CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 Several studies show the essential characteristics of jobs in the retail sector: they are often unstable (Angeloff 2006), performed mostly by women (Monchatre 2010), semi industrialized (Leidner 1993; Buscatto 2002), tiresome (Bernard 2002), and very ambivalent (Jeantet 2003). However, in the “archipelago of the employees” (Chenu 1990), a sociology of work in the sales sector, observations of retail salespeople [2] are rareno2[3]. This is surprising for at least three reasons. First, as a professional activity, sales is a part of every level of the professional hierarchy. Second, in spite of appearances, statistics on the “retail employee” category focus on retail salespeople, and not cashiers; in 2002, figures showed 792,000 salespeople compared to 271,000 cashiers (Meron et al 2006). Finally, in-store sales is the epitome of low-skill interpersonal work with direct customer exposure; the constraints that the contemporary consumer society model inflicts on workers responsible for satisfying consumers’ desires still need definition. The purpose of this paper is to delve further into the body of research on the customer’s role in the relationship of front-line employees to the work they perform. (Whyte 1946; Alonzo 1998; Burnod et al 2000; Soares, 2000; Avril, 2003; Forseth, Dahl-Jørgensen 2003; Jeantet 2003; Hanique 2004; Juhle 2006; Siblot 2010). Even though it can be enjoyable, working with customers can also create “relational stress [4]no4(Avril 2003) adding to the known physical burdens (working while standing up, under artificial light, in heat and noise, etc.). In the name of customer satisfaction, salespeople must tolerate what they sometimes consider offensive behavior. This is what the qualitative material in this paper attempts to understand.

2 Starting with an ethnographic study of salespeople at a Parisian department store, the “Bazar de l’Opéra [5],” we will specifically look at the type of relational situations that create a social burden and how the employees respond. Considering the salesperson’s job as a product of an “institutional context” (Hughes 1996) grouping together customers, salespeople, supervisors, etc., I will demonstrate that salespeople work in a “vulnerable” setting (Schwartz 1998). Then, I will show that this interactive setting exposes them to relational stress that affects each of them differently depending on their social attributes and their professional background. Finally, I will show that salespeople put up strong but discrete resistance to their customers to deal with this burden. We will see that the retail employees’ subtle actions towards their employment conditions and within their work environment actually conceal varied forms of self protection that are hypothetically similar to other “subtle” forces in power relationships (Dubois, 1999; Goffman, 1968).

Study Field

This paper is the result of a study conducted at the Bazar de l’Opéra between 2006 and 2008 as a part of my thesis on sales employees. This leading French and European department store is interesting because its ambitious level of service quality shapes a retail framework that amplifies the “social drama of work” (Hughes 1996) involving customers, salespeople and their environment; it highlights the issues shared by all retail salespeople at the Bazar de l’Opéra.
The store employs two types of salespeople: “in-house” salespeople and demonstrators. Bazar de l’Opéra recruits “in-house” salespeople who are assigned to the various departments. They regularly change departments or floors according to needs. Currently, they have extremely low chances of career advancement in the department store. Demonstrators are recruited by a brand that rents commercial space at Bazar de l’Opéra. They must face varied situations: strong instability (part time, interim work, fixed term contract, repeated dismissals, etc.) or relative stability.
In-house salespeople usually receive minimum wage salaries and receive bonuses if they meet certain goals (up to 10% of their overall salary) [6]. Store management awards bonuses to salespeople who meet their assigned goals. This setting creates pressure to reach these goals, specifically on the sale of loyalty card accounts. This competitive management style (the number of opened cards being the standard for measuring salespeople’s performance, therefore the advancement of their careers) makes work relationships, which are already distorted by fragmented employment conditions (part time, varying work schedules), more difficult. The pressure for sales revenue is stronger for demonstrators who, day after day, must justify their performance to their employer. The variable part of their salary depends increasingly on hitting goals set by management (recently, it was based on the percentage of sales revenue, for example 0.5% of sales). Compared to in-house salespeople, this type of bonus reinforces their dependence on customers.
To conduct this study, I worked from September 2006 to December 2008 as a cashier, part time salesperson, and demonstrator in a clothing department. My observations were conducted undercover when I worked as a cashier and an in-house salesperson, and openly while I was an “intern” salesperson. These three observation posts allowed me to understand the scope of sales work; its content (sales, cashiering, merchandise management, etc.) and the work relationships (including “service” relationships with customers (Gadrey 1999)). Because I was an employee of Bazar de l’Opéra, I was able to collect several business documents (company balance sheets, expert reports, internal bulletins, company agreements, workers committee reports, and union documents).
I interviewed salespeople, demonstrators and managers of the department studied (16), salespeople from other floors of the store (6), other Parisian department stores (13) and from outside Paris (3), managers or shop stewards (7), salespeople in specialized stores, big-box stores and chain stores (15).
Finally, to obtain demographics on retail salespeople (social background, age, gender, educational level, employment conditions, salary level, etc.); I used the Emploi 2007 and DADS 2007 (déclaration automatisée des données sociales—annual declaration of social data) studies.

Sources of Vulnerability in the Salesperson/Customer Interaction

3 Salespeople consider the “social” (Faguer 2007) aspect of their job as one of the best; “the customers” and “being with others” motivates their choice of profession. They hope to meet customers who share their expectations and are likely to help them work in the best possible conditions. However, customer interactions, while indeed being an element of the job, are fragile and, faced with difficult interactions, salespeople are often disappointed.

4 This fragility is due to three factors: costumers’ mistrust of the salesperson’s role, the solicitous and low-tech nature of sales work, and the inequality of commercial exchanges in the store. These three factors allow customers to behave in ways that are far from the ideal expected by salespeople. This sometimes weighs down salespeople’s workload (Avril, Cartier, Serre, 2010) to the point where we can refer to it as a relational “stress.”

The Cheapening of Sales Work

5 Compared to other service jobs, front-line sales has a poor reputation. Works of literature [7], as well as specialized press criticize it, stating, “specialized sales is a job with a bad image. [. . .] Young people are even afraid if they fail in school, they will end up as salespeople” (LSA [French newsletter on mass-market distribution], May 2006). As Chandezon and Lancestre point out: “for some, working as a salesperson is, if not demeaning, at least alienating and enslaving.” (1985) An annual study conducted by IFOP [Institut français d’opinion publique [French Institute on Public Opinion] shows that customers stigmatize sales work. Customers “hardly appreciate their methods,” criticize their arrogance or ignorance, their greed, and their insincerity (LSA, June 2010). This “mistrust” (Mayen andNegroni, 2005) seems to characterize numerous jobs in the sales environment. Sometimes it seems that the salesperson is the store’s instrument to promote purchases. They are only motivated by greed and do not care about the customer’s needs, as shown by complaints from customers about funeral directors (Trompette 2009).

