Keeping the Customer Satisfied

Adventures in Retail Episode 1

I’ve long been a fan of those traditional black enamelled kettle barbecues, so when I received an email from a  well-known chain of DIY stores telling me that they were offering 20% discount on them over the weekend, I thought it might be time to upgrade my twelve-year old compact model for something bigger and better.

However, I’m no stranger to disappointment, so I took the precaution of going online to check the stock in my local branch.  Sure enough, they had seven of the beauties available, so, pausing only to pick up my Nectar card, I jumped in the car and headed off.

The shop’s display was impressive to say the least, ranging from cute little turquoise ones that would sit on the end of a picnic table to a substantial beast that looked like a gas-powered Wurlitzer.  At first glance there didn’t appear to be any in the size I was looking for but I wasn’t fazed: I knew they had seven in stock and I strolled confidently up to the customer service desk to enquire as to their whereabouts.

A charming young woman listened to what I wanted and instantly began clattering away on a rather greasy-looking keyboard.  Her face clouded after a couple of minutes of scrolling through the stock list spreadsheet.  “No, sorry; we haven’t got any of that size.  They’ve got two in… Selly Oak.”  She was so pleasant and had tried so hard to be helpful that I didn’t feel like challenging her with the details of my own research, but nor did I feel like another twenty-five minute drive on the off chance that her evidence was any more reliable than mine.

So I formulated a cunning plan.  As soon as I got home, I went online and ordered the barbecue and, for good measure, a cover to go over it.  My confirmation email pinged back instantly and assured me that both items were in stock and that I could collect my goods from my local store any time after 10.00 the next morning.  So far so good.

It was little after 10.00 the next morning when I had a call from the store.  A rather huskily voiced woman told me she had the barbecue in front of her but that she couldn’t locate the covers in the stock room.  Not to worry, I said; the cover was an afterthought, it was the barbecue itself I was mainly interested in and I’d be down to collect it later in the day.

Which is how I came to pitch up at the Customer Service desk again in the early afternoon.  It was mayhem, with a sizeable knot of people milling round the desk all trying to return or exchange purchases they were unhappy with: lampshades, rolls of wallpaper and packets of curtain hooks.  Matters weren’t helped by the fact that they were also encumbered by screaming babies, loaded trolleys with minds of their own and, in one case, a loudly whistling hearing aid.

The huskily voiced woman appeared to be presiding over this chaos and eventually I caught her eye.  “Are you returning something?” she asked, looking frazzled.  “No, I’m collecting a barbecue I ordered online.”  Evidently relieved at this variation to her day, she turned to the keyboard, checked my name and disappeared through a swing door only to return a second or so later with a carton roughly the size of a hatbox under her arm.

“That’s not it,” I said.

She looked at me accusingly.  “It’s a kettle barbecue,” she said.

“It may well be,” I said, “but I ordered the bigger one.  The 57cm.  That’s the tabletop one.”

She rolled her eyes.  “I know who picked this.”   Turning towards the shop floor, she bellowed,  “Cameron!”  and a gangly youth with too much ankle showing under his polyester work trousers ambled into view.  “You’ve picked up the wrong barbecue.  This gentleman wants the bigger one.”  Cameron ankled off to the far side of the store and came back with a slightly bigger box that was clearly marked “Compact” on the side.  “That’s not it either,” I said.  “That’s the 47cm one.  I ordered the 57 cm.”  Cameron went off again and I wouldn’t swear he wasn’t scowling.   Husky gave me a conspiratorial smirk.  “Third time lucky,” she said.

“I don’t think luck’s got much to do with it,” I said.

After a few moments, the wretched Cameron ankled back to us, puzzled and ominously empty-handed.  “When’s the next delivery due?” he mumbled to Husky and the pair of them frowned into the greasy-looking monitor while she rattled the keyboard.  I used the time constructively to plan exactly how I would phrase my disappointment with this state of affairs.

Their muttered confab lasted for a few moments and then something very strange happened.  Cameron’s face lit up; he staggered a step backwards; he snapped his fingers.  “I know where they’ll be!” he crowed, as if he’d suddenly found the door in the back of the wardrobe.  “The warehouse!”  And he ankled off at top speed.

Quite why it took so long for this to occur to one of them I don’t understand, any more than I can work out why it took them three goes to come up with the item that was precisely identified on the order information,  but sure enough his hunch paid off and he was soon back with us, beaming all over his face, his stringy arms wrapped round a box that was promisingly unwieldy.

Success made him expansive and he began a lengthy exposition on what type of charcoal we should use in our new barbecue.  He’d just got to the part about the constant and long-lasting smouldering properties of a particular branded variety when Husky cut him short by telling me I should join a checkout queue to pay for my purchase as they were too busy ministering to the mutinous horde at Customer Services to take my money.  “Customer Disservices, more like,” I hissed, only half to myself, and lugged my carton over to the tills.

I’d been standing behind a woman with two unfeasibly large terracotta pots for a short while when a man in a stripy tie and a name badge called to us that there was another checkout opening further along.  When I got there, I found a familiar face.  “Hello again,” said Husky. “Are you following me?”  It’s not often I’m stumped for a snappy comeback but on this occasion I had to bite my tongue on the grounds that anything I could have said would almost certainly have been insulting and probably actionable in law.  So I handed over my credit card and we completed the transaction wordlessly before I manhandled the box out to the car park and the whole sorry episode drew to a close.

OK, in the end I got most of the goods I wanted and I paid a fair price, but it took two visits to the store and two false starts before that happened, not to mention being sent hither and yon until they allowed me to give them my money.

I don’t want to be fawned over and kow-towed to in shops, I just want the people in them to care enough about what they’re doing to be competent and courteous.  Unfortunately, all too often that appears to be too much to ask.


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