Being a Canadian Consumer

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The Bad Guys, Ottawa, May 2012

Being a consumer in France is different than being a consumer in Canada. Like Guillermo, an Argentinean immigrant and a new Canadian put it in a recent article:

Many of us come from countries where being a customer is a blessing. A blessing for you that have the opportunity to do business with that establishment. And if you don’t like it, just get the fuck out of here. We don’t need you.

In his article, Guillermo explained how Mr. Lube, an auto maintenance company, made a mistake when doing a simple oil and filter change—or rather, there was an error in the guide used by the employee, leading to said issue. Fortunately, the manager took the problem seriously. Guillermo was refunded and felt appreciated as a customer, a feeling he counts among the small blessings of life in Canada.

I completely understand where Guillermo comes from. Like I explained before, in France, the cus­tomer is any­thing but a king: at worse he is an idiot, at best he is a minor annoy­ance for businesses.

It took me a while to start behaving as a consumer in Canada. At first, I marveled at how accommodating businesses were: customers could exchange merchandise, ask for refunds, demand to speak to a manger, complain about a service etc. I wouldn’t have dare to do so in France, first because there was little chance the business would actually care, second because it’s cultural—French consumers suck it up.

But North Americans take their job as consumers seriously. Just go online and you will find consumer-oriented websites like The Consumerist or Red Flag Deal and its busy forum. People aren’t shy to complain here, and most businesses make it easy to do so through toll-free numbers or customer service desks in-store.

Yet for a long time, I behave as a French consumer—I sucked it up.

For instance, during my first couple of years in Canada, Feng worked late at night and I often walked to the nearest supermarket to grab some diner. Being still very French, I loved frozen quiches. But a few times, the quiche had clearly gone bad. Maybe it had been defrosted and frozen again—who knows. I know it wasn’t my fault and each time it happened, I only discovered it right before putting the quiche in the oven. I was caught between a rock and a hard place: I didn’t want to walk back to the supermarket (which was probably closed anyway) yet I had to throw my dinner away. I was mad but I didn’t dare to complain. “The supermarket will probably blame me,” I figured.

I would act very differently now and you can be sure I’d complain at the supermarket!

Eventually, a few years ago, I made my first complaint. I had bought a pair of Skech­ers shoes for work, and after only a few weeks, I noticed the sole was falling apart. I was really annoyed because those were office shoes that I only used indoors, and I had just bought them. Impulsively, I snapped a picture of the damaged soles and attached it to a complain letter, along with the receipt that showed my purchase was very recent.

I was shocked when a few weeks later, a new pair of shoes was shipped to me. I was an empowered customer. I loved it.

Of course, complaining doesn’t always work if the company isn’t receptive or honest. For instance, I just had a terrible experience with TeamBuy, a deal website. Last winter, I bought a voucher for two massages at Glebe Fitness. The first appointment I made in November was cancelled, and so was the second one in April. Both instance, I only learned about the cancellation at the last minute, upon arriving. Scheduling a third appointment is now impossible, as all the dates are booked until December 2012. Frankly, I doubt the business wants to honour the voucher.

I emailed TeamBuy and explained the situation. Three emails and several weeks later, I finally received a very curt email, in which TeamBuy offered me credit towards a future deal. Considering how slow their reply was, and how bad the attitude was, I declined and asked for a refund—I don’t want to use their service ever again. TeamBuy never emailed back.

I could fight the charge with my credit card company but honestly, I can’t be bothered. But as a consumer, I will tell all my friends to avoid TeamBuy and future deals ran by Glebe Fitness.

Because that’s also what Canadian consumers do. We have a lot of choices here, and people vote with their wallets. There are plenty of restaurants in Ottawa I would never go to again, and plenty of companies I refuse to do business with after a bad experience. And there are plenty I praise and recommend—because that’s also my job as a consumer.

How about you? What kind of customer are you? Have you ever complained to a business? Any businesses you avoid?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

18 Comments

  1. For me, I only am a pro-active consumer when it comes to restaurants. I actively write restaurant reviews (in Yelp), and don’t hesitate to point out the bad side of things whenever I encounter one.

    • There is nothing worse than going to a bad restaurant… it’s always a very frustrating experience and an evening ruined 🙁

  2. And you just might get some customer satisfaction from blogging about TeamBuy and Glebe Fitness. Lots of companies surf the Net in search of feedback and if these two companies do, they might discover your complaints. And make amends??
    It worked for me when I complained about General Motors on my blog!

  3. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA policies are mostly the same as in Canada from the way you describe them. Almost all stores will exchange or refund a purchase that is clearly defective. Whether or not I will return something depends on what it cost and what it is. Anything over $10 I will probably return. Food items are an exception both because of the price and my reluctance to drag in a rotten food item. I am not a big complainer. I just go to another store the next time.

    • I do about the same. In fact, I think I have yet to bring food back to a supermarket… but I have no problem most of the time, fortunately.

  4. As long as you understand that the “consumer is always right” attitude you describe does not apply in Canada to:

    1) Telecom (mobile or landline) companies, e.g. Bell/Rogers

    2) The Big Five Banks

    3) CRA

    4) Last but not least, the Cable company (hello again, Rogers!)

    For all the above, everything is exactly reversed, and the customer is always wrong, and/or must be charged more.

    One small example out of many: My calling name display stopped working on my mobile. Numbers still displayed, but no names. Called Rogers, got over a week of runaround, eventual conclusion was that they could not make it work (it had been working) on my phone model. I could, however buy a new phone at full price, because the old one was not yet eligible for an upgrade. OK – I guess I can do without name display, let’s cancel that and save some money. Surprise – the price for number-only display has just gone up, and is the same as name display, so no refund.

    • Amen to that! When I signed up for a new phone contract (being a freelancer, I had to), I made a point of avoiding Bell, Roger and Telus. Mind you, Virgin isn’t the best either but they are a bit cheaper and don’t sneak mysterious fees in. Just the attitude of Roger and Bell rep when I asked around was appealing.

      Never had too much problem with my bank or with the CRA (lucky me!). But I hear you!

  5. I’m complaining everytime I need to (I had the same story with de-frozen ice cream and bad quality shoes, that’s funny) and every time the storekeeper was fine and nice and replaced it!

    • You are more Canadian than I am then! One summer I worked at the help desk at Carrefour (or was it Leclerc?) and people kept on bringing back the weird things, like empty packs of cookies because “they didn’t taste good”. Well, why did you have the entire pack then??? 😆

      • Ahah!
        I remember, though, that my boyfriend had an unpleasant experience at a french Starbuck. The motto is “if you’re not satisfiend with your drink, we’re making you a new one”. He ordered a frappucino, which was fine, until the middle of the glass : there was only ice cubes, it wasn’t even mixed properly! He got to the desk to complain and the gal answered “why did you drink half in you didn’t like it?” Ah damn, I wanted to punch her in the nose.

  6. Honestly I have trouble standing the “we don’t need customers” attitude in France. I shop online: I save time and money! Plus returns are easier than in-person, what’s not to love?

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