Being a former sales rep myself, I’m usually not bothered by sales people, even when they are exceptionally aggressive. I expect a certain level of attention when I go to a department store or when I go somewhere where I know that the employees work on commission or have a quota to fill. However, I have been surprised lately by the attention that I have been receiving from sales people at normal, run of the mill places. On diffecarent ends of the spectrum, Target and Cracker Barrel have been unusual in particular. Both of these stores are places where I tend to mosey around while my wife searches intently for a pretty trinket or the latest clearance rack items. Quite honestly, I have learned to enjoy just wandering around and seeing what the latest item that has been stocked since the last time I shopped there. However, lately I just haven’t been allowed to browse.

The flavor of approach is different at each store. At Cracker Barrel, the folks working in the gift store used to just say hello, and offer to help you if you needed it. Then they would leave you alone and let you browse. Now they tend to be extra-super-hyper friendly and extremely “knowledgeable” about the price and sales of every item in the store. When I say “knowledgeable” I mean to say that they are going to share that knowledge with you whether you ask or not. If you spend more than 10 seconds looking at the Slinky® Dog, there is going to be someone next to you letting you know that all of their classic toys are currently on sale for 40% off. This doesn’t bother me too much. But when they stand there and wait until you pick up another item and then tell you how much that one costs, it does start to get a little annoying.

The worst thing that they have started doing at Cracker Barrel is quietly driving a wedge between parents against their children in order to close the deal. It’s very subtle, but every time my 3 year old daughter picks up something that is on display, one of the employees will almost always ask her “Are you having fun with that weasel ball?”, or will tell her “Oh! How cute you would look with that princess dress”, etc. That doesn’t bother me, but then the employee looks at me and politely tells me how the item is on sale right now for only blah, blah, blah. This, of course, makes my daughter want the item even more, and makes me look like a big meanie for not letting her get the piece of crap toy that she will never play with. This annoys me more than Kool-Aid and Barbie doll commercials during Saturday morning cartoons.

Once a lady made me so angry because I wouldn’t buy Zoë that blasted weasel ball that I went off on the lady and told her “I’ll have you know that children are easily persuaded to make irrational decisions, and as her father I would appreciate it if you did not interfere in the forming of my child’s decision making processes!” (OK, I didn’t really say that, but I thought it. I thought it really hard. I thought it so hard she probably heard my thoughts audibly. OK, probably not, but I sure wish she did. Err!)

On the other hand, at Target, I have noticed that the employees seem like they are hunting for you. You could be alone on an aisle looking at the power strips, and the next thing you know, someone is heading straight for you saying, “Can I help you find something?” Today when I went shopping with my wife, I was asked 5 times during the 45 minutes we were in the store. One cashier was even wearing a t-shirt with “Can I help you find something?” printed on it. I asked my cashier, “When did they start the, “Can I help you find something?” campaign. She told me that they have been doing that for a long time. Apparently this isn’t new, but I had never noticed it before. I found out that she was correct. Target’s website even mentions it! My cashier did mention that they were having an inspection from corporate today, so that may have been why there was extra enthusiasm. Maybe they thought I was undercover.

Despite their good intentions, something irks inside me when I am asked that question. Maybe I am biased from a past experience. When I worked with the loss prevention department at another major retailer, we were repeatedly told that if we saw someone who we thought may be trying to steal something, we were supposed to quickly head to that person and ask “Can I help you find something?” That way the person knew that someone was aware of their presence, and they would be less likely to shoplift.

Regardless of that, there are so many reasons why I feel Target should just stop having their employees say this. It irritates me when someone asks that question because it says to me, “Please figure out what you want, then buy it and get out of our store.” It also makes me feel as if they think I am incompetent since I can’t find what I am looking for.

I feel that a better way to ask the same question would be to ask, “Is there anything in particular you are looking for?” This communicates to the customer that you are here to help them, but they are free to browse. Plus, once something becomes a cliche it looses its power. For example, who cares when someone tells you “Have a nice day!”

Maybe I am just a skeptic that is always looking for the ulterior motive behind what seems like a good intention. Maybe the economy has me thinking that everyone is on edge and getting more aggressive with their sales tactics. Either way, it’s something that has bothered me, so I believe I am safe to assume that it has bothered other people. So, Michael A. Woodhouse, (Chairman of the Board, President & Chief Executive Officer, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc.) and Gregg W. Steinhafel, (Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Target) if you guys are reading this, I don’t have the answer for you, but think about this the next time you have a board meeting. On a side note, if one of you are reading this, and you want to make me happy customer, I guess you could make up for it by sending me a weasel ball.