Yesterday I had an encounter with an unpleasant customer. It was one of those situations when someone comes into the shop spoiling for a fight, and I just happened to be the first person who crossed her path. I did my best to refuse to participate in the Snit-a-palooza, at one point excusing myself to go (allegedly) to the ladies' room so I wouldn't garrotte her with a loose pair of Addi Turbos. (I mean, is it my personal fault that the shop sold out of size 9 bamboo needles in a 14-inch length? Does the lack of a particular knitting needle that you desire -- although we did have perfectly nice 10-inch and circular needles in that size and virtually every other size known to humankind -- entitle you to berate me because "needles, they're kind of like staples for a yarn shop, wouldn't you say?")
I knew that this customer's disgruntlement didn't have anything to do with me, really, but it did get me thinking again about customer service and the yarn shop. This is another topic about which I don't have any clear answers, just a lot of questions, most of them revolving around the dilemma of just how much customer service it is reasonable to expect from your local yarn shop. When does helping a customer morph into letting someone take advantage of you? How and where do you draw the line?
Generally, my attitude, and that of my co-workers, is extremely pro-customer. We will help you pick a pattern, we will help you pick a suitable yarn, we will tailor classes to your needs, we will explain gauge, we'll stop whatever else we're doing to help you, we will teach you discrete new skills, we will do knitting 9-1-1 and fix mistakes, we will give you free tips and advice, we will help you pick colors, we will let you use the bathroom, we won't rush you out the door if it takes a long time to decide, we will special-order, we will look up nearby lunch places for you if you're from out-of-town, and so on. In other words, we will try to help a customer in whatever way we can. I want to immediately qualify that as "in whatever way we can, within reason" because it seems to me that more and more, lately, we've been getting customers who make unreasonable demands.
Every yarn shop has the customer who really, really wants to make a pattern from a pattern book but balks at buying the whole book. "Do I have to buy the whole book just to make one pattern?" they whine. In a word, yes. I will not make photocopies of a book to allow a customer to make a pattern and avoid compensating the designer for the work put into making it. Apart from being shitty, it's illegal. In fact, we don't even have a copy machine at Rosie's, thus providing a very convenient dodge for particularly persistent copyright-flouters. From a customer's standpoint, well, yes, it is unfortunate that you don't want any other pattern in the book, but tough. Take it up with the U.S. Congress, the federal copyright bar and the knitting designer's trade union.* And consider whether it's fair of you to ask an employee of your LYS to violate the law for you in order to get something for nothing.
That's an easy case. The request is illegal, so no dice. But what about a customer who asks you to rewrite an entire pattern for a different gauge? This is one of those grey areas that makes me cringe. If it's a really easy thing, like adding or subtracting some stitches to or from a scarf pattern -- there's no shaping, and there's no real issue of "fit" as there would be in a sweater -- I'm happy to fiddle with it. But is it fair to expect a yarn shop employee to sit down with a calculator and a notepad, and essentially re-design a sweater? What about a garment that's more involved than a scarf but less involved than a sweater? Some will say that "at such and such a shop in New York, they'll write a pattern for you in whatever size you want and whatever gauge you want whenever you buy yarn." Hmmm. I'm not sure I believe you, but maybe they have pattern-generating software in the back, because that seems like an awful lot of work to be giving away for free.
And what happens if you don't like the way the free pattern knits up? Some might say you get what you pay for and if the pattern is free, well, maybe you shouldn't complain. Then again, that would be a reasonable attitude, and we're talking about the unreasonable minority here. All too many times I've had knitters come back to bite me in the butt. They ask me to rejigger the numbers on a pattern to accommodate a particular yarn they want to use, and no matter how the lawyer in me qualifies my work ("This is going to look very different from the sample because you're using a bulky thick-and-thin wool that has pieces of dryer lint sticking out of it, and the sample is a fingering-weight mercerized cotton") they return in a few days or weeks, project in tow, complaining that the dreaded "Someone who works here" gave them an iron-clad guarantee it would look just dandy in dryer lint.
What about asking a yarn shop employee to teach you to knit? We do occasionally have someone walk in off the street who wants to buy needles and yarn, sit down and have us show them how to knit. From scratch. This is another one of those oogey situations. Some people learned a long time ago and forgot, or pick it up really quickly, so it's just a matter of showing them the knit stitch once and they've got it. Others, however, are what we could euphemistically call "slow learners" and require much hand holding, thereby resulting in much hand-wringing. Is it fair to expect a LYS employee to ignore other customers for a prolonged period of time to walk you through the basics of knitting for free? We offer beginner's classes, we have knitting circle which is a time when many gonzo knitters are sitting around who'd love to share their craft with you, and we offer private lessons; ought you to expect a yarn shop employee to teach you gratis? Would you walk into Barnes and Noble and ask one of their employees to teach you to read? Does it matter if you buy, on the spot, yarn and needles and maybe a how-to-knit book, or if you bring your own yarn and needles? Put another way, how would you feel about walking into Home Depot with lumber, hammer and nails you bought at Lowe's and asking them to teach you how to make a bookcase?
Pretty much every shift I work, a determined-looking customer walks in with a stuffed project bag. "Can I help you with something?" I cheerfully ask. "Yes," the customer says decisively. "I have a few questions about the project I'm working on." The "Great!" dies on my lips as the knitter pulls out yarn and needles and patterns that weren't purchased from our shop. Sometimes 2 or 3 different projects, none of which were purchased at our shop. The question might be simple, like how do I do a three-needle bind-off? or what does "YO" mean? But all too often, it's complex. "I think there's a mistake in this pattern," the knitter says -- and it's what we call a "house pattern" -- one created by the owner or staff of the yarn shop to go with a yarn purchase -- from a different yarn shop. Is it fair to expect to walk into a shop with items you bought somewhere else and ask for help with them? Could you walk into the Dell Computer store with an Apple laptop and expect them to show you how it works or fix it if it breaks? Even if you could, would you?
I'm going to tell you a shocking truth about yarn shops: it's hard to make money owning them. The competition is fierce and the profit margin is low. Think about how many new yarn shops have opened up on-line and on the street, and how price competition from gigunda retailers (A.C.Moore, KnitPicks) has provided knitters with additional choices. One of the ways that bricks-and-mortar yarn shops can distinguish themselves from the Internet competition, and from the bricks-and-mortar competition, is by providing stellar customer service. That's fine; under normal circumstances, we're happy to do it. Some people, however, are inclined to take advantage of that. The quid pro quo for getting good customer service is buying something regularly at that shop. Your local yarn shop isn't a library, subsidized by the public to provide free services; it's a business. The next time you take six hanks of yarn you bought on E-bay to your LYS to use their ball-winder, think about that.
*No, there isn't really a knitting designer's trade union. But you get the point, don't you?