America gives Lebanon a lesson in customer service

Lebanon has a lot of work to do when it comes to consumer rights, says Michael Karam.

Last week, I found myself in New York in need of a jacket after I ripped the sleeve on my blazer exiting a taxi. I had to give a talk at the consulate and needed a replacement in a hurry, so I picked up the first thing I saw at Banana Republic on Fifth Avenue. The next day, I stared at my still pristine purchase (I hadn’t even had time to unpick the pocket stitching), and knew I would probably never wear it again.

“Dude, take it back,” said a friend. “So what if you wore it? This is America. If you decide you don’t like it, you return it. I hiked a season in a pair of boots that I could never break in. Six months later, I went back to store and got my money back in full.”

Even though the Banana Republic website encouraged customers to return goods if “the style just isn’t you”, it was with forensic care that I repacked the jacket before taking it back. I needn’t have worried. The checkout clerk simply tossed it on to a pile behind the counter and without so much as a cursory examination refunded my credit card. The whole process was over in less than two minutes. It was high fives at lunch. “Dude, what did I tell you? You gotta love this great country of ours.”

Compare that to the experience of a British friend who came to Beirut last summer and decided he needed a gym bag. He had barely left the shop when he decided that on reflection it was an unnecessary purchase. The sales assistant, however, was not having any of it. A refund was impossible but he could have a credit note. When he told her he was flying back to London the next day and would probably never return, she simply shrugged. It was out of her hands. I winced in mild embarrassment when he told me but after 20 years in Lebanon, I wasn’t overly surprised. It’s how we roll.

Part of the problem is that, even with the introduction of the splendidly ludicrous “Black Friday” into Lebanon’s retail calendar, the economy is still a basket case and the retail sector is in deep freeze. The entrepreneurial environment is being strangled by political instability and regulatory inefficiency. There is little corporate or retail lending, wages are stagnant; inflation is running at over 6 per cent.

And it doesn’t look as if anything is going to change any time soon. Mohammad Choucair, president of Lebanon’s chamber of commerce, agriculture and industry, warned of further bankruptcies in the private sector at a conference in Beirut last week. He urged the government to do its job by “creating a more business-friendly environment, open new markets and adopt new regulations to facilitate and encourage economic activity” but I would wager that even as he uttered those words he knew he was asking Santa for the impossible.

The government is, after all, in a holding pattern waiting, seemingly in vain, for the overdue election of a new president; coping with 2 million Syrian refugees who are availing themselves of an infrastructure that could barely service the Lebanese population, and praying the Syrian civil war won’t start a new conflagration. It knows the economy is crippled but it simply hasn’t, as the Americans say, “Got the horses”.

I spoke to one shop owner in the prime Beirut Central District at the beginning of the year who told me that not one single customer had walked into his shop, let alone bought anything, in two months. I doubt much has changed.

All is not well in the US either. A few blocks from my hotel in midtown Manhattan, protesters last week took to the streets over the latest incident of alleged police brutality, while the CIA is facing sticky questions over its use of torture in the wake of September 11. There is, as they say, a lot of “churn”. But upheaval, controversy and outrage are necessary if a society is going to confront its issues and in this respect the US, love or loathe it, is one of the best countries on Earth because it sets out to do the right thing. It doesn’t always get it right but it will, where it can, always try to reimburse dissatisfied customers.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton

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Published: December 15, 2014 04:00 AM

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