6 For salespeople who lack retail sales training [8], a retail position in a store is an easy-hire “entry-level job” leading to a sustainable place in the labor market (sustainable in the sense that it is renewable; even if lay-offs are frequent, salespeople can easily find a job). It only requires “natural” skills; i.e., being “friendly” is enough, according to Tatiana, who holds a Baccalaureate in humanities and became a salesperson following her two rejections to study Fine Arts.

A Job of Entreaty

7 The solicitous nature of this work also undermines the interactions between salespeople and customers In addition to their identification with certain factors observed by Marie Cartier, particularly the “degrading role of the retail salesperson” (2003), entreaty exposes them to difficult interactions.

8 Indeed, to meet the expectations of their employer in terms of sales revenue, salespeople must “seek out” customers. Their managers ensure they are available at all times so that they may do so [9]. While some service workers, like public service receptionists or funeral service agents often do something for the user (and thus constitute a part of a greater social cause, such as public hygiene or individual dignity for undertakers (Bernard 2009)), salespeople often feel like they are doing something to the customer [10]. This is precisely the distinctive feature of sales work; by soliciting customers, salespeople expose themselves to rejection, small frustrations or mild abusive behavior. This risk increases at Bazar de l’Opéra where the stands are unencumbered by walls, doors, or bells signaling the customer’s entry. Customers usually just pass by, randomly loitering around each department and are sometimes annoyed when solicited by salespeople.

9 In order to entice the customer, salespeople must provide essential information. Without this information, they cannot justify their intervention (Tiffon 2011) and customers take offense. However, this criticism focuses often on the professionals’ ability to provide the service; with small comments, small gestures or simple looks, customers question the salespeople’s legitimacy, and evaluate the quality of the job provided. The retail salespeople I observed had trouble meeting expectations. Customers know their merchandise well; they can touch it, try it on, see the materials and care instructions by reading the label.

10 Generally, the self-service principle and online shopping weakens salespeople’s legitimacy; their knowledge of and demonstrable interest in the merchandise competes with that of the customer. The message conveyed by the term “self-service” seems relatively clear: if the “self” does the service in “self-service” situations, what happens when the salesperson intervenes?

The Non-Reciprocal Purported Obligations of Salespeople and Customers

11 The vulnerability of the interactions between the salesperson and customer stems from the commercial setting where they take place; this often places the customer in the position of “king” (an idea created by the employer). If the customer is king, he is always right, and can act in ways that would be unacceptable under normal circumstances. Thus, there is a “structural inequality” (Dubois 1999) in the economy of interaction favoring the customer [11]. What Goffman refers to as “face-work  [12]“ demonstrates this power imbalance: sometimes, the salesperson loses face to the customer’s “face”:


In fact for them [customers] “please” is hello. It has happened to me several times where I said hello to a customer, she didn’t respond, I said hello again, she still didn’t respond. . . I said hello again and then she said, “yeah, I heard you”
[Noémie, 27 years old, salesperson at Bazar de l’Opéra].

13 The customer was not “obliged” to respond to Noémie’s greeting. She chose instead to say, “yeah, I heard you.” This asymmetry creates an enduring subordination within the relationship. On some occasions, the subordination remains unseen, and in other cases blatant or moderated through the efforts of both parties; however, at Bazar de l’Opéra, it intensifies, as the store must promise customers the impossible to maintain its reputation. Likewise, as a salesperson at S&W (a clothing store) states, at Bazar, more than at other places, salespeople have to work more on the “service” angle:


Customers over there [at Bazar de l’Opéra] are a bunch of old hags, so you have to kiss their asses. No, I wouldn’t [work there]. Because we can talk back to them [customers], we can say stuff to them, but I don’t think you’re allowed to at Bazar.
[Marine, S&W salesperson, 28 years old].

15 Obviously, not all customers use their position to subordinate the salesperson. Most interactions do not even bring up the question of power and are pleasant to both participants. However, the status inequality between customer and salesperson remains the backdrop to their interactions. Sometimes it is distressing since it assigns social roles (salesperson/customer) that can contradict other roles held by the participants to the point of affecting their dignity. Thus, retail’s “institutional framework” (Hughes 1996) in which salespeople work (resulting from an interaction system grouping customers, salespeople, and “retail professionals” (Cochoy and Dubuisson-Quellier 2000)), exposes them to the relational stress of client satisfaction. Below, I will show concrete manifestations of this constraint.

When the Customer Relationship becomes a Burden: Some Examples

16 The interactions in which I participated and observed rarely involved aggressive behavior. Most salespeople confirmed this viewpoint; they might have mentioned one or two occasions (someone spitting at them, an insult), but it was not a reflection of their daily experiences [13]. Nonetheless, working in service is far from being “an easy task” and exposes workers to widespread social aggression. It is not open and visible (shouting). Conflicts often conceal themselves within the busy environment of commercial relationships.

17 This abusive behavior is mild and mixes with the events of daily life; sometimes customers do not even notice they are doing it; they are so accustomed to this mindless habitual shopping behavior, that they do not realize they are angering others. Therefore, we measure this abusive behavior over a long period. It includes clumsy or deliberate lack of courtesy, deplorable thoughtlessness, etc. It often reveals absent-mindedness but also provocation, and the claim of the “right” of the customer to be “king.”

18 Not all customers cause problems for salespeople or are considered abusive. These interviews further demonstrate the type of professional rhetoric of self-protection in response to mild abusive behavior. Adopting the “mental strength” image portrayed by bus drivers facing aggressive passengers (Schwartz 2010), many told me you have to “know how to take the pain [14].” However, I often observed signs of nervousness in salespeople faced with unpleasant interactions. In the interview, salespeople made a point to show their ability to “roll with the punches,” yet complained about the wide spectrum of customer behavioral flaws. The mild abusive behavior that salespeople must tolerate to satisfy the customer (and to keep their job) can take diverse forms. I characterize three of them as follows: the apparently deliberate lack of respect of the social “ABCs,” reducing the status of salespeople to a thing or an animal, and challenging their expertise and the quality of the products sold.

