x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Strained customer relations

Dealings with small enterprises can be more like jealous friendships than strictly business. Take your trade elsewhere at your peril.

I was regretting the meeting, but I had to sit down and face the music.

My barber, a normally a stoic Pakistani with a thin build, was quieter than normal. During our previous encounters he had often played classic Pakistani romantic duets and he would hum along while his razor did its magic.

Today there were no tunes and no humming, just the dull, flat tones of a newsreader. He didn't need to accuse me of seeing another barber: the proof of a recent trim was there to see.

It was no use explaining that I had been too busy to travel all the way to see him, and so had chosen the local saloon instead. The fact was, I had broken our agreement and it would take many hours in that chair before I would hear his humming again.

Living in the West for 20 years, I had been brought up with a shopping culture where the consumer is king. The burden lay with the shop owner to maintain my interest with sales and loyalty cards.

In the Gulf region, the relationship is on more of an equal footing. In many small grocery stores and restaurants, the owners don't advertise their deals but will increase certain benefits with each visit.

This could mean a free packet of crisps for your child in the grocery store or extra falafels from the winking chef in the kitchen.

Consumer interest is not measured through arbitrary means such as "loyalty" cards, but through good, old-fashioned eye contact and long memories.

An absence of one week might be tolerated, but more than that opens you up to a mini-interrogation disguised as concern.

"How are you?" (Where have you been?)

"Were you sick?" (Have you been somewhere else?)

"You don't seem hungry." (My food not good enough for you?)

Staying away more than two weeks will confirm suspicions and in that case the errant customer has to either exile himself from the shop permanently or return bravely to explain himself.

These tips come from a previous painful experience I had as a nine-year-old in Abu Dhabi. Curious about the new shawarma store, I decided to give it a shot and purchase a sandwich.

However, in my young ignorance, I didn't realise the offence this would give the owner of my usual shawarma stop, which was directly next door to the new place.

The sad look the old man gave me as I leisurely walked past his store with my sandwich is seared into my memory. That was the first time I came face to face with betrayal and I was so ashamed that I never went back.

This time, however, I decided I was old enough to face my jilted barber and confess. I didn't need too, though. He pretended that nothing had happened.

And I pretended that the nick he gave me underneath my chin was just an accident.