August 7, 2013

Why retailers insult their customers

Meat counter with customer smartphone (photo: Dominic Büttner)
Wrong or right: Retailers encourage customers to use smartphones in-store, but do staff know this? (photo: Dominic Büttner)
Recent debate in the UK media about a quarrel at a Sainsbury’s checkout is doubly interesting when viewed from a German retail perspective.

Apparently, a checkout worker refused to serve a customer at her local branch in Crayford/London because the lady was talking on her mobile phone. “I will not check your shopping out until you get off.”

Stunned shopper Jo Clarke then enquired at customer services to find that the lecture on checkout etiquette was not company policy.

The 26-year-old property manager duly complained to the store manager, received an apology and an offer of free vouchers worth £10. Game, set and match for the customer?

Not quite. The checkout lady’s stand for old-world manners has since unleashed a wave of support on social networking sites.

The customer has been vilified by thousands as “rude and disrespectful” on Facebook and Twitter. The Daily Mail, a self-appointed crusader of middle-class morality, has also backed the shop assistant with the pejorative headline “Mobile Morons!”

This caused J. Sainsbury Plc to change its stance and not to take disciplinary action against their employee. The UK’s no. 3 retailer by annual revenues has since stated that it is “pleased the story is leading to a wider debate on politeness”.

The Daily Mail also quotes an extract from a letter by Sainsbury’s where it is hoped that “the discussion this has created leads us all to think twice before reaching for our mobile phones and to recognise the great job the many thousands of sales assistants working across retail do.”

This company’s for turning

The Sainsbury’s U-turn after trial-by-Twitter has stimulated great debate in the UK as to what shop staff should or should not tolerate in terms of customer impoliteness.

This is surely all to the good although no one seems to have mentioned that most retailers actively encourage customers to use their smart phones in-store whether for self-scanning, product information, shop navigation or online orders.

May one also venture to wish that retail staff world-wide were a little more polite and forthcoming towards their customers?

It is often hard to find any staff at all in today’s self-service stores. Products are frequently shunted around large stores without warning, yet to ask for help is often regarded as a semi-insult.

The checkout is frequently the last and only resort for customers in need of help, but they are usually given short shrift.

POP — Point of Pain

The point of pay (POP) is often a point of pain at the grim factory belt. As customers part with their hard-earned money, they are well advised to mind their Ps and Qs when asked in staccato terms “customer card, yes, no?

With a few exceptions the checkout procedure, where those who write books on etiquette would have today's time-stressed customers standing in line and gazing at the ceiling rather than making a phone call, is all too often reminiscent of a discharge from HM Prison Pentonville: “We know no good will ever come from the likes of you, and we know you will be coming back here soon!”

A boomerang that never comes back

At any rate, we are very far away from Feargal Quinn’s “boomerang principle” of treating customers in such a friendly way that they will want to return to your shop.

Obviously, poor service is primarily a management failure, and it is wrong for customers to take it out on frequently overworked and poorly paid staff. In fact it could well be that employees treat customers better than they are treated themselves.

But it does make for strange viewing when retailers file for insolvency. Staff then stand for hours on the High Street blowing whistles in front of “their” stores. And on TV we are treated to crying employees who sob for “our” company.

It is generally hoped that a smart young investor will arrive and “save” the company like some knight in shining armour. When this happens, everyone declares how “grateful” they are. A return to the stores later is instructive: staff behave just the same as before.

Cynically, one might ask why employees put their faith in dubious princes and even offer global billionaires cuts in wages, when they could give their company a USP at no expense to themselves by simply being polite to the customer?

Hats off, gentlemen!

Let us not end this blog, however, on a churlish note. Years before staff were ordered by management to go through their dreary “Customer card, yes, no?”-routine, one staff member at one local Rewe store in Frankfurt Nieder-Erlenbach, let us call her Frau Hahn, has always been helpful and obliging to customers and even seems to genuinely like them!

Frau Hahn knows hundreds of us mass consumers by name without having to look at our credit cards first. And, even more remarkably, often manages a friendly personal comment despite the daily monotony and drudgery of the checkout. Chapeau!

But as noteworthy as such exceptions are, they only go to prove a general rule. So why do mass market retailers throughout the world seem not to care when staff insult their customers?

Presumably, it is because they know that, if their customers walk with their feet, they will get just as bad service down the road. Now don't they call that cartel fixing?