Failure to Comply With Social “ABCs”

19 One of the most frequent mildly abusive behaviors is forgetting “signs of respect” (Goffman 1968), what some salespeople refer to as “basic manners” or the “ABCs” of manners. Salespeople consider manners a primary part of an interaction and complain that customers ignore this aspect, as if it were “optional.”


If a guy walks into the department and asks “can I have. . .” you immediately say “hello,” [Imitating the client] “Oh sorry, hello.” It’s not complicated; it’s the basics. I teach my kids this stuff. If my kid doesn’t say hello to his teacher in the morning, he’ll go to the back of the class until he says hello. When you walk into a store, you say hello. When people come in, I say hello; it is a sign of respect. It’s the least you can do, even if the customer is super annoying, after that, he can. . .even if he is super picky about what he wants, you’re going to work hard to find the right product; it’s not a big deal cause he said hello.
[Adrien, 31 years old, salesperson in a sports store].


Yes, we often say the customer is king; he does what he wants. I don’t agree; I just need some respect; that’s all I’m asking for.
[Mourad, demonstrator, 27 years old, Associate’s Degree in Athletic Training].

22 Mourad, by stating, “that’s all I’m asking for,” shows that it is easy to be courteous, and that customers who are not able to perform this basic courtesy seem to try to create what Laurent, a book salesperson at Bazar de l’Opéra, referred to as “useless aggressivity.”

Being Treated as an Animal and Criticism of Merchandise

23 Salespeople also complained about people treating them like a “thing” or an animal. They took this treatment as negating their individuality, as a lack of recognition (Dujarier 2006) that sometimes took very concrete forms (customers using headphones or being on the phone):


There are mean customers; there are customers who humiliate you to the point of treating you like an animal.
[Pauline, 29 years old, salesperson at Bazar de l’Opéra, Associate’s Degree in English].

25 Customers get salespeople’s attention by tapping them on the back or snapping their fingers; salespeople continuously complained about the customer’s thoughtless comments; “Are you a cash register? Are you a cash desk? Are you open?” etc. These rude acts are not always blatant. Comments concerning the quality of the merchandise also reflect this tactless behavior. According to Alonzo (1998), personnel in contact with customers, such as Mourad in the following example, often take the customer’s attitude towards the merchandise as a reflection of their judgment on salespeople:


She [a customer] came up to me without even taking off her sunglasses, no shame. She didn’t say hello and she asked me for a type of suspenders. So, I replied “hello ma’am, yes we have the type of suspenders that are displayed here.” She immediately replied, “no, this is crap.” I was like, “excuse me?” [Imitating the customer’s voice] “No, this is crap; that’s not what I’m looking for, I saw some at Sample.” So I told her, “okay so listen ma’am, if you saw some at Sample, maybe you should go to Sample; this is all I have to offer.” [Mourad imitating the client] “But this is really crap, what is this? These aren’t suspenders.” She started to bash the brand I work for, my work. . . So I told her she shouldn’t act that way; she should keep it to herself. I mean, this is the brand I work for, that’s just not right. It was outrageous. Who do I think I am . . . I’m only a salesperson, I haven’t gone to school. . . . So it was a huge deal, because to others, we’re salespeople with no education.
Did she say this in front of a lot of people?
Yeah, there were a lot of people. To be honest, I got a bit emotional. I mean, for one, the sunglasses were average, then she didn’t say hello. . . I was a piece of crap to her. At least that’s how I took it. So I told her to leave and she went and complained to my managers, they came to see me [. . .] in the end, she went to customer service [that deals with customer complaints], and they gave her gift checks. [. . .] It’s Bazar’s policy; you can see here that the customer is really king
[Mourad, 27 years old].

27 The way people speak about the merchandise fuels salespeople’s frustrations, who associate themselves with their products, even if they are not always convinced of their quality; they take criticisms directed to the merchandise as personal attacks.

Customer Intervention in Service Performance

28 Salespeople were also frustrated if customers criticized the way in which they provided service. In standard customer-salesperson communication, salespeople often saw defensive comments made by customers as a negation of their expertise and knowledge. Sometimes, customers assumed that the salesperson did not understand what they want or that he or she was not quick enough:


There are some [customers] who come just to start shit; they’re looking to pick a fight. They’re trying to find a reason not to be satisfied and to complain. So I leave those ladies alone; I let them do their thing; they do what they want.
“Why do you think that is?”
It’s just the way they talk; it’s very aggressive. They describe something. . . For example, they ask for some black pants. We bring them black pants. They’ll say “no, these are too big.” But how are we supposed to guess they wanted a smaller pair? If we bring them small pants, they’ll say “these are too small.” It’s the way they talk. We’ll bring exactly what they’re describing to us and it’s never good enough. They’ll try to make you feel like it’s your fault because you’re a salesperson and you don’t understand anything.
[Axel, in-house salesperson, 27 years old].

30 Customers use small gestures or behaviors to attempt to hurry employees or indicate the right way to perform the job. Certainly, the turnover rate is so high in the stores that some customers know the store better than the salespeople do. Sometimes they deal with seasoned salespeople, the “senior” store staff as their coworkers say, such as Abdel, a clothing salesperson, 41 years old.


Abdel was working the cash register [15]. I opened a second register when there was customer overflow. A customer approached him, waited for three minutes, while two other customers paid for their purchases. She was clearly in a hurry; she already had her card out and she was on the phone complaining about the time she lost at the store. She gave Abdel her item, a sweater she picked at a nearby stand. Abdel scanned it, folded it, and put it in a bag to give to the customer. She gave him her payment card. Abdel pressed “card” on the cash register and let the customer insert her card into the card reader. She did this, but too quickly, and blocked the cash register. Then, she waited for Abdel to restart the procedure, but the cash register was completely blocked and there was nothing to do but wait. The customer became frustrated and told Abdel: “You just have to click that button on the register.” The customer, who was responsible for the delay, held Abdel responsible for her wait
[field journal].

32 Customer comments on service (verbal or nonverbal, including sighs or sneers) often refer to the low technicality of the job. Salespeople are thus not immune to this relational stress frequently observed with cashiers (Soares 2000).

