You don't know what you don't know June 2015

5 Jun 2015 | Mandie Rose van der Meer

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 By Mandie Rose van der Meer


You don’t know what you don’t know (#YDKWYDK)

An ACCESS column for expats in the early stages of their Dutch journey


If you’re new in the Netherlands – however you define ‘new’ – there are a host of things you have yet to learn or be exposed to. Here are a few tips, answers to questions you didn’t even know you needed to ask. This month’s focus: the Dutch art of underselling.



Underselling, you ask? Proprietors lowering prices and convincing you to spend less money at their place of business? Oh, yes. It’s ubiquitous here, and yet I continue to let it surprise me, staring open-mouthed and dumbfounded when the item I’m about to purchase is taken out of my hands and replaced with a cheaper version. Allow me to share some examples.



I go alone to a small Thai fast-food place for an early dinner. Thai women are behind the counter frying kroepoek and slicing vegetables; the Dutch owner welcomes me to a table. When it’s time for me to order, he openly disapproves of my choice, telling me not to get the fried rice but the white rice. The fried rice taints the flavour of the meal and I’ll miss the essence of the dish, so better to get the plain rice. “And then you save €1.50,” he says. (Here’s where we take a pause in the story to register shock. Have you paused?)


I’ve worked in seven restaurants in the U.S. and never heard an owner suggest a cheaper option to his customers. As a server, “upselling” was the name of the game from Longhorn Steakhouse (“I bet you’d like the Porterhouse, wouldn’t you, big guy?”) to Carrabba’s Italian Grill (“A bottle of our Chianti Classico would go great with the lasagne.”) to Applebee’s (“Can I get you an absurdly high-priced, greasy appetizer sampler that’s likely to give you chest pains later?”). So it’s not easy for me to understand Dutch underselling. I’ve been conditioned in the reverse.



This seaside village has a good ol’ Blokker for my household needs. I enter at about 5:30 p.m., looking for a new frying pan. Tefal is my brand of choice, but these are under lock and key so I need assistance. The Dutch employee is about to hand me the pan when she stops and asks me if I brought my old pan with me. Not in the habit of carrying around kitchen tools, I say no. She explains the special offer: I’ll get 30% off the new pan if I trade in the old one. I’m instructed to run home, get said pan, and come back before closing. Then and only then will she sell me the new one. After all, it’s a shame to pass up a good deal. (Insert pause for shock here.) Understanding from the tone of her voice that I would be a fool to reject this offer, I do as instructed. Later I leave with a new pan, and €6.99 richer.


Of course, it’s not unthinkable that an employee at Target or K-Mart back in the States might have behaved the same. But I haven’t experienced it. Generally the burden falls on the customer to clip coupons and calculate the savings between fresh market bananas versus supermarket-bought.


Schiphol airport

An American friend comes to visit for a tour of Holland’s windmills, followed by a trip to Paris to meet Mona Lisa. Tracy, let’s call her, does ample research on our train options, and we decide the high-speed train is the way to go. At the ticket counter in the airport we request two tickets to Paris. The NS agent automatically rings us up for the cheaper, local train, which requires transfers and takes an extra two hours, but the croissants are calling and we want to get there asap. My friend requests the faster option. “But that’s more expensive,” the agent tells us, her brow furrowed in concern for our frivolity. (Dumbfounded shock on both our faces.) “Uh, yes, we know, thanks. But we’d still like the faster train,” says Tracy. With a sigh and a shake of the head, the agent sells us the new tickets.


My Dutch husband hypothesizes that this practice of proprietors to undersell is centuries in the making, its roots deep in trade. You’re a better trader and businessperson if you offer your customers a good deal. Customers will appreciate you helping them save money and they’ll trust you to do the same next time. That’s what it means to nurture loyal customers. It’s just good business. In fact, some Dutch customers could even be offended if they found out later that they weren’t offered the better deal. It’s on the proprietor to be open and honest about savings opportunities.


As a foreigner, you may be surprised or even irritated by this Dutch habit. I’m learning to suppress my shock and take the offer, despite having to run back home frequently for coupons and kitchen tools. I’m not known for thrifty penny pinching, much to my husband’s dismay, so any help from these perfect strangers to save a few euros here and there is (usually) welcome.


But if I want the higher-quality (and more expensive) item, then I will insist, and you should feel free to do so, too. It’s not like they won’t take your money… though expect a shrug of judgment along with your receipt.



For professional tips on adapting to Dutch culture and successfully integrating, look to these experienced ACCESS Trainers who know what you don't know: /about-access/how-we-do-it/meet-the-trainers.aspx


For more stories of expats’ personal experiences with Dutch culture, check out the book “Ready, Steady, Go Dutch,” available for purchase at English bookshops in Holland, or via the website:


Mandie Rose van der Meer is an American writer, editor, instructor and ACCESS volunteer. She lives in Noordwijk with her Dutch husband. Reactions welcome at


Note: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of ACCESS.



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