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
(photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)

Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text:

Lebensmittel Zeitung print and digital (photo: LZ)
Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: By international editor Mike Dawson in 
Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 31, 02.08.2013

German Retail Blog

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Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Mike Dawson
    Created 9 August, 2013 06:07 | Permanent link

    Comment submitted by Robert Clark

    Sorry, Mike, but just can’t agree as my UK experience is very different these days. I find till operators here now almost universally polite and friendly, from Lidl to Waitrose via Asda and Sainsbury’s (living in a Tesco-, Aldi- and Morrison-free zone). Friendly chat and banter all round. And customer chunter down the queue when rude customers persist impolitely with mobile phone conversations.

    But generally, smiles and eye contact and geniality with the till operators — whether Polish, Lithuanian, Somali, Indian sub-continental, Afro-Caribbean, whatever, yes, even British. Much better than five years and more ago.

    Service in Lidl is, perhaps surprisingly, among the best. Two examples lately: 1. Had a till lady take a banana out of my bag and chuck it away. “Why did you do that?” I enquired. “When I pulled the bag across the scanner, I realised that this banana was mushy at the bottom, though you couldn’t see it from the outside, so you don’t want thaT one.”; 2. Cabbage in a plastic bag — and I was asked if I really wanted that one as an outside leaf had two or three small brown marks on it — or would I like to change it (it was notably bigger than any of the others in the box so I had reckoned I could discard that leaf and still win!)?

    Also, when till queues grow to more than five a bell is rung, and Lidl open a new till line within 30 secs — no more. I sometimes hover near the unmanned tills for a few seconds knowing a bell will be rung imminently and woosh — straight to the front of the new queue and out in a minute! Surprising perhaps, given historical reputation, but I honestly no longer recognise here your local examples you quote."

  2. Mrs A W Brown
    Created 9 August, 2013 14:39 | Permanent link

    I read Robert Clark's comments with much interest. However, I do find my experiences in my local Sainsbury Supermarket quite different to his.

    My findings in Tunbridge Wells/Kent are that half the staff in our local store are most obviously fed up with their job including the customers. Some are friendly and actually do make eye contact. Sometimes my husband and I look at each other meaningfully while standing at the till because we are both shocked at the complete absence of any form of human contact or courtesy. I have known times when not one word is said and no eye contact made from beginning to last.

    If you can't find something you want on the shelves, you have to search the store in an effort to find an assistant and on occasions you give up. There are a couple of assistants who you know to try to avoid, i.e., the sullen man who stacks the bread shelves and a young rather aggressive lady at the butcher's counter. This lady is not equipped to deal with the meat she serves as she does not understand various cuts of meat and is irritated if you dare to ask beforehand how much it weighs and costs!

    Sometimes if you use the Self Service and run the items through yourself and you need help, one middle-aged lady who is occasionally on duty manning the cashpoints is particularly unhelpful in various subtle ways, i.e., being too busy perhaps filling up plastic bags or some other task which gives her the opportunity to not hear your request for assistance.

    I am not saying they are all like that, but certainly it is not unusual to find this sort of sullen service. Mostly there are not enough staff to help you anyway.

  3. paddy19
    Created 9 August, 2013 17:13 | Permanent link

    Sad to see that Feargal's "Superquinn" stores in Ireland will no longer survive under their own brand but will be subsumed into Supervalu.

    It has already lost much of its "be polite to customer uniqueness" under Musgrave's oligarchical ownership.

    I'm always amazed at how much rudeness customers take from zero-hour contract staff. As you highlighted, it's a management problem.

    Strange as it seems, both Aldi and Lidl have some of the most human staff. If you are short of cash at the checkout, they politely and quietly take your trolley aside to allow you to raid the nearest ATM. As they whizz your groceries across the scanner, you can actually have a conversation and get a response.

    Tesco and Dunnes would charge you for damages if you caught fire!

  4. Created 12 August, 2013 10:27 | Permanent link

    I am a Retail Sales Instructor for The Valiram Group and wondering how I can make a connection to assist in getting my clients certified here locally. I am certified retailer but trying to gather more information and or resources.

  5. Lisa
    Created 31 May, 2017 02:48 | Permanent link

    Rude shop staff

    I can remember in 2014, when I was in Whitby Yorkshire, and I went into a shop that sells rock Tshirts. I found what I wanted and went over to the till to pay for the Tshirt I wanted.

    The shop owner staff grabbed the Tshirt I was wearing at the time and asked me where I had got it from and that I looked like a tramp, saying that my Tshirts are much better quaility.

    I never felt so small and belittled as I did on that day. I couldn't believe how rude and insulting that guy was to me. I hurried out the door as quickly as I could. I've not been back to that shop since.

    I've since found the phone number and shop name, and I put in one hell of a complaint when I spoke to the manager, but he never once apologized for the behaviour of his staff or had the member of staff apologize to me.

    I actually phoned trading standards and told them what happened. I was told that it would be investigated. I've not heard anything back from them since.

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