Johannesburg’s Rosebank Mall

Retailers ignore customer care at their own peril

The retail industry is one of the key champions of mystery shopping in order to get the feel of their level of service.

Retailers ignore customer care at their own peril

I promised my long suffering copy editor that I would submit a piece for Easter Monday given my regrettable absence last week. I was therefore writing today’s piece on the fly as I’m packing to take a quick Easter break and chose to borrow slightly from a piece I wrote nine years ago about magic and miserable customer service moments. Many years ago, I walked into a supermarket in Johannesburg’s Rosebank Mall, and arrived at the till at 5.45 pm with less than five items in my shopping basket. The shop was due to close in 15 minutes. The cashier mumbled something unintelligible to me, to which I responded “Pardon?” Realizing that I was not a local South African, she repeated her sentence in stilted English, “Why you give me work to do, when you see it is time for closing, neh?”Following which, she reluctantly processed my five items, all the while clicking her tongue and muttering under breath words which I’m sure would turn my grey hairs blonde had I understood them.

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Until today, I’m not sure what surprised me more: the fact that she was unwilling to work 15 minutes before the shop was due to close or the fact that she actually articulated her displeasure specifically to me. Miserable moment! Closer to home in the same year, I was doing an inordinate amount of shopping in a leading supermarket in Kenya and my trolley was filled to the brim. The mere thought of parking it aside and walking several aisles back to get a new trolley was enough to make me try and pack the overflowing items in a smarter manner. One of the shop attendants suddenly appeared out of the blue with an empty trolley which he rolled to my side. He promptly took my heaving trolley and told me that he would place it next to the cashier counters where I would find it when I had completed my shopping. Magic moment! Two years later, I went to the competitor of that leading supermarket. I was about seven months pregnant and wanted help to get something off the top shelf that was slightly out of reach. So I pulled my “pregnancy privilege” card and stood there, arms akimbo, legs slightly parted while looking totally helpless. [In case you don’t know it, the pregnancy privilege card helps one get away with cutting long queues on election day, being allowed to use the business class toilet on a flight with a packed economy class or getting a seat in a standing room only event.It is a card I, and many of my female gestating colleagues, have used with ruthless abandon!] I stood. I stood some more. I stood for about five minutes, but in Greenwich Mean-Pregnancy Time it seems more like an interminable 30 minutes. Absolutely no one came. I then realized that Kenyan supermarket number one had ensured that each aisle in the supermarket had an aisle attendant. Someone who made sure that the shelves were constantly stocked, that any items picked were quickly replaced with items from the back, and that customers would have someone to refer to in case of any peculiar questions like “where can I find that orange black thingy that nani was using on TV to do nini?” It had never crossed my mind that Kenya’s leading supermarket at the time ensured that most customer touch points consisted of magic moments. Meanwhile back at the competitor of the leading supermarket, a random staff member was three aisles down where I had waddled my way to and found him in a deep conversation on his mobile phone. I gesticulated the universal sign language for “I need help” which is something along the lines of a raised eyebrow and simultaneous shoulder roll with outstretched palms. He continued talking on the phone. I waddled slowly back to my trolley and gazed thoughtfully at the contents. I walked away from that miserable moment and from that miserable supermarket. Unsurprisingly, it is currently swimming in a cesspit of financial doldrums. The attitude of that aisle attendant was a natural reflection of the abject indifference the leadership had to the customer experience and to longevity of the brand. The retail industry is one of the key champions of mystery shopping. Getting an independent person to pose as a genuine customer and get a real feel of what customers go through is a very useful exercise in determining whether you are providing magic or miserable moments. Your wayward staff will never tell or show you the truth. Only your customers will. Happy Easter!

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