I encountered an unwanted export today: big-box customer service (that really should be in scare quotes). In contrast to the generally helpful-but-not-pushy attitude one gets in small shops, the big chains have clearly absorbed the business model of most of their U.S. counterparts: training your staff to be knowledgeable and helpful about your products is a waste of money.

Chadraui is a big supermarket with a bit of everything else, like Kmart or Target would be if their main focus were groceries. I popped in this morning to get aluminum foil and a nail brush. I roved up and down the “health and beauty” section for a while, then went to the counter, where three young women had nothing to do, 9:15 a.m. being a pretty quiet time. There are a couple of words for brush and I don’t know which one is correct, so in Spanish, I said, “I’m looking for a brush”–using the word for hairbrush or toothbrush–“for cleaning your fingernails . . . ,” and mimed the act. She cut me off with a nod, saying “lima.”

“Una lima?” I said, to make sure I had it right.

She nodded.

“Dónde están?” I asked.

She pointed over a few aisles and said “Acesorios.” I couldn’t tell what aisle she meant and they weren’t numbered, so I asked if she meant where a man was standing, and she said yes.

Over to the man, who was stocking shelves. Nothing much there except shampoo. I waved at her, and she came around the counter and over to me with a faint air of being where she shouldn’t be–do you suppose they are penalized for leaving their post? I followed her to the next aisle over, where she pointed down the aisle about three meters, said, “Acesorios,” and beat it back to the counter.

It was true, there were about 150 accessories there; I’d bypassed them because they all looked hair-related. A few weren’t, but none of them appeared to be a nail brush, and none of the empty hooks, as far as I could tell, said “lima.” Even though I was exasperated that she couldn’t be bothered to come a few feet farther and show me the item I was looking for, I was determined to look thoroughly, which took awhile. I did find a faux-Frozen “Juego de Manicura” with a tiny little brush. It looked like a good scrubbing would break it in two, so I passed. Fortunately, I could find the aluminum foil all by myself.

When I got home, I looked up lima and it is not a nail brush. It’s a nail file.

I suppose it’s expensive to train bored, minimally-paid, non-career-track employees about where everything is. It’s cheaper to have the bare minimum of staff at the cash registers and drum into their heads that they should not leave to show a customer a product than to train them to walk the customer to the exact location, go find someone else if they can’t find it, follow up with the customer to ask if it was the right item, and give a friendly “I’m so sorry!” if they come up empty. But I’ll go to a nail salon later today, where I’ll get a friendly greeting from someone who is probably the owner, she’ll listen to my description properly, and if she can’t sell me a whatever-it’s-called, she will tell me three places that can, with detailed directions about how to get there.