by Magnus Shaw
I hope you enjoyed your Bank Holiday, thunder storms and all. I did some light shopping on Sunday, such is my hectic rock and roll lifestyle. My good lady wife and I wanted to make a couple of specific purchases: some reading glasses for me and a make-up mirror for Mrs Shaw. We don't live in the heart of a throbbing metropolis but are very close to a thriving town centre, so we imagined these two objects would be fairly easy to acquire. How wrong we were.
During the week, I had read that a well-known clothing store was now stocking a range of attractive, off-the-peg reading specs as many people find them just as effective, but much more affordable, than prescription glasses. So that was our first stop. Amongst the rails of scarves and blouses, it was tricky to spot anything resembling spectacles, so I asked an assistant where they might be found. She was lovely. Polite and eager to help, but new to the store. She was sure they had spectacles, but not certain where. She took me to her supervisor who shrugged, saying "If they're not on display, you'll have to go to the Sheffield store." That was me dismissed and a sale avoided.
Next, we headed for the country's leading, discount health and beauty retailer. I knew they sold reading glasses having bought a pair there before. Again, I couldn't see the appropriate section (well, I did need new spectacles) and had to ask. Directed to the back of the store by a surly, busy youth, I was faced with a partially broken display stand and about four pairs of glasses dangling sadly and randomly from its arms. No mirror was available to allow me to try them against my face and no chart was provided to test their strength. They were marked up at £15.00.
We gave up on my eyewear and set off in search of the mirror. The obvious destination was the renowned British health and beauty store whose name rhymes with "roots." Heading into Boots, and having learned our lesson, we asked where we might view their make-up mirrors. Again we were forced to follow a pointing finger rather than be taken to the goods. On reaching the mirror area, we found a splendid looking apparatus - back lit, mounted in a swivel-stand, reversible and altogether impressive. But priceless. I don't mean it was so precious no amount of money could secure it, I mean it wasn't marked with a price. So, I was forced to carry the sizeable box to the till, jump the queue and have it scanned. It was insanely expensive. It didn't matter. The till operator made to attempt to arrange for me to purchase it. Looking further, we found a couple of woeful, throwaway alternatives. And that was it for mirrors. In the country's largest beauty outlet.
I'll spare you further repetitive and increasingly tedious details - suffice to say, this was the pattern in various shops until we found both items in modern day wonder-bazaar, Wilkinson.
The UK high street is dying, we are told. The behemoth supermarkets are trampling it underfoot and the internet is drawing its customers from real-world shops to the virtual arcades online. "Something must be done!" is the cry - support your local retailers, use them or lose them. But really, why would we? I don't care what the platitudes in a retailer's advertising and marketing claim, most shops in Britain don't have the first idea about customer service. What's more, their buyers appear to have little or no handle on the goods which define the brand, and their store managers seem content for the stock to be poorly arranged and the staff to be dismissive or uninformed.
When an industry is supremely dominant, complacency is hard to avoid. For instance, Microsoft tends to strut about as if it owned the place, largely because it does. But the retail sector is in tatters. In the last few months alone, we have witnessed the death of Peacocks and Game. Then there's Zaavi and Woolworth. More will surely follow in a horribly depressed economy and rapidly morphing marketplace. So where is the survival instinct? Why are these ubiquitous merchant brands offering such a miserable experience when customer satisfaction is so vital to their commercial existence?
I don't think this is a concious decision. I can't imagine there is a strategic policy to be as unattractive to the shopper as possible. But I do believe there is a cultural dysfunction which allows these fatal flaws to flourish. Transitory shop-floor staff, often demotivated by a lack of confidence in their jobs, are frequently under trained and given no stake in their store. They have no reason to care. Merchandisers aren't encouraged to think through the needs of the customer and managers are so put upon they lose pride in their branch. When the priorities are figures, targets and minimised payrolls, the customer is lost - which ironically damages that all-important revenue.
Compare all this with the American model. Shop in any US city and notice the incredible range, the intelligent layout, the cleanliness of the store and - above all - the overwhelmingly attentive service. When was the last time you were welcomed to a UK shop with a cheery "Hello?" American outlets employ "greeters" for this specific purpose. Put simply, any US chain falling below this high standard would be abandoned in a heartbeat. It is as necessary as the lights and the tills.
So British retailers (the splendid Wilko excepted), feel free to continue with your complacent and depressing modus operandi. No need to price your goods or help your customers access them. Carry on without bothering to correct the cursory, resentful attitude of your staff. That's your prerogative. However, please don't complain when I increasingly use the internet for shopping, don't bemoan your plummeting figures and don't bother to tell me I'm not supporting local shops. Because, to be honest, they do so very little to support me.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.