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     Volume 4 Issue 33 | February 11, 2005 |

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Food for Thought

Never A Dull Moment…
musings From the Shop Floor

(part 2)

Farah Ghuznavi

The customers at the charity shop where I volunteered were no less interesting to me than the volunteers themselves. Many of them were regulars, stopping by every few days to check in case something interesting had come in. A surprising number of people donated almost-new clothing and other items to the shop, and the marking down of such goods - despite the excellent condition they were in - meant that there were often attractive bargains to be had. Despite the usually reasonable prices though, there were those among the regulars who still tried to bargain (despite numerous past attempts that had failed). We usually left Sulei, the manager, to deal with them. He was able to handle such requests with the necessary combination of pleasant firmness that would have evaded the less experienced volunteers.

For myself, one of the nicest things about working in the shop was to see how people who might otherwise not be able to afford new versions of some of the stock, could nonetheless get things that were as good as new, but at a much lower price. A few days ago, a young mother had come in with her two-year-old daughter. They were clearly from a family which didn't have much money to spare. Their attention quickly alighted on a small pedal-bike, with four wheels and an upright stick at the back (to help a parent guide a tired child).

Sulei was eager to get rid of the pedal-bike, it took up too much space in the shop, relative to its value. It had therefore been marked down to the highly competitive price of five pounds, but the mother was still hesitant, saying that she had to discuss it with her husband before she purchased it. She asked us to set it aside, a request that Sulei insisted that we could not accommodate, precisely because we wanted to get it out of the shop as soon as possible. In the meantime, the little girl, Anna, had climbed on to the pedal-bike and started riding around the shop. In the face of her daughter's evident delight, her mother could not hold out, and five minutes later, Anna rode the pedal-bike proudly out of the shop, waving at all of us as she went…

Other customers were less easy to deal with. At one point, I saw Kristin, a Swedish volunteer, looking puzzled. Although her English was fluent, she was unable to decipher the thick regional accent of the English man who was asking her about one of the music CDs! Luckily, an English volunteer, Sam stepped in before things got out of hand, and the gentleman was provided an update on the availability of the CDs he was looking for.

One of the worst problems, one that came up every now and then, related to customers who employed "dirty trick" tactics. Sometimes this took the form of switching the price labels between items. Because the charity shop did not have the barcode system that prevented this happening in supermarkets, it was a real danger. Sometimes of course, items were priced wrongly by accident. But Sulei was usually careful in ensuring that the volunteers followed the pricing guidelines fairly strictly.

A pair of sought-after, branded shoes had been priced at 12 pounds. Ramani, the South Indian volunteer, was handling the till when a young woman brought over the shoes to us. I was stacking the shelves by the till with fair trade products, (including my major weakness, chocolate), and was lost in pondering the important question of whether I should buy a bar for myself. Meanwhile, not noticing any discrepancy, Ramani had started entering the price of the young woman's shoes into the till as six pounds, when Sulei suddenly intervened. It appeared that the sticker on the shoes did indeed say six pounds, but according to the pricing guidelines, the price should have been much higher. When Sulei insisted on the higher price, the young woman changed her mind about the shoes.

As she walked away, Sulei turned to us and said, "She switched the stickers herself". Ramani and I both felt that Sulei was being too harsh, that it could have been an honest mistake, but we didn't argue with him. Shortly afterwards, the young woman was walking out of the shop, when suddenly Sulei went bounding after her, "Excuse me, Madam, you can't take those out of the shop!" To our amazement, we saw the woman take the shoes out of the bag she was carrying. She insisted, somewhat unconvincingly, that she was only taking them out onto the street where her mother was waiting for her, to show her mother the shoes. Since this strange behaviour followed the earlier exchange over the price label, Ramani and I were forced to agree that Sulei's intuition was more reliable than ours.

Then there was the time I saw David (the Peruvian-born, Jewish, Spanish speaking German national, currently living in the UK, one heck of a strange combination!) being cornered by a rather animated customer. Because David wore a Jewish skull cap clipped on to his hair, his religious identity was evident, though he had never expressed any political views on the Middle East in my hearing. He didn't seem to hold strong political views, anyway, and was a quiet young man. The tall, blonde man talking to him was a different case altogether. This guy turned out to be a self-confessed Danish Christian Zionist (I am still trying to figure out just what this means!), living in Sweden. He had decided to share with the blameless David his frustrations with the Swedish government, whom he felt were too supportive of the Palestinian cause. He claimed that the government "listened too much to the Muslims" and spoke out against the Israelis. Good for them, if this is true, but given that most western governments have done very little for the Palestinians and that the Swedish government however sympathetic - is unlikely to be over-influenced by the Muslims, I found his views somewhat incomprehensible! Although David listened politely, he said very little, and I can only be grateful that this particular denizen of the Danish lunatic fringe had not decided to share his views with me. I would have responded with rather less self-control!

The occasional weirdo's attempts to bond with one of us notwithstanding, I must admit that the wide diversity of backgrounds, race and religion among the volunteers had never led to any internal friction that I had seen. Perhaps the fact that people chose to volunteer time to support the charity outlet for an NGO with well-known progressive political views accounted for this. Perhaps the volunteers were just an unusually nice group of people. Or perhaps it's just true that, despite our differences, most of us can get along with a little effort (yes, yes, I know I am an idealist!). Whatever the reason, my experience at the charity shop has confirmed my cherished belief that multiculturalism is alive and well, at least in this corner of the UK. Now all we have to do is expand that outwards…

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