Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Me: The Mystery Shopper & Ellenfoot's Closure

I don't know if other retail workers experience this, but when I go down town, or to a different supermarket, my critical eye switches itself on immediately. I've got hawk-eyes for merchandising standards, customer service, cleanliness and a whole host of other criteria I judge shops on.

On a trip down town today, I took a look around myself in Wilkinson's and wondered why it seems so popular. It's cluttered, messy, lacking in staff - and most of the ones they do have are rude and unhelpful - and actually quite dingy looking. I suppose in a shop like that with low prices, people expect a bit of mess. But then, we had a Kwik Save store near Food Place that was very cheap and yet extraordinarily clean, tidy and well decorated. Or perhaps people don't even notice such things. Thinking back, I don't think I ever took much notice of shops before I worked in one.

Poundland didn't fare any better. When we got the tills with our purchases, two out of eight of them were open and the queues were sprawling everywhere. There was a supervisor-type person standing at the back of them with one of those call-centre-esque ear/mouthpiece things on. He didn't seem even remotely aware of how many customers were queuing. OK, so maybe there actually weren't any more staff there to sit on a till. In which case, why wasn't he apologising to the customers?

It's this very issue that gets my back up in shops like Lidl and Netto. Their whole philosophy seems to be something like: 'We give you goods at cheap prices, so don't you dare expect anything closely resembling good service!' It doesn't matter what time of day you shop there, you can only expect one till to be open. They claim they're not 'wasting money' on overstaffing stores so they can offer cheap prices. I don't see it that way. I think: 'I'm coming in here, putting money into your tills, so do your bloody bit and get me served!'

At Food Place, I like to think that even when we don't have enough till staff to meet the demand, we act quickly to do something about it. I'm a checkout supervisor, but I can't just stand there and watch out-of-control queues. If there's no staff there, I throw my keys at the duty manager and get myself onto a till. It really annoys me when I don't see this sense of urgency in other shops.

The worst offender is Morrison's (one of the only supermarket chains I don't mind admitting this blog isn't about). They don't seem to mind having four people strutting along the checkouts on support duties while there's not half the number of till staff required. A lot of the time, they just stand in a crowd at their little desk and chat away to each other - oblivious to the fact that there's legions of waiting customers just staring at them.

Lack of checkout staff leads me into another area that makes me want to rip my hair from it's roots. Self-service checkouts. There's nothing worse than staff trying to prise you out of a queue to herd you through the self-scan tills. Yes, I'm aware that I only have one item, but when I'm shopping with a company that makes vast profits, I refuse to let them get away with forcing me to serve myself. My stance is partly down to the awful functionality of these machines - they're slow, very unintuitive and I've never witnessed anybody get more than five items through them without a supervisor having to come over and piddle about with the screen at least once. I also object to companies trying to squeeze every drop of profit they can by cutting out the human-contact. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd much sooner be thanked by a human voice than a robotic one!

And don't even start me on electrical shops. Why is it, when I just want to take my time and browse the options, I have to bat away attacks from sales persons every thirty seconds. Comet is the worst - they've got more predators in orange shirts swarming around than they have customers! Yet, when I've actually made my choice and would like to buy a product, there's nobody in sight. There's one salesman in the next aisle putting such a lot of effort into trying to persuade somebody who clearly has no intention of buying - but it would be rude to interrupt. When somebody does float along and you ask for help, their response is invariably "Oh, I don't do this department, I'll send a colleague along for you." Cue more waiting. And waiting. I once stomped out of Curry's in a huff after asking four staff members for help and still waiting almost 20 minutes with no assistance in sight.

See, I can be a snotty customer too. Perhaps I should be more forgiving of some of the less composed Food Place shoppers? Nah. I'm never rude, and I don't expect anybody to be rude to me.

Ellenfoot Closure
Staff at the neighbouring Ellenfoot branch of Food Place were gathered together on Sunday evening to be told the store will close on 22nd September. A rival supermarket chain opened up right over the road from the store in April. The sales initially halved. The manager remained over-confident that there would be a magical recovery and all the lost customers would come back. He was wrong. Sales dwindled slowly over the following months and they are now 71% down on their former glory. This, actually, still leaves them with a respectable take-figure considering the small size of Ellenfoot and their proximity to such a large competitor, but what has really killed the store is not how much the customers are spending, but what they buy. Special offers and promotion stock account for 85% of their sales - and promotions are loss-leaders. They can only make a company many if the customers also buy non-promotional goods too.

