"Newcomers to Skellefteå need to do this"

Paul Connolly has simple some advice for newcomers to Skellefteå - learn from how the locals shop.

This is NOT how to be a Norrland shopper.

This is NOT how to be a Norrland shopper.

Foto: Image from Pxhere

Engelska2024-02-19 14:00

Soon after we arrived in Sweden 10 years ago, I raced to our local bank to pay in a cheque from a UK client. A cheque! That now sounds like a method of payment from a Charles Dickens novel. 

I was late and had forgotten that the bank closed early on a Wednesday. I pulled at the door before realising it was locked. It had closed 90 minutes previously. As I turned to walk away, one of the bank workers bounded to the door and unlocked it. 

– Välkommen, he said. 

– Please come in: we’re really not that busy.

I was gobsmacked. The percentage chance of such a thing happening in the UK? Zero.

This has not been an isolated incident. Customer service up here tends to be excellent. 

Shop staff smile and are courteous. If you can't find something they'll stop what they’re doing and help you find it. In the UK the only supermarket in which that happens is the expensive Waitrose chain. 

Over here, staff at the more downmarket Willy’s and Biltema are also super helpful. Try asking for help at a similar supermarket in the UK, and you’ll likely be thrown out of the store for harassing the staff. In Norrland, it’s actually part of their job to be helpful.

And then there’s the Swedish supermarket cash-desk etiquette, where the shopper arranges all their items with the barcode facing towards them, in a line, ensuring the scanning machine can easily process them. This practice stems from a considerate perspective, as it can be exhausting, and can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, for a cashier to lift and turn every item to scan the barcode.

This latter practice is flabbergasting for non-Swedes. A shopper being thoughtful towards shop staff? In the UK, we just pile up our shopping as if we're trying to set a world record for the most number of items on a check-out conveyor belt. 

In the UK, as with many other countries, the customer-staff relationship is purely adversarial: each trying to get one over on the other, to grab some small advantage over the enemy.

It’s also funny how in some cultures - and I’m looking at you here, Americans - businesses make such a huge fuss about how they emphasize the importance of good customer service, but all that actually means is gouging as much money as possible from the customer, and then saying “Have a nice day” as the customer leaves the shop. 

On no account should you ever try to return an item to a shop or business in the States, because if you do, the staff will ensure the rest of your day is spent either arguing with them or being totally ignored.

In northern Sweden even my communications with the tax authority, Skatteverket, have been friendly and productive. 

I’m glad that, so far, the north has retained that social bond, that outlook of “we’re all in this together”. It’s this way of thinking that illuminates much of northern life, from villagers working together to maintain their communities, through the summer litter-collecting drives, to the trust they confer on newcomers.

This cohesive approach makes the customer-staff relationship in Norrland one of equality and cooperation. It’s part of the true essence of northern Sweden, one of the most important qualities of life up here. 

And it’s a quality that all newcomers should learn from and adopt. 

You can start by keeping those items in a single file at the supermarket check-out. 

This is a column and the views are the author's own

VÄSTERÅS 20220916
Kvinna i livsmedelsbutik lägger upp matvaror i kassan för betalning.
Foto: Fredrik Sandberg / TT / kod 10080
VÄSTERÅS 20220916 Kvinna i livsmedelsbutik lägger upp matvaror i kassan för betalning. Foto: Fredrik Sandberg / TT / kod 10080