The customer is always – irrelevant?

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.

Being a bit bolshy when occasion demands, I approached slim-young-man-behind-desk.your-ms-logo-black

‘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.

End of.

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.



This entry was posted in Britain now & then, Thinking, or ranting, or both and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The customer is always – irrelevant?

  1. Ricardo says:

    What’s a raincoat? We haven’t seen rain here in Texas in months. As for shopping, we hear the same refrain here: “That item is no longer stocked in-store but you can find it on our website.”


    • A raincoat is a mac of course silly! Poor you – we haven’t seen that much rain lately but our grass is nice and green still – no shortage on this west coast. Ah – anagram – west coats – wets coats !


  2. hmunro says:

    What a pity to hear that Marks and Sparks’ service has declined so precipitously! Sadly, that does seem to be the way these days as companies consolidate into bigger and bigger conglomerates, and as customer service takes a distant back seat to profits. And the awful thing is that increasingly consumers have no recourse but to “get used to it,” as that cynical young man put it. Sigh.


  3. Judy Barnes says:

    Thank you Mary for this.weird isn’t it,that we are generally becoming so de-humanised, longing to talk to a real voice on a phone as opposed to a list of automated options;local post offices and churches and pubs are closing down and the population is expanding and we are all living longer….are we being prepared for an alien take over ?
    I’m looking for a raincoat too.will probably need the furry caterpillar variety if the winter we are predicted comes to fruition.Maybe there’s a helpline to advise….


    • I think you are better ‘framed’ to cope with caterpillar fashion than am I! I do have a nice designer brand, but cheaply bought, coat (from TK Maxx) for the cold days. Yes, this loss of human contact on all sorts of levels is something we seem to slide into easily as possibly shy humans, every technnological advance seems to make more humans beings redundant – leaf blowers replace street sweepers is a classic example where the other knock-on effect is also to reduce the exercise we get. Of course in poor countries like Zambia humans do most things, like sweeping roads, and machines are always breaking down – when humans are cheap we’re useful when we’re expensive we’re disposable …


  4. EllaDee says:

    Tis the season… for the retailers’ coffers to start filling! Which is what it’s all about, not providing customers with good and services; just money -in the cash register, bank, pay packet…
    I’ll kick my soapbox to the corner… the blogging world narrowly missed a post from me similar to your topic. I’ve been doing some early on-line Christmas and birthday shopping before the end of the year gets too busy.
    The G.O. and I collaborated (he paid, I shopped) on a pair of very nice, very expensive camel suede leather boots for my 50th birthday next month. Because the company didn’t have enough materials at the time they wanted to release their new ladies boot, they put try-on sizes in certain stores, which could then be ordered with a 50% deposit. It took4 visits to their stores before I actually got the boots in the end, which weren’t quite as nicely brushed and buffed free of marks like the try on pairs. If the G.O. hadn’t been so keen to buy them for me I wouldn’t have bothered. I emailed feedback to the company, and they were nice enough to call me about my ‘complaint’ which I corrected… ‘feedback’. They assumed I wanted something in return but no… nothing except to tell them how disappointed I was, and that they would never have even attempted nor gotten away with marketing a man’s boot the same way.
    Which brings me to your Mac. At least you like it, even if you might have chosen differently had there been a selection. How many times have I had the conversation in a shop… “I want what I asked for, not what you’ve” got in response to “oh we don’t have that, there’s this instead”. The G.O. is so sick of it he doesn’t even bother being polite anymore. Do they themselves not shop and realize how redundant that response is…
    I’m just back from a Saturday parcel collection errand at the post office where it was sent because it couldn’t be delivered to my home address because I was at work which is why I specified to the company to send it to my work address. When I rang the company, without hesitating the man informed me his wife couldn’t possibly have sent it to the wrong address… when I responded that I’d checked their online order records before calling and indeed they had, he started shouting at me that he didn’t have to put up with ME being so rude!
    Giving customers what they want is a quaint concept… I think too many banks and businesses see us as components in a business plan rather than thinking, feeling beings.