Role of Salespeople’s Social Behavior in Evaluating Constraint

33 The social aspect of the job is not the only source of stress. Understanding the role stress plays in the work relationships of salespeople is complex; its “ambivalence” (Jeantet 2003) leads salespeople to experience happy and painful moments all in the same day. Additionally, the same interaction can affect salespeople in different ways [16]. I will show that the social behavior of salespeople will affect how they evaluate interactions. Three elements are particularly important: their educational field, social background, and social path.

Sales Professionals Normalize Mild Abusive Behavior

34 I observed a larger tolerance to the harshness of customer relationships in young “specialized” retail salespeople with business and sales training. They considered it a real professional skill. This training seems to transform the harshness of customer contact into a “necessary evil” in the sales process.


Have you argued with customers before?
Yeah, it’s happened. . . Sometimes, it went a bit too far. . .
What do you mean by a bit too far?
[He pauses for a second] In terms of insults. . .
Oh yes. That’s already quite far, isn’t it?
Yeah, in Toulon with young customers. It was “cool”; they tried something on and threw it on the floor right in front of me. They treated me like a dog.
Is it the same here?
Yes, you say hello and they look at you from head to toe. . . I don’t even respond. . .
It’s not easy…
No it’s not easy. It’s not easy. But after, if you get into this type of work, you know you’ll have customers like that, either you accept it or you don’t, but if you don’t, you can’t really do anything about it. . .
[Grégory, 29 years old, Advanced Technician’s Certificate in Commerce, in-house salesperson].

36 Interviewees with an education in sales, more often than others, look at their work from a business perspective, as if their business training taught them to tolerate relational stress and transform it into a normal step of the selling process. The employer’s instructions and day-to-day experiences surely enforces this tough-skinned approach; to tolerate work in the retail store environment, salespeople normalize the mild abusive behavior. Some even take pride in this:


You can’t take it personally, you have to be smarter than them; it’s useless. . .
[Tatiana, demonstrator, 38 years old, Baccalaureate].

38 “Being smarter than them” is knowing how to cope with frustration and turning the usual aggressive reaction into a joke, being able to understand clearly the rules of this game. Grégory suggests in very clear terms:


Well, at the beginning, it affects you; when you’re not used to it, it can affect you, then you think about it; you’re uncomfortable and you think about it for a while. But after a while, you tell yourself it’s not worth it to get irritated and instead we laugh about it, so the client is screwed, figuratively speaking.

40 This detachment, (Goffman 1974) keeps them out of the game, as a salesperson tells me. This game, in which they play losers, does not fool them.

“Who Does He Take Me For?!” The Challenges of the Social Gap

41 “But who does he think we are? Who does he think he is?” I heard these remarks from salespeople during difficult situations. These remarks witness their refusal to allow the establishment of a “service relationship” (Jeantet 2003). Behind this question (“who do they think they are?”), a response starts to appear; they think they are masters facing their servants. Bazar de l’Opéra’s sales policy highlights this glaring truth with its combination of low income or lower middle class personnel and high-class customers. This social gap (which department stores attempted to manage by implementing a paternalist policy toward low-income personnel [17]) instills a strong ambiguity in a service relationship, which is also a “class interaction” (Siblot 2003). Salespeople find satisfaction in working in a prestigious and honorable location. As Mills already stated in the 1950s, about Macy’s (a New York department store) employees (Mills, 1966), by serving affluent customers, partly benefit from the customer’s social status. However, this social gap also increases subordination, as shown by studies analyzing interactions between long-term public service employees and a population of difficult and disconnected users (Dubois 1999; Cartier 2003).

42 The gender composition of sales personnel strengthens the role that social background plays in customer relations (80% female). After a difficult interaction with male customers, a female salesperson commented that she was not “their maid.” This comment revealed the role gender played in an interaction largely based on gender stereotypes (Vanderhaghe 1975, Benson 1987; Williams 2006).

Declining Educational and Social Status: How Subordination is Amplified

43 My observations indicate that salespeople with a higher educational status (overqualified for the job, with a higher education degree) were more likely to consider these interactions unacceptable. The product of public education, they find themselves in a subordinate professional position in these interactions that contradicts their self-image. They did not like to see themselves in a position of servitude, and often defined themselves not as salespeople, but as “consultants  [18]“:


Most of the time I consider myself a consultant.
[Grégoire, 28 years old, salesperson in a sports store, Advanced Technical Certificate in Industrial Product Design].

45 Certainly, being a student allows salespeople to feel protected from customer aggressivity. They feel that their sales job is only temporary and their social position is independent of this interim occupation. However, we know that as a salesperson ages, this feeling of protection decreases; it transforms the temporary “student” job into a permanent one (Burnod et al 2000).

46 Victims of declining social status were also more likely to find offense in abusive customer behavior. Lucie, a physician’s daughter, is a perfect example. Her educational path was chaotic; she obtained her baccalaureate in two years and refused to follow the career path chosen for her by her parents by only partially attending business school. She left home, refused to see her parents and looked for work to support herself and not “lose face” to her parents. She worked small jobs (baby-sitting, cleaning) before working as a retail salesperson of children’s clothes, and then as a demonstrator in a department store for a toy brand. As a salesperson, she felt her social status declining, even more than as a janitorial worker. During the interview, she spent several minutes telling me about the problems that foreign customers caused [19]. Describing one of these interactions, she shows how customers’ social proprieties reinforce subordination.


Well actually, Russians [customers] are newly rich. They pull out bundles of bills. They have no class, no taste; the girls wear super heavy makeup and they dress like sluts; they don’t even realize it, then they pay for their panties looking at you like you’re a real piece of human waste. So it’s true; it’s pretty frustrating. For me, Russians, as a rule, I would rather lose a sale than take care of them. I smile a bit, say hello, and then I kind of make it seem like I’m doing something else.  Many times I refer Russians to other stands. I stay away from them because I know it’s going to be unpleasant; they’re going to be rude to me. You can’t do anything about it, because they have no idea how to act. I mean with upper class people, I could stop social aggressivity through certain types of behavior, because it’s clearly established. Somebody who would do this type of thing… I’d immediately be like “you don’t even know what you’re doing.” But you can’t do anything about the Russians, because it won’t every happen, it’s like. . . The girls tap their fingers, as if saying, “I’m in a hurry,” while looking at the gift trying to show you she wants you to hurry; that she doesn’t like the gift wrapping, she’ll sigh. Or, they tap their finger on the table trying to say “another.” Another what? Another wrapping paper? Well no, at Bazar de l’Opéra there is no other wrapping paper. . . So you take all this mild aggressivity personally. And with Russians, it can take a little longer. So the aggressivity is long and ongoing. The man and the lady don’t really agree. It really makes you feel like their private servant. It’s quicker with the Saudis; they come with the picture and they want the picture for their kid’s room. All of it. So uhh, the guy doesn’t even talk to you, he sits on the merchandise; it’s like “I’m not even going to look at you, you piss me off.
[Lucie, 35 years old, demonstrator at a Parisian department store, Baccalaureate].