Staff have gradually defected to work at the rival store and haven't been replaced. Of a former team of almost 100 staff, only 22 remain. Some of the supervisors have been relocated to our store and the rest remain at Ellenfoot to face redundancy.

It's been strange really. My branch of Food Place was always geared towards beating Ellenfoot. We made sure our service, availability, pricing and general standards were better - Terry was once absolutely obsessed with being better than them - but we could never really top their sales figures. We have, and have always had, competitors - Ellenfoot didn't. Before April, Ellenfoot would take around £45,000 on a Saturday, versus our £37,000. Now, they struggle to top £10,000. Suddenly, it's as though we've got nobody to compete with anymore. Ellenfoot's fall elevated us to the #1 spot on our region in terms of sales. £195,000 for a 13,200 square feet store is good - for Food Place anyways.

Oh well, I expect I shall soon be summoned to help Ellenfoot clear out their nooks and crannies of age-old stock. I did this gritty task when Bartonfield Food Place closed and it 'aint pretty. Packs of cigarettes that are so old they don't carry health warnings - bottles of 'Grants'' Vodka - how long ago did it change to Glen's? And every store I've been in seems to have, in a dusty little corner somewhere, a whole crate of matches that are so old they'd probably explode if you tried to use them. Oh, I can't wait.


James UK said...

Thinking of places like Comet and those that have the assistants that never leave you alone, have a look at this if you didn't hear about it when it happened in April 2006.

BestBuy at Improv Everywhere


The idea for this mission was submitted by a stranger via email. Agent Slavinsky wrote in to suggest I get either a large group of people in blue polo shirts and khakis to enter a Best Buy or a group in red polo shirts and khakis to enter a Target. Wearing clothing almost identical to the store’s uniform, the agents would not claim to work at the store but would be friendly and helpful if anyone had a question. There aren’t any Targets in Manhattan, so I decided to go with the two-story Best Buy on 23rd Street.


And yes, I notice the general "dirtyness" of places like Wilkinson, and Poundland too. (Sounds exactly like our one!)

Compare that to Sainsbury's and they have a dedicated "Checkout Captain" on show, and they always seem to be organising the tills to help. (Today for example, just as it started to get busy, they put out a call for all trained staff to checkouts etc.)

Al said...

I agree that when I am in other supermarket chains, or even even in another of our stores, I spend more time than is probably healthy looking at how they do things. This is especially true if they have a photo lab instore.

I never really paid any attention to it before I started working in these places. I also think, or at least hope, it's made me a better customer because I know just how much effort it takes to make it all work.

I too have noticed that Wilkinson, Poundland etc. don't seem to be particularly nice places to be. I suppose the fact that people are getting cheap stuff is good enough for them.

I have to admit though, that if I were to somewhere like Netto or their ilk I wouldn't have great expectations of the service. I certainly wouldn't expect the same standard of service I would in one of the bigger chains. I would still expect more than one till open if it were possible though!

Again I've also noticed the same situation with staff in the likes of Comet, Currys and PC World (PC World being particularly bad I think). I feel sorry for the person who is just looking but makes the mistake of showng the tiniest bit of interest in something particular. You know they'll never be left alone.

I've never been in a Morrisons store before, unless you count a Safeway store before they became Morrisons.

Anyway, I'll stop now.

DarrellH said...

That Improv Everywhere skit was AWESOME. I imagine it woulnd't be so great if one was a store manager living it though...

Mystery Shopping Company said...

Love your authentic passion for delivering excellent service. Every front-line employee has an opportunity to make someones day better, put a smile on someones face, make them feel appreciated..

"People pleaser's" are naturally good in a service environment because they get their high doing these things. They love to get someone excited and see them smile.

On the opposite end, there are people that will not do one more thing than they have to. Mystery Shopping is one way managers are able to identify and coach up or coach out these people.

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