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The lay of the land

January 03, 2013

I am, as are all of the people who enter our shop and the people who work for us; involved in experiences that play out upon a certain landscape.  I have looked at our shop’s specific terrain in depth many times before. After a recent experience (that I will detail shortly).  I am inclined to look further a field at what underpins the wider land upon which all types of retail and hospitality businesses play out their stories.  I want to look at the lawful rights that sit in the background.

At the end of November last year a person entered our store and enquired as to whether we served a decaf black tea (this is rare, normally the communication of what we do in the shop makes this highly unlikely).  The staff politely explained our focus as a speciality coffee shop, and that all the non-coffee products we have are ancillary and limited in range.  This person seemed content with the reasoning.

The person then returned roughly one week later, curiously they enquired again as to why we don’t stock a decaf black tea and as to whether we would be getting one in the future.  Another member of staff this time gave the same reasoning as was given previously.  Apparently the individual had been thinking about it all and didn't like what they saw.  Then things got out of hand as they proceeded to go one step too far and accuse us of discriminating against them personally by not stocking or endeavouring to stock a decaf black tea.

This is where I drew the line and let the person know that we are not doing anything of the sort and that the accusation is in itself absurd and offensive.  All manner of oddities and accusations followed, fuelled by notions of “inherent customer rights” as well as a belief in what we as a coffee shop had a duty to offer them.

I politely informed the person that we had considered their request and given more than a satisfactory explanation, this had now gotten out of hand and I asked the individual to leave the shop.

This was already an episode that I was looking forward to brushing under the carpet, but the nonsense did however continue.  Roughly one week later the same person returned with an even greater sense of empowerment and entitlement.  They proceeded to threaten an official complaint to the council and inform us of how they would endeavour to damage our business.  As if this wasn't bad enough, they continued to interrupt other customer’s experiences in an attempt to get them on side and drum up support for their cause.

I immediately phoned the police to enquire as to what my rights as a shop owner are, as well as what my best course of action would be in dealing with such a situation.

I did also phone the council, and to my relief I discovered that they have no involvement or influence in any such cases. It is not within their power and nor is it their right to interfere in such a way. It would have to be something specific that breaks the councils own policies.

The police quickly fleshed out the reality of the situation.  It is not often realised (I was only partially aware of the specifics) that businesses operating in a retail space are not at all public places or public services but are indeed privately owned spaces upon which the public are invited to visit upon.  A product/experience can then be purchased.  All the while the shop is supported by the law in reserving the right to refuse sale to anyone they wish (without reason or justification) and to also ask any individual/customer to leave the premises (without reason or justification)*.  If compliance does not follow then the police should be engaged to deal with the situation. At no time is the shop owner entitled to make any physical action or verbally attack in any discriminatory way that goes beyond the rights of freedom of speech and incites violence or hatred.  The shop must display and represent the products and offerings correctly and fairly without misleading the customer.  For example - a bag of coffee labelled 250 grams must contain this amount, just as a drink labelled 6oz must be of this size.  Interestingly though, if a price tag is wrong or misprinted the shop is not held to that price.  Obviously this bedrock does not dictate a narrow path along which all businesses will form and conduct themselves.  The law itself provides very little at all as regards guidelines for how to run a business, it instead creates some boundaries which must not be overstepped.  There is a vast space within these boundaries that businesses operate.

So the influences that really define the way shops are run, what they offer and how they serve are multi-fold.  They work within the law but are varied and relative.  I would say the main contributors are economic, social, possibly moral, ideological and logistical.  Businesses will in some way utilise all of these, but in varying degrees and recipes.  This cause and effect is complicated and specific to individual businesses, with the reasons certain businesses operate the way they do being a larger discourse. But in regards to this post, ideas of expectation and of the duties which businesses should adhere to plays a huge role in defining the lay of the land in shops.

There are indeed many rules and clear ideas of decent behaviour within our society that play a part in governing the way we conduct ourselves and these arguably define service and the nature of retail almost infinitely more than other influential factors.  Importantly though, the responsibilities businesses have to “customers” are not just based on wider ideas of politeness and correctness - as appropriate versions of each depend on environment and brand promise. The specifics of correct conduct are reliant on the product itself and the experience/service the business is promising to offer.

I personally choose to run a shop that I want to be philosophically justifiable, logically consistent, and reasonable.  I want my shop to achieve excellence.  Economic goals are not my primary concern (yes it does have to be viable).  I want the business to achieve ideological and conceptual goals (of which I've outlined in depth before).  But I am not, in any way, bound by law to run a shop with these goals. I can question the effectiveness of other businesses, as too can anyone question the effectiveness of mine. Most importantly though, neither of us can state that the other is obligated or must conduct their business in a specific way. Well, you could say the words but the law does not back you up in any way.  There can be no demand but merely comment.

It is terribly useful to come back to that bedrock of law to realise that some of the developed business practises actually counter and would suggest the opposite of the bedrock’s reality.  Indeed illusory ideas of rights and laws have appeared due to the norms that large swathes of businesses have created.  They have in many cases become representative as a false idea of what constitutes law.  Often a sense of entitlement and duty is not based on the logic or reason that the lay of the land demands, but are instead an intuitive alignment with what is normal.

Looking at the stance of the law does feel rather extreme, but the circumstances and behaviour that prompted such an investigation were rather extreme, extreme enough to seek some solace in a clear view of how the land lies at its very foundations.  Hopefully such an occurrence will fail to repeat itself.  I would however like to bear this in mind as I move on to my next post- the topic of assessing feedback and developing from this.  I think the clarification of the law does a useful job of making the differences between what are rights and what are preferences/opinions clear.

* I do not personally think it appropriate or polite conduct to give no reason for asking somebody to leave your premises without making an attempt to describe as best you can where such an action comes from. I think it’s important to discuss the issue, make it clear where the contention lies and leave space for reconciliation. However, I do think it’s wise to keep quiet when things get out of hand and to instead repeat my rights as a shop owner rather than engage in a fruitless argument.

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