Friday, 3 May 2013

Post-Conference Thoughts & Shopping Culture

Despite all of my worrying, the Finland conference went well. My presentation was ok--not brilliant, but not too bad either. They scheduled me in the last panel of the day (6-7pm!) so I spoke to a small, tired audience. I was also asked to keep it brief, which was fine by me. I skipped over a couple of slides to cut it from 20 min to 15 min, and then of course the only question I got from the audience was related to the bit that I'd skipped. The fact that I only had one person with a question or comment was disheartening. Even Nick Cull didn't ask anything--he smiled & nodded encouragingly throughout, which was nice, but I would have appreciated feedback. It was only my second conference, and I really worked hard on the paper...

The dinner & drinks after the conference was nice, but it carried on a bit too long. I had to catch the bus from Turku to Helsinki at 4am for my early morning flight, so I stayed out with the conference lot. We had a good time for the most part, but there were a few crappy moments. A couple of them made fun of me for liking Leeds (I'm a bit defensive of the North--I love it here) and for having a set weekly routine (it might seem dull to others, but I love my life!). I don't think they realised that they were hurting my feelings, and as much as I wanted to leave, I didn't really want to go to my hotel and risk falling asleep and missing my bus to the airport.

In general, though, Finland was interesting. It's a strange mix of East meets West--some of the architecture looks Russian and some looks Neo-Classical. Some aspects, like the food, reminded me of Sweden and others, like the massive department store Stockmann, were American. I had an idea for a project, if I ever want to go back--Helsinki as the last frontier of shopping during the Cold War. Apparently Westerners based in Moscow used to order the goods that they couldn't get in the Soviet Union from Stockmann in Helsinki. 
"Stockmann, Helsinki's largest department store, maintains a 15-member export staff that handled about $5 million in sales this year to buyers in the Soviet Union...Sales clerks have standing instructions to put export shoppers at the head of any line and completion of a purchase requires only a signature on a blank order form...The biggest buyers are embassies in Moscow. Miss Bergholm [divisional sales manager] said that Stockmann sends everything from milk to flowers to winter tires to diplomatic missions. Some foreigners prefer to order milk from Finland because Soviet milk is not homogenized, and they also fear that it may be inadequately sterilized." (Philip Taubman, "To Banish the Moscow Blahs, Finns Say 'Try Us'", The New York Times, 25 Dec 1985, p. 2)
Stockmann was lovely--the salespeople don't bother you while shopping, and they don't engage in small talk at the tills, either. I only knew "hei hei" and "kiitos" (hello & thank you), and that's all I needed to shop. The Finnish stereotype of being taciturn was true, and I didn't mind at all. When I went to the States in January, shopping felt so different--American salespeople are instructed to talk to anybody who comes within a 5-foot radius. I remember this from my summer of working in retail--greet them, ask if they need any help, and if they say no, you say "ok, well, let me know if you need anything!" It sounds lovely and friendly, but in practice it's irritating. You can't just browse in peace, because you're always being greeted and 'helped.' On the spectrum of customer service, Finland is slightly friendlier than Italy, where I've found salespeople to be a bit impatient. I absolutely love the place--the language, the architecture, the food, the wine, etc.--but shopping in Italy hasn't been a great experience for me. The chart below illustrates my international shopping experiences. It's limited in scope and based on a small number of trials, but I hope to do more fieldwork and add to it in the future...

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