48 Lucie was “frustrated” about having to tolerate the incivilities of “under-cultured,” “newly rich” customers. She had renounced her former upper class status, but the lack of authenticity of the “newly rich [20] caused her old habits to resurface.” She suffered when she saw foreign customers paying for “panties while looking at [her] as if [she was] really a piece of human waste.” Her background and the customer’s social behavior shaped the way she interpreted these situations.

Relational Stress and Salaried Compensation

49 Career advancement at the company also affects the level of sensitivity of salespeople towards relational stress. Salespeople are more tolerant if they are expecting a promotion or a raise in salary. They are less so when they no longer receive satisfactory wages (because the salary is stagnant or chances for promotion are low). Pauline’s statement demonstrates this effect:


I got to a stage where I did things I’d never do before. But here, after four years, I still haven’t advanced. I’m told “yeah yeah, you’re doing a great job, you open [loyalty] cards; we can count on you.” So during four years they [“they” refer to the diverse hierarchies of the store] string you along, they play you like a fool, and it really affects my general behavior.
[Pauline, in-house salesperson, 29 years old, Associate’s Degree in English].

51 Some social behaviors generate stronger sensitivity to subordination. Surely, other, more material conditions focusing on the “framing” of the interaction (Dubois, 1999) are significant here. These include the methods offered to salespeople to learn their products (which some salespeople say gives them greater self-confidence with customers) and the support of the sales hierarchy in the event of customer complaints (which disempowers the customer and pushes the sale). In addition, placing merchandise in glass cases puts salespeople in a position of authority in their interactions with customers (the customer is formally dependent on the salesperson to access the merchandise).

Dealing with Mild Abusive Behavior: Department Procedures and Techniques

52 In retail, salespeople cannot openly challenge situations they consider difficult. While customers quickly forget these situations, they create resentment and frustration in salespeople. Frustration arises from all the “refrained actions” (Clot 2006) that salespeople experience: the fact that they cannot say what they want to customers and cannot refuse certain requests, etc. They must develop personal tools (“emotional labor” (Hochschild 1983)) to handle these situations and to repress the urge to revolt, for the benefit of the store and to keep their job.

53 Furthermore, salespeople develop what James Scott refers to as “hidden transcripts,” meaning, “gesture, speech, practices, that confirm, contradict or redirect off-scene what would ordinarily transpire in public” (Scott 2008, 19). These gestures give the customer the illusion of being in complete power. In other words, salespeople produce “secondary adaptations” (Goffman 1968), meaning attitudes “that allow the individual to use forbidden means for illegal purposes [. . .] and thus, reversing the organization’s claim about what should be done or received, and turning it into what it should be.” Just because customers and superiors might not notice the resistance does not mean it does not exist.

54 Through meticulous observation, we revealed techniques that help relieve pressure. These techniques included employees stepping out of “character” and implementing techniques that, though discrete, were “practices of resistance” (Avril et al 2010) against abusive constraint. Even if salespeople themselves do not use the term “resistance” and it is often reserved for analyzing strikes or collective mobilizations, I will use the term to describe efforts deployed by salespeople to “resist” subordination by their customers. These are not collective strategies, in the sociological sense of social movements, but a large number of salespeople share them. Given the use of these strategies by salespeople to resist their customer’s transgressions, it seems that using the term resistance in conjunction with qualifiers such as “small” or “discrete,” is pertinent for describing what I observed. They resemble the strategies of post office clerks (Jeantet 2003), cashiers (Alonzo 1998), users of CAF (Caisse d’allocations familiales [Family Benefits Funds]) (Dubois 1999), or individuals confined to psychiatric hospitals (Goffman 1968). Salespeople have displaced public denunciation and criticism of their jobs and working conditions [21] to the customers, as if the nonstop message from store management that the customer is the boss had been truly effective. This is how employees who are vulnerable to customer domination put up resistance. In a way, these efforts were indicative of salespeople’s inferiority to their employer and customers. Moreover, the joy they show when customers thanked them for their “friendly service” belies this weakness.

55 Even if this resistance is modest, it is interesting for two reasons. The first is simple: to relieve pressure and forget difficult interactions that accumulate over the day. Salespeople also use self-protection to recover what they have lost in unsatisfactory interactions: the enjoyment of their work (its “social” aspect) and their appropriate ideal self-image. Some difficult interactions reflected an “actual social identity” of salespeople (from customers) so far removed from their “virtual social identity,” (Goffman 1975) that they had created for themselves through a compromise with their career path, their expectations and the value they gave to their work. Therefore, salespeople’s effort to gain control of the situation, to moderate the customer’s agitation, to show their “humanity” to customers that treat them like “dogs,” to regain a status that matches their self image (to cure what Alonzo refers to as a “self-esteem pathology” in his analysis of the work environment of cashiers (1998 42)).

56 There are two types of techniques: gestures or remarks addressed to the customer to trigger “apology,” as Goffman (1971) would say, and a “dry” vengeance with coworkers. These techniques, probably shared by other subordinate professions, such as servers (Whyte 1946), can be considered real social skills allowing the salesperson to maintain a level of dignity that is considered acceptable within the interaction in order to satisfy the employer’s requirements: selling a product to the customer and satisfying customer expectations. Although I observed most of my coworkers using these techniques, I found that they were used more frequently by overqualified salespeople; these salespeople were the most insecure about their social position (declining social status or waiting to move up in class), but also by those most skilled in linguistic capital.

Demanding Reparation or Reducing the Scope of Service

57 Resistance starts with an effort to demand reparation from the customer, meaning, to publicize an intolerable offense to a salesperson in order to restore a “satisfactory ritual state” in the interaction (Goffman 1971).

