Do you like to touch and feel when shopping? Are you tempted to pick up items you have no intention of buying, just to take a closer look? Do you flip through magazines at the newsstand? What passes for acceptable behavior in the United States can make Italian shopkeepers cringe.
I lived in Rome for two years, but the first few months were a bit puzzling concerning proper shopping comportment. Despite more than 15 years of retail management experience, I was still perplexed as to how to behave in some everyday situations. With only a vague idea of what was acceptable, I found myself being reprimanded on occasion.
Determined to do as the Romans, I went directly to the source for answers. Asking more than 30 Roman storeowners, managers and salespeople in a variety of retail businesses what they felt were bad manners— specifically of foreigners—cleared up any confusion.
Included in this survey was a wide range of merchandise from moderately priced goods to high-end designer apparel sold on Via Condotti, one of the most exclusive shopping areas in the world.
I admit it was a difficult task, wandering the cobble stone streets, peering in hip, fashionable shops one after another, but hey, somebody had to do it, if only in the interest of cultural understanding.
First of all, it’s true that first impressions count: respond to being greeted upon entering the store. This is common courtesy and sets a nice tone for your shopping experience. Do not assume the seller speaks your language.
As Massimo Dipersio, who runs a newsstand in Piazza Trilussa, made clear, “I am Italian. I was born in Italy. Why should I speak their language?” Even if you don’t speak Italian well, making an effort goes a long way.
Eating and drinking in shops are behaviors unanimously frowned upon for obvious reasons. Trailing close behind was smoking. Lighting up was generally considered vietato, or forbidden. The exception was where the shopkeeper, enjoying a cigarette, answered my questions between puffs.
Chatting on a mobile phone grates on the nerves of several people interviewed. If your phone rings, make it brief, or better yet, take care of business first, move on and then return the call.
I was pleased to learn it is not considered bad form to ask for a discount in about two-thirds of the shops. As Gerti Derflinger, who has a card shop in the Bohemian neighborhood of Trastevere, says, “It isn’t rude to ask, and I can say no.”
Your best chances of scoring a sconto (discount) are in privately owned establishments. Large chains set prices corporately and negotiating for a better deal is unlikely. Taxes are always included, and you only pay what is listed on the price tag.
Handling fruit is often frowned upon in Italy. The vendor will bag the produce you point to.
More than anything else, handling the inventory was considered the touchiest subject. Not long after taking up residence in Italy, I was reproached at a newsstand for flipping through a magazine.
Then there was the incident on Via Nationale when my mother was visiting. She innocently picked up a sandal as we entered the store and was loudly berated for touching what was technically part of the window display.
Window displays are absolutely non toccare, or not to be touched. Many stores only have a few feet of window space. If it is disrupted, they cannot put their best face forward. The merchandise in the window is available in the store. Just ask, or smile and point.
How much touching is too much depends on the type of merchandise. At Pier Caranti, a leather goods store in Piazza di Spagna, the owner Federico Calò explained it this way, “Of course it is okay to pick up and feel the leather, but don’t unzip and handle roughly.”
Salespeople will gladly unzip and empty the handbag so you can take a closer look. Comments were more forceful at high-priced stores with merchandise made from beautiful textiles. For example, exclusive children’s apparel and exquisite linens will quickly become shop-worn and thus un-sellable from handling too much. In grocery stores and produce markets it is considered offensive to touch fruit and vegetables. Use the plastic gloves provided or allow the vendor to bag your choices.
As an added benefit of all this “research,” valuable information regarding exchange and return policies was gleaned. Every retailer said they would exchange merchandise if presented in perfect condition, accompanied with the receipt, and within a reasonable timeframe—usually one to two weeks. In the case of a manufacturer’s defect, an exchange would be granted as well.
Surprisingly, refunding cash or crediting a charge card is not common. At the designer boutiques, it is mostly visitors from the United States who are upset by this.
Policies in the U.S. are very liberal, and most stores will credit your charge card if you change your mind, as long as the item has not been worn or damaged. It probably never crosses some travelers’ minds, for this may not be the practice elsewhere.
Overall, when asked to give an example of the worst behavior the merchants had witnessed, most were hard-pressed to relay a particular incident.
One memorable illustration was an upscale, candy store where a customer actually spat out a confection onto the floor. The people I spoke with were quick to point out that it is rare for shoppers to behave dreadfully. And more than a few noted that bad manners are not restricted merely to foreigners.