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"Need Some Help?"

In the early 1960's I worked as a secretary in downtown Florence. For lunch I walked to the Smoke Shop for a burger and fries, or the J&J Drugstore for a chicken salad sandwich with pickles and potato chips, or down to the Kresses lunch counter for the hot meat loaf lunch with mashed potatoes and gravy. The waitresses were friendly and helpful, and after a while they knew my preferences. I hardly sat down before I had a cup of hot coffee and a pitcher of cream, accompanied by the menu and suggestions on what's really good for lunch today.

In those days, modest dresses, high heels and costume jewelry were the standard uniform for office workers. When I needed a new dress, my first stop was the Frances Alice Shop. The ladies there knew my size, my budget, my favorite color and style. While I was trying on dress number one they were checking the racks to bring me something to try on next. If they saw something they knew I'd like in the latest batch of new dresses, they would call my office to let me know. I loved to get those calls.

If I didn't find just what I needed at the Frances Alice Shop, I'd walk on down to the Fashion Center. The sales lady would greet me with a smile and ask if I was looking for something specific. Since she asked, I was specific. "Shirtwaist, long-sleeve, full skirt, wash and wear? In blue?" We'd start at opposite ends of a long Misses dress rack, and in just a few minutes she'd accompany me to the dressing room with an armful of possibilities. She'd help me slide a frock over my head so as not to muss my hair, step back and let me know how it looked in the back. While helping me with zippers and buttons, she would mention accessories that would be perfect with this outfit, even bring me a pair of earrings or a scarf to examine while trying on a dress. I had her full attention as long as I was in the store. I've forgotten her name after all these years, but I'll never forget her courtesy and kindness.

In fact, most shops had service-minded staff in those days. Their assistance, but especially their attitude, were things other working women truly appreciated. They were worth their weight in gold to me then, and rare as hen's teeth in some places today.

Don't get me wrong, there are still some stores where customer service has never gone out of style. There are still waitresses who remember you from visit to visit, know your preferences and check back often to see if you need something. There are still some clerks who recall your name and seem glad to see you. I go out of my way to shop in places like that, I just wish it was that way everywhere.

I bought groceries the other day at my nearby supermarket. Nobody offered to take my groceries to the car, and the cashier didn't even put them in a cart for me. No bag boy was handy so she bagged them up herself while I was writing out my check, but then she left the sacks on the counter top and started ringing up the next customer's items. I pulled the cart back over, heaved the bags inside and pushed it through the door. The bag boy was outside rounding up buggies. When he saw me coming he didn't offer to help, he just frowned. I could almost hear his thoughts -- "Another dumb shopping cart to push inside."

As I transferred my groceries from cart to car, I remembered a department store shopping trip several years ago. Three young clerks huddled by the back wall in the ladies department, leaning toward each other and talking. Now, I had my purse. I had my checkbook. I had a major credit card. I even had cash. What I never got was waited on. The trio glanced in my direction so I expected one to head my way with a friendly "May I help you," point me in the right direction for the blouse I needed, or even escort me to the right rack -- silly me. I finally gave up, left the store and never went back. I found a blouse elsewhere, where a clerk showed up when I walked in the door, took me straight to the right spot and stayed around to offer assistance. That was a refreshing change, so naturally I bought some other stuff while I was there. I think that's the whole idea behind customer service -- sales.

Of course, today I'm a bit more forward than I was back then. Today I'd search out someone or commandeer a clerk, get in their face with a smile and say "Can you help me?" I just hate to have to do it. You know what I mean.

Well, the ladies of the Frances Alice Shop retired and the Fashion Center went out of business some years back. I miss them. But I'm glad there's still a few places around where "Need some help?" isn't a phrase from a dead language, where the clerk still remembers my name, and the waitress still brings me coffee and cream with the menu.

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