Here in Britain one of our oldest shops is Marks and Spencer. It started life in Leeds, Yorkshire, as a market stall. By the time I was a child it had become a well-loved and respected chain selling knitwear and knickers – in which a label proclaiming its ‘St Michael’ sub-brand was sewn.
It was a proud boast that almost everything was made in Britain. Women (mostly) wanted to work there because of the employee perks – hairdressing, physiotherapy, chiropody and free uniforms.
Treating its staff like valuable assets paid them back in spades. Its reputation radiated out from its employees and their families, not just its products.
A little while ago I stood in our local Marks and Sparks (one nickname) in a queue for the checkout – because M&S does food nowadays. I was behind several people with large loads in their trolleys.
Just two checkouts were open, both with long queues.
To one side was a large area in which several slow-moving, confused people attempted to use the self-service tills.
In front of the self-service tills was a line of fast checkouts. They were all closed. I guessed they’d be opened at lunchtime to serve the snack-and-hurry-back brigade.
A slim young man in a dark suit stood watching, behind a desk with a computer monitor.
There were very few members of staff in evidence and their task was to help the off-peak shoppers, mostly elderly people, who weren’t able to cope with the new-fangled self-service payment system.
Perhaps like me, they had gone seeking the fast checkouts only to find they were closed and couldn’t – unlike me – face going back to join the long queues behind stuffed trolleys at the two open checkouts.
‘Why don’t you open some tills, it would save time and be much easier?’
He turned a gaze on me that could’ve turned a butterfly to stone.
‘We want them to get used to these.’
And turned back to his monitor.
In our local Co-op it’s much the same story. One till open. Four self-service tills. And two members of staff being called in every two minutes to help the people who almost always do something wrong and need help making their purchases.
But it’s not just food shopping – and before I leave it, yes, I know, some people like the anonymous self-serving option.
Anyway – onto other stuff.
I do my share of online shopping. I like being able to order four pairs of shoes for delivery to our local branch.
I don’t have to hope they’ll have my size, I know they will.
I don’t have to pay up front.
I can try them on in the shop, send them back if they don’t fit – and probably buy something else in the process.
But there are times when it just doesn’t work that way …
Autumn is here – and I need a new raincoat.
I want to see what styles are around, to try a few on, see what suits me best. Choose a colour.
I go to John Lewis – that much lauded middle-class establishment that shares its profits with its employees. But that doesn’t make it cuddly. Oh, no. It isn’t a cooperative, nor a charity, it’s a profit making business.
I drive seventeen miles. Park in an expensive car park.
And arrive to find they’re renovating.
I walk around the limited space allocated to ‘fashion’, assuming that the stock is limited because of the work.
‘Where are the macs* – please?’ I ask a nice person in uniform. (A member of staff, btw, not a police officer.)
She takes me to one furry parka. Um – not what I had in mind, no thanks.
One padded effort that reminds me of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. Um (again) – no thanks.
And one really smart raincoat that I like but won’t try on – it’s way too expensive.
‘Have they put the raincoats away for the time being,’ I ask, ‘are they coming back when the work’s complete?’
‘We won’t have a section of raincoats,’ she smiles condescendingly, ‘but you can see them all online. We’re just not going to keep them in-store [aargh hate that expression] any more.’
Reader, after trudging the shops for a further hour, gaining a blister (new shoes) and discovering no-one sells raincoats any more, I ended up buying the expensive mac.
It’s very nice.
It should be.
I was harrumphing about this yesterday as I stood, wearing aforesaid new raincoat, outside a local bank that’s due to close its doors on 19 November.
People were readily signing the protest petition that three of us were proffering. Hopeless – but hey, it eases the frustration.
Almost everyone agreed it was a shame and that this – the fourth bank to close in our urban village – was likely to be very bad news not just for local customers but for the commercial life of the village.
One man said, ‘How much profit do they actually want? Why not spend some of it on giving their customers what they want?’
You know, I couldn’t have put it better myself.