We’d been in need of a new bathroom scale, so yesterday we headed to a local Darty, a chain of stores with a selection somewhat like Best Buy—appliances, electronics, and suchlike. I was expecting this to be an extremely simple operation: pick out a scale, take it to the register, pay for it, and leave. But ah—this is France.
First of all, I was a little overwhelmed at the store’s scale selection. There were, I think, 15 or 20 models, ranging from simple mechanical models to extremely high-tech numbers with lots of buttons and sensors and doohickeys. Naturally I was drawn to the latter category, but I couldn’t really justify spending 100 euros on a scale just because it looks like it belongs on a spaceship. Of course, the one really interesting piece of information we would have liked to have, in order to make an informed decision, was the relative accuracy of the scales; sadly, that was the one fact not even hinted at in the products’ descriptions. (On the other hand, several of the scales with glass tops had stickers on them saying “Slippery When Wet,” and we both thought that was a rather odd design flaw for something intended to be stepped on, in bare feet, in the wettest room of the house.)
We eventually settled on a unattractive but cheap model with a digital display and a nonslip surface. So now all we had to do was pay for it and leave. But wait—how does one actually do that? Having spent a considerable portion of my career designing software, I’ve formed an opinion or two about good user interface, and Darty struck me as an example of very bad user interface, because there was nothing to inform us, the customers, of how one goes about purchasing merchandise.
As is usual in stores of this sort, the shelves at Darty have just one exemplar of each item on display; you decide what you want and then somehow retrieve the actual box you’ll take home from a storeroom in the back. That’s fine. Now here’s the thing: exactly how do you go about getting the item from the back? There were no signs, anywhere in the store, explaining what the process is. We thought maybe there were forms to fill out and hand in, but we looked all around and couldn’t find any. Each item did have a label with a SKU (a unique numeric identifier), so we thought about just writing down the one for our scale, but then we couldn’t determine where to take that number—to the counter at the back, where people were clearly picking things up, or to the front, where people were clearly paying for them, or to any of the numerous sales desks around the store, or what?
After spending considerable time observing other customers, we worked out that there were indeed special slips of paper onto which the SKU had to be written, but these were only to be found in the pockets of salespeople. All the salespeople were busy either helping other customers or participating in a game I’ll call “darty,” which involved suddenly darting away whenever we cast a hopeful glance in their direction.
At last, though, we cornered a red-shirted employee, pointed out the scale we wanted, and got her to write its number down on the magic slip of paper, which looks like this:
Then she walked over to a computer station, typed in the number, and confirmed that the scale was in stock. The computer gave her another number, which she also wrote on the slip, instructing us to go up to the front and hand it to the cashier. OK. So we paid, and received a form in triplicate that we then had to take to the pick-up desk. The helpful clerk there had already retrieved the scale from the storeroom, so she just scanned our paper and stuck the scale in a bag (with two of the three pages the cashier had given us), and out we went.
This little adventure, which should have been the easiest thing in the world, turned out to be rather irritating and stressful for us, but also kind of amusing—a quintessentially French experience. It nicely illustrates several of the principles we’ve seen in action over and over in this country:
Everything requires a conversation: It would probably never occur to a French person that Darty has a poor user interface, because French culture involves endless discussion and negotiation. What’s the problem? If you want something, or you don’t understand what’s going on, you just ask someone. C’est normal. If you want to buy something at Darty, you have to have conversations with at least three different people. Unfortunately for us, this is not the most introvert-friendly arrangement. And it goes without saying that all this discussion will be in French; if you’re not able to converse reasonably well, then tant pis pour vous. (Is the term for “bathroom scale,” pèse-personne, which I’d never encountered before, masculine or feminine? Gah! I incorrectly guessed feminine, but the salesperson got the idea anyway.)
Leave it to the experts: French people are used to asking for assistance constantly, including nearly every time they buy something. If you go to the market for a melon, the grocer has to pick out the right one for you. If you want some nonprescription pain reliever, you still have to ask a pharmacist. And if you want a scale, you will of course naturally ask a salesperson. The whole notion of consumers simply reading labels and making decisions on their own is rather foreign.
No job is too small: France has a high unemployment rate but very high job security for those who do have jobs, and businesses tend to be designed to employ the maximum number of people. (Contrast this with the North American model of trying to reduce overhead by increasing efficiency and reducing the number of employees.) So of course one person could have taken our order, picked up the scale, and taken our money—but then there would be no reason to employ the other two.
Paper, paper everywhere: Counting the reservation ticket, the triplicate order form, the credit card receipt handed to me, and the duplicate receipt the cashier put into his file, the sale of this scale generated six pieces of paper. That’s very much the norm here. Seemingly nothing can be done without reams of documentation being created. Coming from the U.S. where you now often have to pay extra for paper copies of things like utility bills and bank statements, this focus on paper seems rather old-fashioned.
Anyway, we did successfully leave with the scale of our choice, for a very reasonable 20 euros. And this was an interesting surprise: the switch on the bottom lets you choose not only pounds or kilograms, but also stones. Cool.