‘It’s Like They Don’t Want Our Money’

Three friends and I walked into a clothing boutique a few minutes before two on a Saturday afternoon. We oohed over the cute dresses in the shop, and grabbed a bunch to try on, just as the shop girl told us “Ladies, we close in three minutes.” We continued to take clothes off the rack because surely this woman wasn’t going to kick out the four of us — who may very well have spent hundreds of euros in her small store — just because the clock was about to strike the magical hour of 2pm where all commerce in Spain must immediately grind to a halt.

“Ladies, we close in two minutes.”

“Ladies, we close in one minute.”

“Ladies we are now closed.”

We looked at this woman with some seriously raised eyebrows, audibly scoffed, and put all our dresses back. She escorted us out of the store and assured us that she’d reopen in three hours. Yes, let me just sit on the stoop here then and wait for you to reopen at five o’clock, an hour at which it suddenly becomes okay to turn a profit.

Us Americans all agreed on something that I’ve since said countless times in my 15 months living in Spain: “It’s like they don’t want our money.” I’ve used this expression:

  • That time we made a restaurant reservation for five people, but then showed up with six. Our group would require the exact same table size, but we were told it was “imposible” to add an extra person and we’d have to leave.
  • Those few dozen times we’ve walked into a totally empty restaurant only to be told that they were completely full and it was “imposible” to seat us.
  • Those many times we’ve been sat in a restaurant, ignored, went to find our own menus, then went to track down a waiter to order. Getting the check is a whole other story. I have carpel tunnel from all the times my pantomiming signing a receipt in the air move has gone unnoticed.
  • When I’ve asked for a small substitution on the menu to be told it “Es imposible.” (Tipping is not common in Spain, so perhaps waitstaff feel no incentive to make their diners happy).
  • The many times I’ve tried to go to a vegetable market, light bulb store, hardware store, paint store, and it was closed because it was between two and five pm.  Or it was a Sunday. Or there was a sign up that said “Closed for celebration.”
  • The times I’ve asked “Do you have this in a different size” to be told “No.” “So there’s not other sizes in the back?” I’ve asked.  “Oh, let me check.”

Generally when Americans living in Spain grouse about lack of customer service here, someone will say “Isn’t Spain in a recession?” Actually, Spain is in recovery mode now, but yes, there was quite a sizable financial recession in Spain from 2008 through 2014. Spain has the second highest unemployment rate in the European Union at 23 percent, and more than half of Spaniards under 25 are jobless.

So yeah, it’s a little baffling that they don’t seem to want our money. Never do I feel more like an American when I find myself feeling wronged by poor customer service in Spain. In the U.S., there is the customer is always right, how can I help you, what can I do to make your stay more pleasant, let me know if I can help you find anything. As (American) customers, because we are patronizing a business with our dollars, we expect to be given a certain level of attention and respect. Because in the U.S. we can always “take our business” elsewhere. And there really is always someone else who wants our money. There is comfort in that kind of consumer power. (Maybe a little too much comfort).

While the lack of service culture in Spain irks me, it is also, I must admit, one of Spain’s many charms. Spaniards work to live; they don’t live to work. How great is it for that shop owner, the doorman, the fruit seller, to take a long break in the middle of the day? To not be so wed to making money that they themselves have time to have a drink with friends, enjoy a leisurely lunch, or take a siesta? And it is nice to be shopping and not have a swarm of employees around you asking how they can help. There is quite literally zero pressure to buy anything. And once you finally convince someone at a restaurant that it is not “imposible” for them to seat you in their empty establishment despite the fact that you didn’t make a reservation, it is sort of nice to just be able to linger. When there’s no pressure to turn over tables, you can while away the hours and never face the passive aggressiveness of having a check delivered before you were even close to asking for it.

Another bright side of Spaniards not chasing (or even lazily strolling toward) the almighty buck: Spanish workers have some good benefits. Spain is tied with Germany for the most paid holidays in a year: 34, and Spain, like the rest of the European Union, must legally provide employees with four weeks of paid vacation each year. (The U.S., by contrast, is the only developed country in the world without a legal requirement of paid holidays or vacation days).

I like to fancy myself a chill European, a lover of the mid-day siesta and tranquilo lifestyle of Spain. But taking the American customer service ethic out of this gal? Es imposible.


  1. You are giving me flashbacks! And if it isn’t closing time and they still aren’t keen to wait on you, there is always some other reason (computer is already shut down and it is just SO imposible to turn it back on, my manager must help with that and I have no idea when she’ll be back, etc, etc.). Oh, Espana!

  2. It’s the same here in France! I agree that in theory it’s a good thing (work/life balance) but in practice it drives me nuts. People don’t have the incentive to do otherwise if the money they make isn’t linked to the outcome and it’s almost impossible to lose their jobs… And what’s worse sometimes it feels like it’s just to prove they have the power to make your life harder. 😦 But then there are the other (usually smaller locally owned) shops where people are incredible helpful and friendly. So I guess it goes both ways…

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