My mom recently went to a Mediterranean grocer in Queens, N.Y., to buy some Kalamata olives and some feta cheese when she noticed a tired and sweaty mailwoman delivering some letters to the owner of the store.
Obviously exhausted and thirsty, the postal worker took a bottle of water out of a refrigerator and asked the storeowner how much it was. The owner said, $2.
While she was putting her hand in her pocket to get the money, my mom said, "Can I buy the water for you?"
The postal worker said, "I have the money." My mom insisted, and the mailwoman thanked her profusely, clearly touched by my mother's gesture.
When the mailwoman left, the storeowner turned to my mother and berated her, saying, "why are you paying for her water? Those postal workers make a lot of money."
Was this a business faux pas?
Toby Bloomberg, the author of the Diva Marketing Blog, gives the storeowner's behavior a "minus 10" on the customer-service scale.
"That's just plain rude," she stresses. "And if I were the patron I'd never darken the door of that establishment again."
The whole scenario got me thinking about when it's a right and wrong time to give out free goods. I come from a family of serial entrepreneurs, and there definitely were situations when you gave out free items to individuals that came to your store, especially civil servants.
My mom and dad owned a restaurant and they also owned several boutiques and stationary stores over the years. When my mom ran a boutique she would often give the mailwoman a free shirt or scarf; and patrons who were short on cash when they got to the cash register of my family's stationary store often got a pass.
Is this just a thing of the past?
"I would think that free donuts to the cop on the beat, or holiday gifts to mail men, or women would be given to maintain and build relationships as much as for a 'thank you' for services not so much as for customer loyalty," says Bloomberg.
The Internet is filled with small business advice about giving out freebies and discounts to customers as a way to garner customer loyalty. This is from small business resource MoreBusiness.com:
"Even if you have a small business and are on a limited budget, you can always give out freebies like pens, calculators, leather-bound diaries and coffee mugs. Your company name, telephone number and e-mail address should be prominently displayed on anything you give away.
Give out items that people are likely to keep in a prominent place such as on a table, on their refrigerators, or in their pockets."
But what about just being plain old nice?
My mom was dumbfounded by the storeowner's response to her kind gesture.
She told him: "What's your problem? I'm paying for it. You don't have to worry."
What do all of you think he was worried about?