58 This technique sends a message while still following management rules; it maintains compliance while letting the customer know that he or she has gone too far. Therefore, management’s use of salespeople’s personalities (“the personality market” (Mills 1966)) is not perfect; the required smile under any circumstance can also be used as a form of provocation. Through “tactical docility” (Dubois 1999), one points out the customer’s lack of courtesy by overplaying the smile [22]. The contrast in the comparison draws attention to the customer’s shortcomings. Soukaina used her “thank you” to point out her discontent:


You can hear it in my voice, I tell them “Thank you and have a nice day” [she says this with a bit if sarcasm] and they reply, “yes. . . thank you”; they feel like they have to. . . Sometimes it’s just the voice that does it. . .
[Soukaina, Demonstrator, 22 years old, Baccalaureate in Professional Retail Commerce].

60 Salespeople also used standard greetings to send their message. If the customer appears to have hostile intentions in an interaction, the famous meet-and-greet (smile, hello, goodbye, and thank you) helped gain respect. According to Tatiana, interrupting a customer who starts talking to a salesperson without saying hello can remind the customer of “who you are”:


You respond to them immediately, to show who you are without stepping on any toes. But with an assertive tone to draw the line and tell him “hello. . .I am a human being.” Your tone of voice is important. When someone comes to see you and asks “where can I find this t-shirt?”, “first, hello ma’am.” First. . .first. . . “First, hello ma’am.” It works every time.
[Tatiana, demonstrator at Bazar de l’Opéra, 38 years old, Baccalaureate in Humanities].

62 By overplaying the instructions, Tatiana tried to remind the customer that the situation bringing them together is also a social relationship “like any other”; the retail setting does not give the right to brush off social conventions.

63 Behaving calmly when a customer is angry (a “physical attitude encompassing inflexibility, dignity and coldness” for Goffman (1968)) also allows salespeople to highlight the customer’s useless anger:


I’m always courteous. Even if he’s [the client] aggressive, I’m going to talk to him in a way that he understands he wasn’t courteous. Meaning I’ll. . . For example, when a customer says “yeah uh. . .” Because a customer recently told me “yeah uh, I’m in a hurry.” I told her “ma’am, I am with a customer, I will take care of you once I’m finished, don’t worry.” With a soft voice, you see, to show her that she was taking herself too seriously. To show how she is behaving, it’s like a mirror to tell her: I’m calm, why are you taking yourself so seriously? I’ve figured out that the calmer you are and the less you act like the customer, the better it works, and anyway, if you get irritated when you reply, he’ll accuse you of having started it.
[Rosa, salesperson at Bazar de l’Opéra, 34 years old, BEP certificate (Secretary-Bookkeeping Trade School Certificate)].

65 Thus, the gap between the salesperson’s behavior and the customer’s behavior contains customer aggression. Such techniques are doubly interesting: they allow the salesperson to remain “above reproach” in his work without losing the game.

66 Another technique used by salespeople is to let the customer finish a part of the service that they would have done themselves for a courteous customer. Salespeople do not stop working, but only partially complete the job. They work around the perimeter of their service to show the customers’ rudeness. Pauline behaves like a machine, refusing to give the customer what he is refusing her: “civility.”


Actually, when they’re too annoyed and they speak rudely, I don’t talk to them anymore. . . Either I give them their stuff directly, or I don’t even reply. I don’t say goodbye, thank you, nothing.
[Pauline, 29 years old, in-house salesperson].

68 Finally, they can lie to customers to punish rude behavior. They can withhold existing gift packets by pretending there is a “stock shortage.” They can provide customers with a paper bag when it is raining, or give extremely vague directions to a customer asking where the bathroom is so that he will get lost. They might even “forget” to remind an annoying customer that he or she forgot his credit card.

Winning Back With “Hidden Transcripts”: Criticizing Customers as Symbolic Retaliation

69 The most effective resistance is what Scott refers to as “hidden transcripts.” As explained by a reader of James Scott’s work, this hidden text “must be understood as a space where the fantasy of reciprocity, retaliation, and vengeance takes place” (Rossi 2010, 4). Thus, people use the areas away from the public as a behind-the-scenes setting to vent their frustrations, where each person can tell his own little tale. The importance of people venting their frustrations is better understood when reading Lucie’s stories:


At the end of the day, what I had to put up with was: “yes ma’am, but of course,” when they told me: “it’s expensive; it’s ugly.” “We don’t say it’s ugly, we say I don’t like it”: That’s what you’d like to say but you just don’t say it. “Because ugly is a super subjective word, and it’s pretty unpleasant. Maybe go to another department, I’m not the only person at Bazar”. . . So all these little things, when you say “all right,” “but of course ma’am I understand” “oh well let me look somewhere else” “yes, completely!” [laughter]. . .
[Lucie, 34 years old, demonstrator, Baccalaureate].

71 The store’s “backstage [23],” where there is no pressure from the retail setting, creates the space where salespeople’s “real” personality can escape the demands of the sales floor. Behind the scenes, Lucie could use the elaborate and raw language that she would like to use when replying to the customer’s unpleasant remarks. To be cheerful to customers and keep playing her role, she had to be able to release her frustrations behind the scenes. Salespeople speak of a place where they could release “pressure,” and use this term shows the extent of constraint at work in the retail setting:


Actually, I have to talk to relieve pressure. . . With my coworkers, or my manager, I tell her “so I had a customer who did this, talked to me like this. . .” Once I started talking about it, I felt better.
[Rosa, in-house salesperson, 34 years old, BEP certificate (Secretary-Bookkeeping Trade School Certificate)].

73 Backstage, salespeople tell each other about difficult interactions but also exchange general views on customers, pointing out the customer’s irrationality, a very common pastime in the break room. Pauline also told me about the pity she felt when observing customers during sales:


During sales, you’re there, you’re sweating; people are hysterical [in a high pitched voice] “you don’t have the size I want, what will I give him for Christmas?”. . . It’s like it’s a life or death situation. They freak out for nothing. I feel like these people are sixteen year-old kids who throw tantrums if they don’t have their t-shirt with “Guess” written on it
[Pauline, 29 years old, in-house salesperson].

