This week I met up with a PR friend in London’s ‘bustling’ and ‘vibrant’* Covent Garden so that we could discuss journalismy stuff. By way of a treat she offered to take me for lunch. And so, with an empty stomach and a notebook full of ideas, we ventured to a smart-looking, if slightly hipsterish, café on Drury Lane.
Things started well; in so far that the door functioned as it should without any hipstery surprises (‘push’ to open). But then, like a freight train, my friend and I found ourselves in the midst of a crisis. We exchanged an alarmed, if slightly anxious stare.
How on earth did you order food?
Once upon a time life was simple: if you went into a café with seats you would simply sit down at a table and wait for a waiter or waitress to come over and run through the specials you knew you definitely didn’t want.
But this rulebook has since been torn to shreds and turned into an ironic wall adornment; its informative contents confined to the history books, and now little more than an urban myth.
Nowadays anything goes. Do you order at the counter and pay before, or do you order at the counter and pay afterwards? Do you wait for your order before heading to a table, or wait for your order at the table? Do you sit down and wait for someone to come over, or do you wait to be seated first? What if you get it wrong? Will the waiter tut at you and roll his eyes, will the other patrons start heckling you, or will the police come and arrest you?
Nothing, literally nothing, causes such apocalyptic anxiety.
After what seemed like several minutes of staring at each other anxiously, it was my lunching partner who plucked up the courage to ask: “err, excuse me, how do we order?”
Is there anything more humiliating than having to ask someone for clarification on how to achieve the once simple task of exchanging money for goods or services, only to have the response come back with a tone of uncertain mockery and mild inconvenience?
However, once this milestone had been passed the situation resolved itself. The conversation was constructive and the food divine. The chapter closed.
I felt it fitting to share this because it is the second time it has happened to me this week.
On Monday I finally caved and headed to a fruit-based multinational technology store in Kingston-upon-Thames, whereupon I had planned to purchase new earphones for my handheld device.
Despite being a fruit-based multinational technology company user for a few years, I have never actually shopped in its own store before.
It’s a soulless, lifeless place, full of the latest fruit-based multinational technology company products and expensive oak tables. It is also frightfully busy. I’d say there were over 100 people in there at the time of my visit. It looked very much like a café.
There were about six or so people around each table, all of them glued to their phones while fumbling haphazardly with apps and settings they didn’t need or understand.
All I needed, of course, were earphones. I noted from afar that they were hanging up on a rack in the far southwest corner of the shop. I made my way over, saw the price, muttered a colourful metaphor beneath my breath, shrugged my shoulders like a beaten down member of the proletariat and went to the till to pay.
But, as you would expect, there was no till.
What I thought had been the pay-desk was in fact just more oak tables lined with confused Baby Boomers. I looked around for a shop assistant but none were – visibly – in sight.
It was only by chance that I spotted the tiny – and I’m not kidding, it was probably one square centimetre in size – fruit-based multinational technology company logo on a plain, near camouflage navy t-shirt.
Excuse me, I said, but how do I pay? “Hello, sir, if you’d like to sit at that table there my colleague will help you when he is finished with that customer.” I duly made my way over and joined the other captives.
The customer in question was struggling to understand privacy settings. It wasn’t important, but she required a lot of explaining. My fellow prisoners were staring lifelessly at their fruit-based multinational technology company phones; one was dribbling.
I honestly believed that soon we would be forced at gunpoint to build a bridge over a Burmese river…
Eventually the man became free, and he stood there in stone cold silence. I had no time and even less patience by this point and shouted out: how do I pay for this, mate?
In a soft, cult-like voice he said: “here we are, sir,” and whipped a card machine out of his pocket. “Sir,” he continued, “you know you can just walk out of here with this product and pay for it over your fruit-based multinational technology company account by scanning the barcode.”
You know what, chap, I didn’t know that. Do you know why I didn’t know that: because it’s not even remotely obvious. You can’t go changing the rules of retail and expect regular people to ‘just get it’.
I am a simple consumer like most people and, despite having to sacrifice my poor, battered email address yet again, just want to buy something quickly and be gone.
I am not a Victorian. I accept technology and practices evolve. But you know what? I’d like a sign. A simple sign telling me whatever process or etiquette is required. I don’t have time to spend on working out trivial things like ‘how to pay’.
This is relevant in the conference and meetings industry, too. Things aren’t always obvious, and it’s great to see lots of innovators and people trying different things. But sometimes, when you’re entrenched in a project, it’s easy to forget that common people might not ‘get it’ without some helpful reminders.
Lord, give me a sign!
* ‘Bustling’ and ‘vibrant’, along with ‘diverse’, are standard-issue adjectives used to describe any part of inner-London where the Victorian buildings have been painted pastel pink, graffiti is considered art, and ironic, Left wing imagery is commonplace.