David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.

It doesn’t happen often, but on rare occasions I wander into a shop intending to spend more than 5 euros. In the past couple of years there has been a camera, a new phone and a fair amount of travel and outdoor gear, and I have noticed that all of those shopping experiences have one thing in common – I have largely served myself.

Go into a major store here and you can expect to spend ten minutes trying to identity a staff member, and another ten while the staff member tries to avoid making eye contact with you. If you do manage to pin one down – there is every chance they won’t be able to help you anyway. I still remember asking about a new Nokia Lumia model and discovering that the assistant had never heard of it.

Last week I told a staff member in an outdoor store that I was looking for new boots and a sleeping bag – purchases that might have run to around 800 euros had I received good service. Instead the staff member invited me to try on whatever boots I liked, and promptly fled. I did actually go in search of him a little while later, but without success. I still haven’t bought the boots, and will now probably get them online.

That doesn’t stop me wondering why it is like this. Why do companies spend six figures a year advertising for people to come to their store, only to ignore them when they do so?

I suspect that the major reason is a lack of incentives. Put a 20-year-old behind a counter and they will likely stand staring at it until given a good reason to do anything else. They need to be rewarded for making sales. Even then they will only really start to engage with customers if they use the store’s products personally, like them, and are familiar with how they work.

Baffling as it may seem, recruiting people who like cooking might be a grand idea for a store selling kitchen appliances, and yet the most common response in most stores to a question about blenders or paring knives is a look of sheer terror and a quick attempt at a getaway.

I would hate to think that Finnish retailers would adopt the US model of all-intrusion-all-the-time, in which shop assistants pursue customers with predatory intent, twittering “How are you today?” as if dealing with a lost puppy.

But retailers should be able to ensure that staff are identifiable (are name tags really too difficult?), available and understand something about their own products. Staff should be able to identify potential sales, and spend time with customers who are looking at big ticket items. They should be able to ask questions, to listen and to make recommendations.

So why don’t they? Possibly because most shop assistants have never noticed that the English form of their job title includes the verb “assist”.