Tips for the Hard of Hearing Shopper

Gael Hannan
March 12, 2013

I’m no mathematician but there’s one equation I figured out a long time ago:

          Shopping + Hearing Loss = Communication Challenge

I enjoy shopping, but don’t want to spend a lot of time doing it. Online shopping is an almost barrier-free alternative, but I prefer the old-fashioned way where I can look at, do some touchy-feely, and breathe in the product that I’m considering.   For me, a satisfying shopping experience, besides good prices and good service,  involves reasonable store acoustics, seeing the salesperson’s face, and having a running head start on what he or she is talking about.

I’ve learned,  however, that when I hit the stores for some live shopping, I can usually count on some sort of communication barrier, which I handle with varying degrees of success.

Background Noise In Trendy Clothing Stores: I cringe to think of the permanent hearing damage that young salespeople are incurring with every noisy work shift. I have an option that they don’t – I can leave the store if I want to.  If it’s so loud that I can only speech-read the clerk saying, “Hi, I’m Cindy, how can I help you?”, I’m outta there.  Who needs the aggravation, let alone losing a couple more decibels?

The Missing Mouth: I had new passport photos taken yesterday. As I stood stiffly waiting for the shot to be taken, the photographer said something from behind the camera. I made him show me his lips and repeat himself, “No smiling, please.”  Oh, ok, I posed again, more seriously, and again he said something. Turns out it was just “Ok, here we go”, but how was I to know? I think he charged me extra for taking twice the normal time – and to top it off,  the picture was really crummy.  For the next five years, my passport will show  a malnourished and very sad-looking zombie.

Supermarket Checkouts: Today’s computerized cash registers make it easy for hard of hearing people to understand how much we owe. And if there is any chat-chat at checkout, even if we don’t quite get it all, we’ve done this before and we know what normally goes on. (This is a common communication strategy – not a great one, just a common one.) For example, the following is typical cashier-speak, usually delivered without looking you in the eye, because they’re trying to move things along. The good news is that they don’t expect you to answer.

Did you find everything you’re looking for? (Why are they even asking at this point?)

How will you be paying today (pointing to machine).

Need bags? (I live in Ontario; if you don’t bring your own, they charge you 5 cents.)

Thank you very much. (Oh damn, a curve ball! What did she just say?)

If the clerk does make eye contact for more than a second, but says nothing, you can assume she did ask something and is waiting for an answer. “Pardon?” is always a good choice.

Trying-on-Clothes Do’s-and-Don’ts: Shopping for clothes is fun, sometimes. Here are a few important tips for hearing aid and CI users:

  • The clerk is interested in discussing only your potential purchases. If there’s a rap on the change room door, followed by gibberish, you can assume the clerk has said, “How’s it going in there?”  You can answer, “Fine, go away”, or “I need a smaller size, please.”  If you hear, “Awmprsh?”, then you’re stuck; she might have said anything from “Smaller – are you kidding?” to “I’ll be right back”.  Crack open the door for some face-time.
  • Forget about tops with small neck holes. These  are designed for people who are hearing or who have pinheads, not for the hearing aid or CI user. Besides almost decapitating yourself trying to pull off that mouse-hole shirt, you risk scraping off your CI magnet, or popping out your hearing aid onto the floor. (One of my most embarrassing moments ever was onstage during a play; as I pulled a sweatshirt over my head, it became tangled with my BTE hearing aid. The audience watched, silently, as I struggled to free myself from the ghastly top and when I did, the aid was still anchored in my ear, but the back part visibly dangled around my cheek like a bumble bee. My dignity was destroyed and my laughing fellow actor could barely choke out her next line. I still cringe when I remember this.)
  • In shoe stores, both the client and the salesperson look at the shoes and talk to the feet. This doesn’t work for people with hearing loss, who have been known to bluff their way to sore tootsies.  Insist on eye-to-eye discussions and your shoes will fit better.


Price Haggling in foreign bazaars is not one of my natural talents. I struggle to understand people with accents and frankly feel a bit foolish, as if someone’s watching on a hidden comedy camera. At 20, my friend and I were in Fiji on a cruise stop, and we had been told that Fijian vendors expect to bargain. We found some cute grass skirts and, pleading hearing loss, I left my friend to do the bargaining.  I watched the interplay between my friend and the seller, the hands of both moving animatedly. The vendor threw back his head and laughed as my friend walked away with her hands up in the air with the universal gesture of ‘ok-buddy-you-just-lost a sale’.  How did it go? “He says they don’t bargain on 50-cent grass skirts.”

I figured that, even with my hearing loss, I could do better than that. I’m still not a good haggler and my sales transactions tend to be slower than those of hearing people. But like most people with hearing loss, I’m a very good bluffer and I’ve used that to swing a few deals in my favor.

Best shopping tip of the day:  disclose your hearing challenges and ask for clear communication. It may not bring the price down, but it helps me get what I pay for!

  1. I can’t believe the level of sound that we encounter in stores! My husband, who has no hearing loss, can’t stand it, and I get agitated to the point where I must leave the store! This leaves him with the unenviable task of completing my purchases, when he really hasn’t any inclination to be involved with the lingerie he’s buying! In one shoe store the clerk told us they were instructed by the management to keep the sound as loud as possible, under the impression that this improved sales. We told him that if he didn’t turn it down, he would lose our two purchases, so he made it lower for about 5 minutes. Unimaginable concept – ‘relentless noise as a sales promotion technique’ – UGH!

  2. Kudos to the merchants whose cash registers display the price to the customer …and bricks to those whose don’t. It so frustrating when the display screen is positioned only to the clerk with no display to the customer. The clerk has to verbally relay the amount owed…which I rarely hear on the first go! And if I’ve provided a short-fall amount bcause I haven’t heard correctly, they look at you like you are a space cadet. Credt/debit cards are helpful, but occasionally payment by cash still happens.

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