75 “Backstage” refers to spaces strictly reserved for personnel where they are able to “relieve pressure”: the break room and the storeroom. In the break room, salespeople tell stories about “annoying” customers, which is an inexhaustible source of social support for salespeople. However, backstage is not confined to the places “limited by barriers to perception” (Goffman 1956, 152). They also refer to situations where customers are physically present. Salespeople coalesce around a complicit gaze to a coworker (raising eyebrows, rolling of the eyes) or a remark addressed to a customer whose message is meant for coworkers, unperceived by the customer. Salespeople break the interactional “structure [24],” letting the customer believe that the conversation is entirely meant to satisfy his demand, while the salesperson and his or her coworker are actually making fun of the customer. Sometimes, salespeople and customers avoid this commercial framework to neutralize the power element (in Goffman’s vocabulary, this transformation of the “primary” interaction framework voluntarily produced by the participants is called “modalization“). However, these situations show salespeople transforming the role played (or the one which should be played and that is expected by the customer) to the point of insulting the customer without him noticing. The customer continues to believe that the salesperson is playing his or her contextual role while he or she is actually playing a “fabricated [25]“ role. Salespeople overdo it (with forced smiles, exaggerated politeness) to show customers their lack of courtesy.

76 I observed this mocking attitude several times. It requires a linguistic agility that Laurent possessed.


You can also reply to a question in a way that is very down-to-earth. When somebody gives me a paper without even saying “hello,” I ask them “do you speak French?” That way it’s clear, and when it’s not, I ask the person if she wants to order a book or something like “it’s a great title, but I haven’t read it!” and she replies “but I’m looking for it.” Or, when somebody comes up to you and says “children” [asking where the children’s department is], you can reply “we stopped selling them, we had some problems”. . . You ask the question in a way that reformulates the question, and teaches them to say please and thank you in a very short time. So you control yourself, you don’t get involved this way. When somebody says “painting” you reply, “Are you looking for nice books on painting? Painting equipment?” At this point, the person realizes that his message wasn’t clear and inappropriate. Then, he thinks about it, rewinds and asks the question “yeah, do you have any books on Picasso.” You can use this both for finding out what the person wants and to show him that it wasn’t polite.
[Laurent, book salesperson at Bazar de l’Opéra, 32 years old, unfinished LLCE (foreign languages and cultures) master’s degree].

78 Furthermore, those with the most education focus on this type of technique that requires language fluency with undertones and double meanings (Pauline was not admitted to an English Associate’s Degree; Laurent has a LLCE “half-completed masters”).

79 Finally, the hidden text of resistance is observed in multiple situations where salespeople “play” customers; for example, during sales, salespeople make a few purchases in the store from their coworkers. At this time, they imitate customers by replaying all the little annoyances, all the small remarks that an unpleasant interaction can unmask. A salesperson will “play” an unpleasant customer and the other will “play” an irritated salesperson.

80 The “hidden text” allows salespeople to distance themselves from customer power, to take a step back when facing orders that seem pathetic, once understood and decoded. Salespeople let unpleasant customers believe they have a huge amount of power or authority linked to their customer or social status; clients maintain an illusion of themselves that salespeople consider ironic.

The Limits of Resistance or the Paradoxical Valorization of the Service Nature of the Job

81 Nevertheless, the resistance created by salespeople to contain the relational stress reaches its limit in the ambivalence of the service relationship. While salespeople focus on the techniques detailed here to remind customers that salespeople are not servants ready to endure anything, these same salespeople take delight when customers thank them, which shows, unintentionally, the service nature of the job. It is also surprising to see the same salesperson be upset about a customer’s disrespectful behavior, then be moved when a customer, who is delighted by the salesperson’s service, tells him “you are very friendly” or “you are very nice.” My observations also indicate that the extreme deference demanded from Bazar de l’Opéra personnel faced with “high class” customers is as much a source of subordination as an occasion to improve one’s image [26]. The feedback appreciated by salespeople sets aside the technical aspect of their work, that they also promote (product knowledge, the ability to identify customer needs and the capacity to locate an appropriate product), in preference for a moving dimension that is difficult to characterize, but that mobilizes social qualities that touch upon the way in which service is offered more than on the content of the service performed. They do not emphasize the quality of the advice provided, but the behavior of the server providing it. All the ambiguity of service is contained in this paradox. Collective conventions poorly recognize this profession, a fact that draws attention to the poor social image of sales work. To positively qualify this work, customers use a domestic vocabulary emphasizing the qualities that actually serve to disqualify it: friendliness and docility. Salespeople’s resistance to customer’s domination, while remaining efficient, is weakened by the same salespeople who find reasons for professional satisfaction in what can seem as verbal subordination.


82 This paper highlights the importance of relational work in retail services that is far from being anecdotal in the eyes of employees. It is even less anecdotal from the stores’ perspective, which increasingly relies on “service quality” and the “customer relationship” to stand out from their competitors. Even if sales work is systemized and rationalized, it remains an interactive job.

83 As studies on service work often find, the interactions between customers and salespeople reveal an ambivalent relationship. The scope of relational stress varies with the social characteristics of salespeople and the customers they encounter. These social characteristics mitigate or intensify the power the stores bestow upon the custom as king. One part of understanding the ambivalence of relationships in these service jobs is based on measuring the social gap that separates the people interacting (gap in terms of cultural capital, economic capital, and more generally a gap generated by the worker’s social trajectory).

84 Salespeople use various techniques to master, at least partially, relational stress using diverse techniques. This paper focuses on the salespeople’s capacity for resistance, which is, in fact, rather modest. Individuals use it when exposed to subordination in their work relationships to redefine their own social identity, which they sometimes consider abused, without truly upsetting the balance of power that is unfavorable to them. Even if most interactions are easy and salespeople find them satisfactory, to the extent that they concern class status, they continue to expose personnel to social aggression.

85 We can assume that the weight of this aggression predominates among the observed young salespeople. Indeed, two tendencies point to the increase of the social gap between personnel and customers. The first one is the “upmarket movement” of department stores who increasingly target high-income customers. The second is the weakening of the workers’ employment conditions (sub-contracting unstable demonstrators, long hours, low chance of promotion, low wages) and how the work is performed (efforts to rationalize the sales relationship and merchandise management). Stores are pairing increasingly wealthy with personnel stripped of their recent “high-class” social status—a set of circumstances that does not occur in other professions. (Maruani, Nicole-Drancourt 1989).


