This week I’ve had two very different shopping experiences in two major store chains.
Food shopping is never my favourite job, I order on-line as much as possible and I try to avoid busy and crowed times. Usually my shopping helper is my neighbour’s teenage daughter, she has Aspergers, and is a good helper, her traits mean that she knows my routine and remembers it. So shopping without her isn’t easy, but her Mum is ill and needs her daughter at home right now.
So, off to Tesco’s on my own for a quick shop for perishables. I use a local big store, which does have one motorised buggy with a large basket, but even if I use it I still can’t reach items on low or high shelves, so I still need a helper. Also, even if I can park near enough to stagger to customer services to collect the buggy, it has to be fetched from another part of the store, which can take up to 10 minutes, I can’t stand for that that long and there is not seating available. The buggy used to be kept by customer service, and I could sit in it it whilst the key was found. For some reason I could never fathom the key was kept somewhere other than the customer service desk! When the buggy was moved I did email the manager, explaining that the new arrangements would make it difficult for both myself and other disabled people, but got no reply. That was a foretaste of my shopping experience.
When I got to the customer service and asked for an assistant to help me shop, the first response I got was; “Why can’t you just use the trolley that attaches to a wheelchair?” When I explained that it only worked for manual wheelchairs (which I knew from trying previously) I was greeted with a blank stare. So, I asked for the assistant again, and with a big sigh, the woman on the desk sent a Tannoy message out, I was glad I was sitting in my wheelchair as it took over 10 minutes for someone to come, and then the man who arrived looked at me, spoke to the woman on customer service, and walked off, without explanation! A few minutes later he came back, and grunted he was ready to help.
My assistant was a man in his late twenties, whose first language was not English, and whilst I’m used to employing people from many different ethnic backgrounds, having managed nursing homes for over 20 years, I reckon my communications skills are pretty ok, but the guy helping me seemed to not understand me at all. Whatever I said I needed, he didn’t seem to know what it was, at the sandwich counter he didn’t know what a wrap was, and at the sushi bar picked out salmon when I asked for prawn, similarly he didn’t seem to know what Brie cheese was. For other items, he didn’t know where they were in the shop or was similarly puzzled as to what they were. Also, when he took something off the shelf, he didn’t check with me if it was the right item, so I had to constantly ask to check he had picked what I needed.
I was very glad when we got to checkout, where he packed everything well. On the way to the car I asked the man what training he was given, but he didn’t answer, just shrugging his shoulders. I don’t think I was an usual customer in terms of my shopping, I had a list, stuck to it and was as systematic as possible. But somehow nothing was quite as it should be. I felt as if I had been an inconvenience, that my helper would rather have been doing something else, anything other than working and assisting a customer.
Just a week later, 5 days before Xmas, I did my final shop, this time at Marks & Spencer at Kew retail park. My treat for holiday. What a different experience. Although customer service was busy, another assistant came up to me and asked if I needed help, no sooner has she left to go and find someone, another assistant came up to me and asked if I needed assistance. Just as she was speaking to me the first assistant came back and introduced me to my helper. She was probably in her late thirties, English was not her first language, but she understood exactly what I was saying.
The shop was really busy, but nothing was too much trouble, she checked exactly what I needed and found it, often suggesting I wait at the end of an isle so I didn’t need to struggle to get through the crowds. She doubled checked with me that everything was what I needed and even suggested other things I might like to try. There were two things that seemed to be out of stock, one of which was my favourite cherry juice. So, my helper went to the stock room to try and find them, but thoughtfully put an alternative, which was running low in my trolley to ensure I got a fruit juice I liked. The cherry juice soon arrived and we were off to checkout. Again, nothing was to much trouble, I was asked how I wanted everything packed and she made sure no bag was too heavy. There was no need to ask about customer service training, I couldn’t have had more assistance if my helper had seen one of those posh personal shoppers you see on TV at Liberty. I tried to give her a tip, but she wouldn’t accept it, saying it wasn’t allowed. So this is one way I can thank her for her excellent customer service.
Why was there such a difference in the two shops? Was it training, or the lack of it, was it attitude, or just gender, the woman being the more attuned to another woman’s needs. Was it that unsaid word ‘class’?
Well, for what it’s worth, I think it’s a combination of all of those things. As in any organisation, attitudes permeate from the top downwards. I’ve shopped at both Tesco and M&S for years. Even when I was able bodied I was well aware that each of those shops treated customers very differently and that difference is stronger and starker when a customer needs a little extra help to do any everyday task.
I wish I could afford to shop at M&S every time, but DLA does stretch to that, it’s definitely a treat and I cannot buy everything I need there, So I’m forced to shop at Tesco or Sainsbury, but a trip to my nearest Sainsbury about a month ago did not inspire confidence. There is no other large supermarket within reasonable travelling distance.
So I’m running out of options, I have to accept what is begrudging and what, in different circumstances I would not. Just because I can’t be totally independent. If I were back at work, and something similar had happened to a client I would be the first one trying to sort things out. Calling the shop manager, trying to explain how staff should have behaved differently. But, for me, there are more important battles to fight, more urgent things to do, which take up my emotional and physical energy.
Maybe Morrison’s will open a new supermarket in west London, but until then, I’m going to be putting off doing food shopping as much as possible.