    • Lawks a mercy (getting Dickensian with the wintry weather) Dee! Dreadful story of your supposed-to-be-a-treat boots. I know how that happens – my birthday’s just after Christmas and when treats have been carefully planned and don’t quite work out you just smile and show gratitude. The delivery service – appalling! I remember the well-known for his foot-in-mouth outbursts Duke of Edinburgh saying he hated the term ‘human resources’ and so do I – it’s all part of the same phenomenon you mention of people as units in a business plan. Do we need ten silhouettes on the chart or eight? Will we get away with four? Can we get away with not paying the units for travelling from one part of their job to another (in the case of care workers here) because in her car the unit is not with the cared-for-subject unit. Aaaargh. Shopping is just the tip of an ugly iceberg. I think one day you and I will have to share a bottle of wine and a long rant!


      • Miz B says:

        I know a business professor who disagrees with the Duke of Edinburgh about the term “human resources.” My friend said employers too often forget both that their employees are a valuable asset and that, more importantly, they are human beings like themselves. But if those money-blinded employers could at least see their employees as essential to the success of the business…… Well, there we go–full circle. In a world where money is the only value, ethics have no meaning, and other human beings are merely a means to an end. Ask a modern business person what the word “honor” means, and he’ll tell you it refers to making someone else follow through on their end of a financial contract. Depressing. That’s my rant du jour.


        • I suppose I agree with both the prof and the Duke of Ed because I agree that bosses should see their staff as a valuable resource but I feel that once you step away from simple terms like people or even employees it’s easy to regard them as just numbers om balance sheets, so ‘human resources’ starts to feel like year end stock. Business English is horrendous – and not just business. I have a rant on academe sitting in my file featuring terms like ‘pathways to impact’ – it may never be unleashed on the world, it is rather a niche interest! But back to your final point – yes, the unspoken contracts between them and us (let’s face it most of us are us not them) have rusted away or disintegrated – the mass of the human population is a market for the tip of the economic iceberg to sail above … oh dear, terrible anlaogy and ranting again!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Miz B says:

    I would love to push a trolley around rather than a grocery cart (so mundane). However, other than the terms like trolley and que, this post might have been written about the stores or shops here in the US. I find it terribly sad that the contract between buyer and seller has been twisted into something so one-sided. Sellers want our money, but good service is no longer how they entice us. Instead, they hire psychologists to trick us through their advertising, or they protect their profits by cutting wages, moving factories to countries that pay slave wages, and reducing the quality of the goods they sell. Your post nails it. [By the way, are Marks and Spencer knickers as good as I’ve heard they are?]


    • Right on Miz B! Yesterday I stood in a short queue at the bigger local supermarket I got to when needs must and watched as the four self-service tills were being used. Not one single transaction was completed without the assistance of a supervisor and the time it took was much longer than for those of use in the adjacent ’10 items or less’ (ouch) queue. But of course sometimes a human being might be a resource that’s surplus to requirements at quiet times … And yes, the knickers (or panties as my parents called them – they’d be shocked at my inelegant language) have always been quality – and the range is amazing – everything from basic packs of various styles to extremely fancy lace for a really decent price. But they’re not made in Britain …

      Liked by 1 person

  6. John Kemp says:

    I like to use the self-service checkouts as I never have many articles and it’s quicker than the long queues, but something I never thought about – my daughter’s companion prefers to use the staffed checkout desks rather than the do-it-yourself checkouts as a protest against the loss of employment that they imply. I don’t think the phenomenon is as advanced here in France as your account of M&S shows in England, but it’s definitely here.


    • The self-service checkout is definitely designed not to improve service but to save money on staff. In the wake of the announcement that the minimum wage will go up substantially our local ones are of course adding several more. It just frustrates me to see that they have to put staff on them anyway as customers struggle to use them and they are always making mistakes.


Thanks for reading, please comment if it struck a chord

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.