  • [1]
    I thank Pauline Seiller, Rachid Bouchareb, Lise Bernard and Vincent Chabault for the valuable suggestions for this paper. I also thank the members of the editorial committee of Sociétés Contemporaines for the brilliance and accuracy of their suggestions and remarks.
  • [2]
    Who are, furthermore, above all saleswomen: women account for close to 80% of sales personnel in Parisian department stores, a much higher proportion than what I observed in my department where we sold clothes for young men. Source: DADS 2007.
  • [3]
    With the exception of the recent studies of Peretz (1992), Bouchareb (2007), Gasparini and Pierre (2008) and Chabault (2010).
  • [4]
    That can turn into a burden if it affects the employee's health. This effect was observed in the SUMER study (see, for example, Bué and Sandret (2008). I observed it myself in the field. The repetition of burdensome situations can harm the employee's health and create interpersonal fatigue that makes salespeople irritable outside of work (while in the metro, on family relationships, one of my coworkers also would tell me “you know, I spend all day with people and music... You know, at night, when I get home, It is an effort to talk to my wife because I'm scared that it brings her down.”
  • [5]
    All names of places and people have been fictionalized.
  • [6]
    The average salary of a department store salesperson (working full time) is 1,379 euros net. Source: DADS 2007 study secondary works.
  • [7]
    In this regard, see Chapter 7 in Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck where the author assumes the voice of a car salesman.
  • [8]
    Only 15.6% of salespeople have the “retail and sales” specialty obtained through a BTS [a two-year technical degree] or DUT [university degree in technology] (3.3% of salespeople), a technological or professional baccalaureate (3.5%) or a CAP-BEP [vocational diploma] (8.8%). This proportion of “retail specialized” people is higher (21%) in salespeople between 16 and 26 years of age. For informational purposes, 27% of salespeople have a technological or professional specialty related to services (CAP-BEP or secretariat, compatibility, tourism baccalaureate, etc.), 11% with a general baccalaureate, 8% with at least one degree, 15% with a BTS, 23% not educated (no diploma, certificate, or certificate of primary education). Source: Employment Study 2007.
  • [9]
    Even if the role played by management in the relational burden experiment is not developed here, it is substantial; management always reminds salespeople to “go see the client.” My observations indicate that this pressure is stronger in small stores. This is what Sébastien, demonstrator and former salesperson in a shop in central Paris, disclosed: “over there [in his former shop], it's not “we should make 1,500 euros today,” it's “we have to make that much and we don't have a choice.” Your boss is always there. There are eight hundred square feet of space in the shop and your boss is all over the place. At the end I couldn't live anymore, the pressure ate me up.”
  • [10]
    Rephrasing the distinction made by Everett Hughes (1996).
  • [11]
    We note that in Vincent Dubois' work, this “structural inequality” weighs in favor of the professionals delivering the service, while here it weighs against them.
  • [12]
    Face-work means”everything a person does to ensure that his actions do not make him lose face to anybody (including himself) [first part of citation backtranslated by translator]. Face-work serves to counteract ‘incidents,’that is, events whose effective symbolic implications threaten face” (Goffman 1971).
  • [13]
    Bué and Sandret (2007) stated that 27% of employees working in a commercial job declare having been victims of a verbal or physical aggression in 2003.
  • [14]
    The store is in charge of reminding them. Training teaches salespeople how to reinterpret aggressions, how to “externalize conflict,” how to learn to tolerate it, how not to “crack,” not to be affected by each small brutality.
  • [15]
    At Bazar de l'Opéra, customers pay their purchases to the salespeople, at their stands.
  • [16]
    Observation made by Whyte (1946) on servers.
  • [17]
    On this subject, see studies of Miller (1989) and Benson (1987). Zola's Bonheur des Dames also provides valuable information (1883).
  • [18]
    Claim largely fueled by employers who change the title from “salesperson” to “sales consultant.”
  • [19]
    Parisian department stores depend on the city’s efforts to attract international tourism, to collect “foreign customers” (including the richer ones). On the ethnic role in service relationships, see Barbier (2012 to be published) and Lallement (2010).
  • [20]
    It frustrates her to the point where she deprives herself of a “good sale” that could add to her salary (since she receives a percentage on sales).
  • [21]
    Even if the retail sector (excluding food service) is far from lacking in labor unions, I was able to observe several mobilizations during my time in the field. Some of the management's measures particularly fueled these mobilizations: late store opening, work on Sundays.
  • [22]
    We will note that Vincent Dubois used the concept of “tactical docility” to define the attitude of certain CAF users engaged in a domination relationship with administration. These users temporarily and tactically submit to the “institutional order” to mitigate its weight: “politeness, demonstration of conformity to rules or docile acceptation of administrative labels are, in this perspective, less indicative of compliance with the rules in force or their internalization, but more of signs of apparent submission, a drama played for a means to an end” (Dubois, 1999: 166).
  • [23]
    “Place, relative to a given performance, where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course” (Goffman, 1956: 69).
  • [24]
    For Goffman, these “structures” are “mental schemes” that allow actors to give meaning to a situation and to interpret it. These are conventions that situation participants share to give the same meaning to a situation. The individuals often deliberately or secretly transform these “primary structures;” see note below (Goffman 1974, 242 [page no. is from translation]).
  • [25]
    In Goffman’s works, “fabrication” is the transformation of a primary structure at the expense of one of the participants: “the intentional effort of one or more individuals to manage activity so that a party of one or more others will be induced to have a false belief about what it is that is actually going on” (Goffman 1974, 93 [page no. is from translation]). It is distinct from the “modalization,” which is the transformation of the structure collectively created by the interaction participants).
  • [26]
    This is also what William Labov states in the 1970s. By analyzing the language of employees of three New York stores of different standing, he notes that employees in the most prestigious stores pronounce the words “fourth” and “floor” the way New York’s upper class does (while the social characteristics of the employees in question are close to those employed in less prestigious stores). In this study, they observed that the employees of the most prestigious stores claim to have a better professional position than those held by employees of other stores.

Based on a participative observational study in a Parisian department store and on interviews with salespeople, this paper examines the constraints customers inflict on salespeople who are expected to satisfy the customer’s wishes. The purpose of this paper is to understand the root causes and effects of these daily offensive behaviors towards salespeople. It shows the role of different factors in interpreting situations, which are more or less distressing depending on the salesperson’s schooling and professional background. Finally, the author shows the interpersonal resources that salespeople use to contain, or even reverse the power dynamics with customers.


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Pascal Barbier
CERLIS Université Paris-Descartes,
Université d’Auvergne
Uploaded on on 10/07/2014
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