Why Not: The Rhetorical Question

Like every other (good) retailer, we aim to please. From goods to services, providing the very best we can to every customer is what keeps us in business.

Go ahead, say it. Duh. Of course that’s what keeps the doors open!

But what happens when we can’t — for whatever reason — satisfy a customer?

It seems to me that in an increasingly instant-gratification-focused consumer world, the inability to meet an immediate demand is an automatic black mark. Regardless of how difficult, unrealistic, or downright impossible the request may be, the potential provider’s perceived lack of ability becomes an issue.

It so happens that occasionally a customer comes in and asks for something we don’t have. We’ve never had it. It’s possible — though unlikely — we’ve never even heard of it. We can probably get it, or our fabulous designer/goldsmith can make it, but none of that is going to happen in the next 10 to 15 seconds. The customer huffs something to the effect of “Everywhere I go, they say the same thing. You don’t have it. Well, why not?”

There’s a brief pause, and a moment of silent mutual understanding arrives: they already know the answer. We know the answer, and they know we know. We don’t have it because the buyer(s) for the store didn’t buy it. The reasoning behind that decision is moot, because it won’t change the status of this customer’s elusive desire.

I was totally bewildered by my first Rhetorical Encounter. Did that customer really just get upset that I couldn’t show those white gold earrings in yellow, rose, and two-tone? Is she seriously asking for a reason why we don’t carry her favorite XYZ designer?

I’ve learned a few things since then, thank goodness. I learned that sometimes a customer has an objection or just wants an easy “out” of the sale or store, and isn’t capable of saying “no, thank you.” I had to learn that a customer insisting on one specific item is well aware that we won’t have it, and they really want some alternatives. I also figured out that some customers take pleasure in name-dropping to employees of stores that aren’t Big Names, either as a test (yes, we’ve heard of that Big Name) or to impress (yes, your Big Name watch is lovely).

I used to feel like a failure when I couldn’t produce, magician-like**, the exact white (gold) rabbit each customer wanted. Thankfully, through careful observation and a deeper understanding of the consumer, I have managed to overcome that feeling and learned to confidently represent the products and capabilities we do have. It’s a necessary skill in an on-demand world, and one I’m happy to say only improves with every Rhetorical Encounter I have.

** Okay, occasionally we’re like real magicians, coming up with brilliant plans with perfect execution for last-minute, do-or-die situations. That’s called… hard work and getting lucky.

Do You *Need* That Piece of Jewelry?

“Yes honey, it’s beautiful. But do you really need that ______?”

The above question, though almost exclusively used rhetorically, is possibly one of my least favorite customer habits. It’s taken years of practice with sarcastic students to maintain a neutral expression whenever I hear some version of this, mostly because we all know the answer:


It took me a while to come to terms with it myself, but the answer is no. A person does not need jewelry, at least not in the sense that he or she needs the basic necessities of life. Or even in the way we might need a job, a car, a cell phone or computer.

Jewelry is the frosting on the cake of life*. It’s there to make what you already have a little brighter, to serve as a symbol of whatever you want it to, and to mark momentous or even everyday occasions with something tangible (and, let’s be real, something beautiful).

Jewelry does not generally possess meaning, it is given meaning by you.

Merely for the sake of satisfying my internal former teacher, I’ll support my claim with a counterclaim (a.k.a. The Exception): I do own a piece of jewelry that is necessary. My medical ID bracelet is as frankly ugly as you could imagine, but I wear it every day. Its utilitarian stainless steel and practical, no-frills design could potentially save my life, in the event I’m unconscious or unable to communicate with a medical professional. I resisted owning — let alone wearing — this bracelet for many years because I feared the stigma that I felt came with wearing one. I am not ill, or infirm, or in need of any special attention. But this little piece of chain link and engraved bar could be the difference between coming home and not, and so I wear it. I need it. It will save my life whether it’s made of steel or platinum, whether the red enamel has been retouched or not. But it still has meaning (and lifesaving properties!) only if I wear it.

I encourage all of my clients and customers to consider their jewelry purchases in light of the sentiments they will attach to them, and frequently acknowledge that ours is a luxury industry in truth — even the smallest token can be assigned the greatest meaning.

*Ahem, the {karat} cake of life! 🙂