Commerce interruptus

22nd July 2003, Comments 0 comments

My Kingdom for a Pottery Barn. Shopping in the Netherlands is not a pleasant experience. While Albert Heijn deserves its own article, here are some other fun shops I had the pleasure to do business with recently.

I finally achieved a confluence of having both the money and the will to buy a few things for the apartment. On my mental shopping list were light fixtures to replace the student-days paper lanterns, curtains and a couple of side tables. And I had to return a chest that didn’t fit anywhere.

First it was off to the lighting store – Lumini on Keizersgracht. I’d been there before, but could not bring myself to make a purchase after realising that all the prices were the same as last year, except now they were in euros and not guilders.

A few months having passed, I was able to overcome that initial shock and try to do business. What folly.

I asked the man there, a particularly creepy creature, if he could offer me a deal for buying several light fixtures. His gleeful no was upchucked on the counter before I could finish my sentence.

“Why,” I asked foolishly, for I am an expat who will never — and this is the source of my perpetual angst, I know — accept the bad manners and poor service one gets in the Netherlands.

“If I tell you, you won’t like it,” he says.

But I pressed, shit disturber that I am, and was told that since he does not get a discount on his lights when he buys them, he should not have to give one to his customers. And, by the way, if I don’t like it, I should go somewhere else. All of this with an obnoxious grin and a practised indifference. The pea-brain didn’t know the difference between profit margin and profit.

So there I was, wallet in hand, being cavalierly told to take my business elsewhere. Gotta love a place where merchants don’t feel they have to sell anything, where surly, snappy answers are more important than doing business. (By the way, in the sixty minutes I was there — including the first visit — I did not actually see any lights getting sold. Maybe it's some sort of front.)

Only slightly daunted, I went to the curtain store. That one was easy, because it was closed. Early, on Saturday afternoon.

Then to the wooden-chest store, where all I could get, even with a receipt and perfect merchandise just one week after purchase, was a credit note valid for just six months, after which they would just pocket my money. Big sigh.

On to the Bijenkorf, so called because shoppers are meant to feel like mindless drones in service of an invisible Queen Bij. Surely I could find a little table to make my day less than a full waste.

I did – a very nice one, in fact – but when I asked the well-hidden clerk if I could buy one, his no attacked me almost as quickly as that from the lighting guy. No, we don’t have it.

“But it’s right there, on display.”

That is a display model. You cannot take it. If you want it, it will be two weeks if we have it in stock, or maybe ten weeks if we don’t.

Understand, this is a EUR 70 side table of approximately 60x60cm. I was not asking for a custom-made, Chinese-inspired living room suite with hand-lacquered armrests.

“Well, do you have it in stock?”

Clearly perturbed at such an annoying question, he went to his computer and banged on the ancient keys.

It doesn’t show up. It’s not in the computer.

Of course it’s not in the computer. I am a fool, for only a fool argues with an idiot.

Resigned to the obviousness that the Bijenkorf exists only to show the peasantry what might be, if they were to plead in an appropriately servile manner which elicits enough sympathy from the staff to find your request on the computer and make an order for delivery 10 to 20 weeks later, I left the bailiwick of the table-man.

But not before, in a whimsical way I thought necessary to re-assert my consumer power and to console myself for a wasted day, I managed to purchase a very nice, egg-shaped lamp from a more benevolent woman with her glasses on a chain. Glasses on a chain, to me, are warmingly reminiscent of actual, friendly sales people in real department stores.

The lamp was not what I came for, but damn it, they had one and I could buy it. Victory, of a sort.

I took the egg home, plugged it in and … voila. There was light.

There was also a very noticeable black spot on my otherwise perfectly white egg.

Much like the garlic, bananas, meat, lemons and anything not-Coke one buys at Albert Hein, it was damaged. A bad egg.

Yes, I have to return it.

But on the bright side, I know what I’ll be doing this weekend.

December 2002

Kevin Lowe is a Canadian expatriate living in Amsterdam.

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