No utterance will garner a bigger groan among the retail world than, “The customer is always right.” Having worked in shop for over fifteen years, I’ve had the misfortune of hearing it too many times. While the origin is unclear—either coined by Marshall Field or an employee of his, Harry Gordon Selfridge—it appears the phrase has lost its way over time. One source claims that the original wording was, “Assume that the customer is right until it is plain beyond all question he is not.” Of course, no angry customer is going to yell that one...
I last heard that phrase after my last big 4th of July sale at a certain bike shop in Santa Monica, California. The 4th is an event—people line up around the block for blowout deals. At the time, I was the P+A buyer and had scored a display of Continental road tires, one we normally did not stock. They sold out quickly. A few days later, I was called down to the service department. A customer had bought a pair of said tires, and was pretty upset that he’d already worn through one of them. Had this been one of my usual tires, I’d have quickly assessed the situation and likely gave him a new tire without much thought—we sold thousands of our best sellers. But being a tire I wasn’t familiar with, I looked a little harder at it while we chatted. Of course, he insisted it was defective. Something was weird and I didn’t have a new one to give him so I needed to tread carefully. Pun intended.
Recalling this story now, I’m not sure what took me so long to solve this mystery. The guy had installed it inside out. Then he pumped it to 100 psi and rode it. Twice. I didn’t even know that it was possible to install a tire inside out, and I’m still amazed it held air. But as impressive as that is, the inside of a tire is a very thin layer of rubber over the casing. He’d worn completely through it all within those two rides—less than 25 miles—right down to the tread rubber, which gave way without the case to support it. Embarrassed, he bought a pair of new tires—can’t have mismatched tires, right? I offered to install them for him—I don’t recall if he took me up on it.
Then, I kept that tire hanging over my desk in the parts room as a reminder that the customer is always right... until it is plain beyond all question that he is not.