Merchants in Europe would be horrified to see the ugly, black plastic bags handed out by so many U.S. business owners. No matter where I shopped in Amsterdam, Paris or throughout Italy, even the smallest purchase was beautifully wrapped and presented to me like a gift.
So toss out those horrible plastic bags and make an effort to create a positive and memorable package to delight your customers.
Elegant TouchesIn Paris, the sterling silver and leather bracelets I bought were nestled in silk pouches and tucked into black and silver bags with drawstrings. The colorful, printed cotton scarves I bought from a Turkish merchant were folded carefully into paper bags as if they were cashmere. A silk scarf I bought at a small boutique was wrapped in tissue. Stapled to the top of the bag was a business card and curly ribbons.
Customer service is a two-way street in Europe. It is customary to make eye contact and greet the merchant behind the counter when you walk in the door. No matter that you don’t speak the local language –it’s easy to smile and say, "bonjour" or "buon giorno" and offer your thanks with a "merci" or "grazie."
An elegant presentation is also part of providing great customer service. Throughout Europe, jewelry and accessory shops resemble museums. Merchandise is well-lit and displayed with plenty of space around each item, rarely piled up like it is in the United States.
Not Just RetailService at restaurants is also geared toward making customers, especially foreigners, feel welcome. I ate dinner every night at Lo Scudo, a small restaurant near il Duomo, the massive cathedral in Florence. The first evening, Tania, the Latvian-born waitress (who is studying law in Florence), took time to chat with me between courses. At the end of my meal (the best pizza I’ve ever eaten), the owner sent over a complimentary after-dinner liqueur.
The next night, I returned with my son, Evan, who happened to be in Florence that night. The staff greeted us like family. By the third night, as I savored the most delicious pasta with seafood, I was felt sad about saying goodbye.
Keeping Up Appearances
Gioele Romanelli, owner of the Novecento hotel in Venice, says that despite the economic challenges faced by Italian business owners, providing excellent customer service is a tradition. Small touches go a long way at his nine-room hotel near the Grand Canal.
Every day, the maid placed a fresh apple on my pillow. Breakfast, which is included in the price of the room in most fine hotels, always featured the freshest and most delicious breads and pastries that rivaled anything I tasted in Paris.
Before I left, Romanelli asked me what American business owners paid in taxes.
"A tax rate of 30 to 35 percent would be paradise,” he says. “Italy’s small businesses are struggling to pay a 60 percent tax rate, while many Italian professionals such as attorneys and doctors, refuse to pay their fair share.”
Romanelli’s family, who also owns the Hotel Flora, has been in the hotel business for 40 years. He says tax evasion is a terrible problem in Italy, and that it is well-know that tax evaders send their money to Switzerland, contributing to economic instability and massive debts.
"The smaller merchants try to do the right thing, while many professionals who are making 10,000 or 20,000 euros a month, pay little or no taxes.”
When I mentioned that most streets in Venice seemed to feature only pricey boutiques with the occasional tacky souvenir shop wedged in, he said real estate prices have driven out most small-business owners.
“When I was growing up, there was a wonderful bakery located in front of my family’s Hotel Flora,” he says. “Now, the bakery is gone and has been replaced by Bulgari, a fancy jewelry boutique.”