to courteous now.

    And, if there is a disagreement, I’m much less likely to try to pretend there isn’t one. That’s the real difference between most Poles and most Americans (and brits).

  32. Pawel says:

    Shops – if you don’t like one – you can go to another

    What is frightening in Poland is the customer service at urząd, przychodnia or szpital….

  33. Rebecca says:

    I stumbled on this site searching for Krakow info. It’s wonderful… it made me all the more excited to be there at the end of March. Of course, main content I look for is in regards to Krakow, loved island1’s information. Thank you.

  34. island1 says:

    Rebecca: Glad to be of service. Have a great time here.

    Bob: I remember the ice-tray story, though I can’t remember for the life of me when or how.

    boattown guest: We still have a Jubilat in Krakow, that’s pretty scary.

    Michael: I’m sure time helps. I still fume when people fail to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ even though I know it’s just a cultural hangup of mine. It’s a hard thing to get used to.

    Jacek: Again, this is a view I can’t empathize with. I often here this idea that the only alternative to the Polish way is some kind of false politeness. That’s not the way I see it at all. I’m sure that understanding this response would provide me with a deeper understanding of the Polish character, but so far it eludes me. There are, I think, some deep differences between the Polish and the British approach to public and private relationships.

  35. guest says:

    …talking about rudeness

    h ttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/leicestershire/7896652.stm

  36. basia says:

    island1: I enjoy your writing and your humour very much. I thought your entry had the perfect balance of humour, empathy and a little bit of good natured “kwetching”. Others obviously didn’t agree. Szkoda.

  37. boattown_guest says:

    Basia: Snow is falling. No sun. It’s cold. People are depressed. That explaines everything:)
    Bob: I live in Lodz, without a kominek:) and an opportunity to listen to the story about ice trays. It’s so unfair! :)
    Everybody: Happy Pączek Day! :)

  38. some dude says:

    I’ve suddenly realized why does the US have better Customer Service than Poland.

    American client might carry a gun.

  39. Bob says:

    boattown_guest – we will have to have a spring time beer meeting somewhere!

    We are off to sunny Arizona for the month of March (I’ll report on customer service in Scottsdale) – perhaps we can organize another ‘evening with the polandian’s’ in April – what do you think Scatts?

  40. boattown_guest says:

    Bob: Isn’t it a beer meeting for ekhm foreigners living in Poland?

  41. guest says:

    @Island1

    I’m so hoping you have seen this one (your myth #19 and more).

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/7899171.stm

  42. island1 says:

    Guest: Excellent stuff! I loved Mr Prawo Jazdy.

    Bob: I think ‘ekhm’ is a phonetic Polish ‘cough.’ The next Polandian meeting has to be in Krakow though, I’ve dragged my arse up to Warsaw three times now.

    boattown: Not at all, at the last meeting 25 percent were real-life Poles, and don’t forget our very own Pawel, who is also a son of the red and white.

  43. Bob says:

    thanks for the interpretation island

    I bet we could arrange a krakow adventure

  44. scatts says:

    Next meeting is 100% in Krakow, no quarter given. I’m thinking June/July, holiday diaries permitting.

  45. boattown guest says:

    Bob: sorry for causing confusion.
    Mr Prawo Jazdy, good one:)

    I’ve heard that there was a problem in Lodz, because the British Police were sending tickets to our Kropek (Prezydent Miasta Łodzi).

    Cracow sounds nice. It’s only 6 hours by train :)

  46. bartek says:

    Ahaha you made my day ;)
    Cos pieknego ;>

  47. MaterialGirl says:

    I vote for a July. Hope will be better then.

  48. grumpyoldmare says:

    I’m much more inclined to receive fake smileys rather than be given the cold shoulder and what not. I honestly cannot be bothered with others people’s judgemental propensities & hostility does my head in. Plus what makes most of you (hopefully not offence taken) think that the smile is fake anyway? It’s indeed a form of western politeness, albeit should not make one think the other person is head over hills in love with them!

    As for the evil lady, you seem to be less fortunate than myself. Never had a pleasure to either undergo or witness such treatment…YET!

    Many thanks for the post!

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