A Day In Vienna

Please don’t take my negative comments out of context and think I’m one of those expatriate Viennese that likes to suck up the resources while constantly slagging the town and its inhabitants. However, I wanted to write down what happened to me today and point at it in the future and say, “see this? This here is a typical Vienna experience.” And just to be fair, this story has a quintessential Vienna happy ending.

So, let’s say I needed a medically-related device or supply for my daughter. I was told to go to a chain of medical supply stores where they carry said supplies. I was told by my doctor to get a specific size of this supply and that it was very important that I get that specific size.

I head off with my infant daughter, my wife, my toddler child in a stroller, pushing through the cold rain. We arrive on Mariahilferstraße, enter the store — let’s call it “B” and are quickly given what we need. We notice the size, which is not the size we need, and say, “is it possible to get the specific size we want?”


“Why not?”

“There’s only one size.”

“Are you sure? We were told to get this very specific size.”

“We only carry one size.”

“Does the manufacturer make other sizes?”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Is it possible to look at a catalog or something?”

“We don’t have it; so we don’t know about it. It is not possible.

This is always the end in Vienna. If you point out that there might be options, if you dare step over the line and try to reverse a salesperson’s pronouncement, they will get pissed — even if it means they would get a sale. A friend of mine was trying to buy a filter for his camera and told “we don’t carry those” until he grabbed it from the stock and shoved the money in the salesman’s face. This is such a typical customer service dead end in this city that even my three year old daughter uses the phrase “it is not possible” when she’s being particularly obstinate. Such as:

“Maple, please brush your teeth now.”

“It’s not possible.”

In the end, it’s often best to give up. I’ve only very rarely had success with pushing the issue by maybe trying to explain that I know a little something about the subject. Say, for example, in this very medical supply issue, in which I know for a fact that I have, in the US, purchased this very item in the size I requested in the past.


So we trudge off to another store that carries similar products.

“We don’t have it,” is the reply from the frazzled saleswoman. Blank stare: no offer to look: no offer to order.

I thumb through the catalog. “See,” I say, pointing to the booklet, “there it is right there. Three sizes. We want the large.”

“We don’t have it.”

“Could you order it?”

“It would take time.”

Again, no detail. Nothing. No estimate of how long it would take or nothing. Finally, after asking a different way, I am told that it will take one or two weeks to come in. Could be, I’m warned, that it takes longer. Since I need the item now, I give up on this store and decide to speak with my doctor once again to make sure it is important that we get this size and maybe see if my doctor could give us an excuse to just buy the one that seems to be on offer everywhere in the city.

This, my friends, is where the typical Vienna experience continues. You see, despite the city’s very gruff but oh-so-imperial exterior, Viennese are softies at heart and, in fact, are very concerned with the well-being of their fellow humans. Evidence of this fact is everywhere you look, but not on a personal level. Instead, the knowledge that this city is embracing you comes from everywhere and impersonally: the social worker who shows up in your hospital room at the delivery of your daughter with gifts and an offer of monthly money, a transit system that will save your ass and delivery you almost anywhere in the city in under an hour, clean and well-lit streets, genuine concern for the happiness and togetherness of families, rent control and on and on.

And sometimes, Viennese materialize almost angelically and embrace you. Such was the case when my wife was pick-pocketed on the U-Bahn (rampant these days) and had to navigate getting a replacement driver’s license at the Verkehrsamt. A woman who was there handling her own business (not an employee) noticed that my wife was having issues understanding “the system”. The woman introduced herself and personally waked my wife through the whole process until she had her license in hand. And today, in our story that started out so poorly, the same thing occurred.

Eventually, a very helpful person called all over the city until she found the supply we needed in the size we requested. The store was a bit hesitant to sell it to us for whatever reason stores in Vienna seem to be hesitant to actually make money, but the shop agreed to hold it for us. The only problem was that I was in the 7th district, and they were in the 23rd district and closing in 40 minutes.

Only in Vienna can one board transit and expect to make it so far within that timeframe, but I did. In fact, I had to take a bus, a subway, and another bus. I never waited for more than 1 minute for any of the vehicles.

I made it to the store, bought the supply (€2,90), and returned home via a shopping run to Cosmos on Mariahilferstraße where, you guessed it, the area of the shop selling the items I was seeking was closed off and had the lights turned off for no apparent reason.

7 Comments so far

  1. Ben (unregistered) on September 28th, 2007 @ 6:22 am

    It’s amazing how culturally different Vienna is to the US. I work for Bare Escentuals, and we take whatever high customer service standard we set and try to raise it further. Since I became a manager, I’ve come to see the benefits of serving customers who are surprised by a bit of pampering. Thus each client gets a personalized experience.

    It will be interesting to see the outcome when BE opens boutiques in Europe in the next decade. Would Viennese customers appreciate or shun the personalized attention and customer service?

  2. teemu (unregistered) on September 28th, 2007 @ 10:17 am


    since you would have to employ austrians, customer service experience would be the same than in any other store .. some of them seem to be pissed about the fact everyone has to work, especially them in that position and let you – as customer feel that ..

    anyway, there are stores you can get service at levels you know from elsewhere – tiffanys&co and any other expensive location. but maybe that’s just too black&white .. humans often only remember the bad things, as a matter of fact, there are supermarkets where you get treated like a celeb’ :)

    but – I, for one, welcome our new personalized attention and customer-service overlords :)

  3. Czech Daily (unregistered) on September 28th, 2007 @ 2:55 pm

    It might sound lame but everytime I am in Vienna and need something similar to what is desribed above, I speak “worse” German that I actually speak and the sales clerks seem honored slash pleased to see that a foreigner is trying hard to speak their language…and it works. And they are super nice…

  4. Anne (unregistered) on September 28th, 2007 @ 3:45 pm

    One of my first experiences with shopping in Vienna occurred 16 years ago. We went into a lighting shop to get a gadget and, after explaining what we needed it for, were told “You don’t need that.” The owner explained how to fix the problem and literally wouldn’t let us buy anything. Never in America.

  5. d (unregistered) on September 29th, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

    the better business bureau should open up here, they would have a field day. I am glad I am not the only one experiencing these things.

  6. scott partee (unregistered) on September 30th, 2007 @ 12:10 am

    Yo Czech Daily: I was speaking mostly German for these exchanges. Bad German didn’t help, although I *have* seen it help in the past.

  7. Lisa (unregistered) on October 2nd, 2007 @ 10:46 pm

    the first time i figured out how to get loud and rough with one of these store clerks changed my life. i dont know why they do it, but it is amazing what just screaming out what you are actually feeling works! dont take it personally… they certainly dont. it saves a lot of time, and after a while it can be kinda fun to yell at someone the way you would never do otherwise. think of the supermarket – how if there is just a hint of a line the customers start screaming, a new cashier invariably appears immediately out of nowhere!

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