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The Globe and Mail

Are you being served? The British customer-care experience

Perhaps the greatest moment in the annals of poor customer service was recorded by Martin Amis in his memoir, Experience. Taking his son shopping for running shoes (or "trainers," in British), Mr. Amis found a sullen clerk and prevailed upon him to fetch a certain pair. The clerk came back with two shoes, mismatched in size and colour, and said, "Them's a pair, innit."

I sympathized as I wandered the shoe-box maze of a North London branch of the trainer-mongers Sports Direct, encountering other lost souls who shuffled the aisles like the damned in the underworld, carrying last year's Nikes in place of their sins. The only employee I could find was a woman on a walkie-talkie who brusquely told me, "We don't measure feet." Why would they, in a shoe shop? She said that there were six employees in the store who could find running shoes for my son, but after spending 10 minutes playing Stanley to no one's Livingstone, I dragged my children out of there. It would have been faster to grow my own cow and rubber tree and make the shoes myself. Rating: 1/10

Ripley's Believe it or Not: I arrived with a deliberately mangled coupon at the exorbitantly overpriced attraction in the heart of Piccadilly (Witness the lady who lost an arm and a leg visiting the freak show!). A very calm and helpful young woman tried to piece together my coupon, while behind me a huge line grew restive, as people were forced to wait minutes to see three-headed goats and Marilyn Monroe made of lint. Finally, the Ripley's cashier binned the coupon but gave me the discount anyway. She was Australian, though. They're a forgiving people. Rating: 6/10

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The Bar at Claridge's: Victoria Beckham is often pictured leaving Claridge's hotel after a boisterous evening of not eating or drinking, so they must be good at scraping dressing from lettuce leaves and other niceties. For an hour, I tormented the poor barman and he remained resolutely unflapped: After he took my ratty, sub-Mary Poppins umbrella to the coat-check room, he whisked away a copy of the day's paper when I expressed horror at what Carla Bruni-Sarkozy had done to her lovely face. He hunted for a garnish for my Rob Roy ("Madam, I'm afraid I can't locate any glacé cherries"), bowed to my absurd request for a plate of sliced avocados and only barely gritted his teeth when I asked him to find out if the tuna in the tuna tartare was line-caught. So that's what it feels like to be Victoria Beckham. Rating: 8/10

Marks and Spencer: The M&S returns policy is so generous that there's a legend they'll take back anything they sold you – an empty tissue box, a peel that might have once contained an M&S banana. I brought back a pair of trousers I'd bought the week before – minus tag and receipt, but wrapped in a crumpled M&S bag from the bottom of the closet. I told the maternal woman behind the counter a frankly ludicrous story about accidentally giving the receipt to the bus driver, and she said, "We all make mistakes, love." And yes, she took them back.. Rating 10/10

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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