Life Behind the Counter

Ah, climbing shops. What do you really think of them? Are they somewhere to take refuge on a rainy day when your chosen climbs seem like a waterfall? Perhaps a place to go and ogle the shiny things you covet so much back home on the long winter evenings. Maybe for some, a social venue, where you can converse with people of a similar mindset, about local happenings, new innovations or even the weight differences between two models of cam, if that’s your thing. For some, I guess, they’re just a necessity in order to obtain the items to keep you alive, although to be honest, I’ve found people in that last category to be in the minority.

Regardless of why you go in, most climbers will go to the climbing shop at some point on most trips away, and as a man who has worked in a couple of them, over the last five or so years, I’ve developed a couple of opinions I thought I’d share with you, more for the sake of it than any other reason. Maybe it will make you think the next time you’re in there, watching the young lad behind the counter who appears to be randomly scowling at you for no other reason than you happened to mention how glorious a day it is. You see, chances are, nine times out of ten, that person behind the counter who’s giving you evils is a climber too (as I’m sure you’re aware) and all you’ve done by mentioning the lovely day is anger the beast. It’s like wearing a red suit while walking past a caged bull: you know nothing will come of it but you’ve definitely pissed him off. This leads nicely to Golden Rule Number One: the staff do not want to be there.

This isn’t like the rest of you, as I’m sure none of you really want to go to work to sit behind a desk, in an office, or whatever. No, this is modern day torture! It seems like a good idea when you hand in the CV, and a dream come true when the first day comes, but after that first sunny weekend talking to enthusiastic climbers, having a quick conversation about something metal and expensive, after which they actually go climbing, you soon realise that your life will become ever so slightly bitter and jealousy of their freedom will creep in.

Please don’t make the mistake, at this point, of introducing logic. This summer, while in Vancouver, I tried to explain to a Canadian friend of mine the mentality of the average British driver when two lanes of traffic merge into one. He was taking the opinion that if everyone lets one person in front of them, the traffic would all flow and we’d all get where we were going a lot quicker. Yes, I said, but if I let someone in front of me, I’m a car’s length further from my destination… It’s absurd, of course, and logic dictates it doesn’t work that way, but it’s the same principle here: yes, we get to live in the area, yes, we get to go out in the evenings and yes, we get to climb on rock, every week if we want but that still doesn’t change the fact that we’re not outside now.

Which brings us to Golden Rule Number Two: we’re mostly there for the discount. I love my job, and if I’m truly honest, can think of nothing I’d rather do, but take away that lovely money-off perk, and suddenly perspectives will change. I’m sure this is the same with other jobs, but being a bit obsessed with climbing since it first got into my head, the only other example that springs to mind is the climbing wall… We’re people too, damnit; a fact that seems to confuse and astonish many a customer I’ve met after work. “What are you doing here? You’re Pete from the climbing shop!!” Yes, I am, and I’m here at the crag/wall/pub too, because no, they don’t put me in a box out the back at the end of the day. That sounds crass but you wouldn’t believe the surprised looks I’ve got before.

Anyway, I have now broken the silence on the big D word. Customers love it, staff hate it but the truth is that discount will make or break a sale more often than fit or colour. Even something truly useless and hideous will sell at the right price, believe me, although normally online. There is something crucial I should mention which, at least from a personal standpoint can avoid a lot of friction, and I’m going to be blunt here: this is not Morocco and we do not haggle. By all means ask for discount, but please respect the decision you’re given. Fact remains that most sales-person’s hands are tied, that they simply aren’t allowed to give more than they’ll readily offer, and that if they’ve said no the first time, they’re not likely to change their mind on the umpteenth attempt. Hillarious as one customer this week was when he shouted, “How much?!” at the top of his voice several times (once we realised he was joking that is), he was in danger of either being chucked out, having the price doubled, or given a smack in the teeth if the sun had been shining… Nothing personal, but we just work there.

Oops, sorry, rant over, that got a little personal there, my apologies. You see, they can be tense places, climbing shops, there’s an awful lot that happens. Regardless of the type of shop you’re in (chain or independent) there are a few things that will always need doing, like stockchecks, vacuuming and general tidying, but the most prevalent I’ve noticed is bringing in new stock. This might come from a warehouse, another shop or a surly delivery driver’s van but come what may, it’s still new, it’s still shiny and we’re still mainly big kids who want to play. That said, even this only applies to certain items that fit into the Gucci category. You won’t tear us away from brand spanking new climbing hardware, or this season’s first drop of ice axes, but women’s waterproof overtrousers don’t really have the same appeal, and can point us to Golden Rule Number Three: the staff either desperately want to talk to you or they desperately don’t. Either, they’re forced to do so by company policy, in which case their approach will probably be pre-rehearsed to sound irritating and off-putting, or they’re trying to avoid doing any real work by being “busy with customers”. Oh, they might be bored. Any which way, you should be able to tell the signs fairly easily, and speaking for the entire outdoor sports retail fraternity I appeal and say, please play along. It’s probably got something to do with stockchecks anyway…

A lot of staff don’t really like customers, you see, or at least the concept of them. It’s similar to locals not liking tourists but both needing each other in order to survive. Customers make a mess, leave jackets unzipped, boot laces untied and gloves in with the hat display and never ever spend as much as they could do. Yet, much as with an 80s American sit-com, loathing though there is, there’s also love. It really does make you smile when someone nice comes in, when you can chat about recommended routes and crags, or when those rare opportunities come along to let you ramble inanely, which, incidentally is now seemingly stretching from my shop life into my literary life. In which case, I shall give a summary for you, the customer to heed or not as you see fit: you’re not wanted but you are loved, you are allowed to ask for money off but we don’t want you to have it and we’ll want to talk to you a lot more if you just PUT THAT JACKET BACK WHERE YOU FOUND IT!!! And now I’m beginning to feel a bit like your mum…

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