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The quest seemed simple enough: buy a small contraption to boost the spotty cellphone signal at my house so I wouldn’t need to walk up and down the driveway to find a place to make calls. Such boosters were not cheap, I was told, but they were easy to find – most every big-box office-supply store had them.

There was some urgency to my mission. No reliable signal meant no credible working from home. So my goal was to pick one up rather than wait for delivery. As a trust-but-verify shopper, I called a couple of local stores and checked their websites to confirm these gizmos were indeed plentiful before heading out.

My first stop was a bust. I was redirected three times by “sales associates” to other similarly badged workers, none of whom had the foggiest idea what I was talking about and could not – or would not – help. Finally, one employee – without looking up from her iPhone – told me the store did not carry what I was looking for, even though I was told over the phone it did. Thirty minutes wasted.

A similar experience awaited at another big-box store nearby. I was handed off from person to person only to be told the store had no such gadget. Another 20 minutes down the drain.

A trip to the specialty store owned by my mobile-phone provider gave me a glimmer of hope. Yes, the customer rep said, checking his computer, the company sold them and they were in stock. Hallelujah. But then, despair: The company didn’t sell them in stores or online. I needed to call the customer help line.

Welcome to an all-too-familiar post-pandemic retail experience: a runaround of epic proportions, where customer service is the ultimate oxymoron.

“If you are going to a physical store, get ready – it is a staffing disaster,” said Tim Ceci, a New York-based consumer and retail expert with Point B, a consultancy. “It doesn’t matter what kind of outlet – grocery store, boutique, department store, airport. There’s a good chance you’ll have a bad experience.”

With U.S. unemployment running at around 3.7 per cent, there are roughly two open jobs for every American who is out of work and seeking one. If you want a job, you can get a job.

But the COVID-19 hangover continues to disrupt the way people work – and the way they think about work. Mr. Ceci said that during the pandemic, a lot of people reoriented their lives around working from home – creating new patterns for daily routines such as grocery shopping, child care, sports and fitness activities, and entertainment.

Pandemic-fuelled poor behaviour has some businesses wondering if the customer is always right

The result, he said, is “communitization,” a trend that has made people’s lives smaller, not bigger.

“People are staying close to where they live,” he said. “They are not travelling as far to work or to shop or to go out for dinner and a show.”

He said many Generation Z workers, in particular, are in no rush to return to in-person work, whether in offices or stores, a reality with which many big companies, such as Apple AAPL-Q and Tesla TSAL-Q, are wrestling.

And there is the security issue. Many retailers have closed stores in crime-ridden areas of U.S. cities. Starbucks SBUX-Q, for example, said in July it would close 16 stores, mainly on the West Coast – including six in its hometown of Seattle – because of rising crime and drug use among customers. Employees simply don’t want to put themselves in harm’s way.

While online retailing may offer some solace, it is not a cure-all. A Forrester report released last month said U.S. online retail sales will surpass US$1-trillion this year, and are expected to reach US$1.6-trillion by 2027. But offline sales will still account for 70 per cent of total U.S. retail sales in five years – in fact, brick-and-mortar sales grew 14 per cent in 2021, according to the report.

The bottom line: While online shopping is an increasingly important part of the retail mix, people will still go to stores. And that means retailers need to figure out how to fix Mr. Ceci’s “staffing disaster.”

As for my quest, well, I have yet to find my techno-grail. As directed, I called the customer help line at the phone company. The representative who answered was extremely helpful – eerily so, based on my experience – and quickly sourced the item. The cost was US$250, and, because I needed it right away, I gladly paid an extra US$12 to have it overnighted to me. Problem solved.

But not so fast. The item never arrived, and to track the shipment I was directed and redirected several times through helpline hell, put on hold and eventually disconnected. I am still out US$262.

“Learn to be patient,” Mr. Ceci said. “It could be three to five years before we see the new normal.”

In the meantime, my neighbours continue to wave cheerily when they pass me, taking calls in my driveway.