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Being a Canadian Consumer

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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