I don’t think that it really was the rise of retail giants such as Selfridge, Field and Wanamaker in the late nineteenth century who invented the idea that the customer is always right, and sovereign – in German, der Kunde ist König. But they certainly made it a maxim to motivate staff and draw in the public.
Oddly, in the West at least, over the same period that has seen a rise in legislation to protect the consumer, we have also seen brazen moves to change this customer precedence. One of the most ironic is Ty Kiisel’s commentary on Forbes, in which it becomes difficult to discern his words from among the jungle of advertising junk.
I also stress that this appears to be a Western recidivism: as far as I know, East Asian, particularly Japanese, attitudes are still staunchly set to serve the all-powerful customer. Walking into many Western retailers can sometimes be a disturbing experience, when you discover that you know more about the products than the staff, and they try foisting on you what you already know to be unsuitable.
I have lost count of the number of times that staff have assured me that they never stocked a product which I bought from their shelves only a few weeks before, or tried to tell me that products are no longer available, when others still stock them. The immaculately turned-out graduate who cannot do enough to ensure complete satisfaction in her Tokyo department store would surely be horrified.
So too in online and tech business, I am afraid. The few ISPs who have help desks which actually help, and seem to care about connection speeds and other matters important to the customer, all operate far from here. Major online retailers now seem more concerned about corporate battles to lock out competing products, than to persuade me to choose to buy their product over those of their competitors.
The near-hysterical response of commercial websites and their contributors to the popularisation of content-blocking was another aspect of this shift in attitude. Media giants who have been trying to persuade us to subscribe to their publications were all of a sudden combative, demanding that we support their chosen business model, however it has come to offend us, as if we had a duty to.
We also see it in the privacy and other policies of many – thankfully not all – of the tech giants. Instead of trying to cajole us to opt in to receive benefits, we are often told less than we should be, and to like it or lump it. Indeed many online and tech corporations seem driven more to make us adhere to their terms and conditions than to allure or seduce us.
The cynical might see such dictatorial approaches as indicative of a lack of competition in the market, a trend to a very small number of very large players who are operating in relative monopolies. If so, free market theory would predict the rise of competition bearing an approach of which Selfridge, Field and Wanamaker would be proud. Instead we see even greater effort and ingenuity being put into manipulating the market, such as the apparent adoption of open standards, but with subtle hurdles inserted to maintain control, and lock competition out.
If the illusory free market cannot fix its ills, and legal overseers are too recalcitrant or influenced to act, then perhaps it is up to us, as consumers, to re-assert our sovereignty. Our ability to bring change through social media outcry seems the right tool. Let’s see more vociferous opposition to corporate misbehaviour, rather than mute acceptance. Retweet and share!