Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In Chains

It's now over a year since my mother moved to Lewes and she's settled down very well, but the one thing she doesn't like is the shops: "They don't have anywhere where I can buy nice blouses in my size".

By nice, my mother means the sorts of clothes that faintly resemble the staff uniforms of building society employees in the early 90s: pastel, understated floral patterns in washing machine-friendly artificial fibres.

As for size, Lewes is not fat town. Nationally, 66% of men of my age and height are heavier than me, but in Lewes I feel like a pasty-eating slob compared to the gaunt, earnest-looking men with beards who think nothing of starting the day with a 20-mile cycle ride. I should move to Walsall.

We needed to go further afield. I asked my mother if she'd like to try Eastbourne, a coastal resort with the highest number of people over 80 in the UK. Without pausing for thought, she replied "Not 'arf!"

As I parked the car at Lewes railway station, my mother remarked that this would be the first time that she'd been on a train in 30 years. I found it hard to believe, but her look of wonder as we boarded the air-conditioned carriage was genuine.

Suddenly, my mother looked worried: "But we can't sit here. This is 1st class isn't it?". I assured her that it wasn't and that the rail network had changed a lot since the days when scuffy men in donkey jackets half-heartedly ambled along the platform with a broom in one hand and a cigarette in the other. "Cor!" my mother replied, "It's posh isn't it!"

For me, it was an unremarkable train journey. For my mother, it was time travel.

Many aspects of the service industries have improved during the last three decades. This is obviously a 'good thing', but during my visit to Eastbourne's rather depressing Arndale Centre, I was reminded of the darker side of this cultural shift by a huge poster advertising 'exciting' job opportunities in a new branch of River Island.

Since when was working in a clothes shop exciting? You put clothes on display, tidy up the mess that customers have made and occasionally operate the till. It might be enjoyable if you like the work and get on with your colleagues, but surely the job's pretty low on thrills apart from the odd spat with a shoplifter.

Sadly, the River Island advert is symptomatic of a growing trend in which retailers want their employees souls as well as their bodies. You can work as hard as you like, but if you're not excited about the brand, you're not being part of the team. It's an employers' market.

When I joined the Ottakar's bookshop chain in the mid-90s, there was no nonsense about having to be excited. The senior managment used to motivate staff by giving them a lot of autonomy and rewarding success with generous bonuses. It worked. Staff were generally enthusiastic and, sometimes, even excited, but we didn't start grinning inanely at every customer who walked in the door.

However in today's economic climate, bonuses are thin on the ground and the main motivational tool is fear:

"Work hard, look as if you're really enjoying yourself and you might get to keep your job, but don't think you can fool us. If you're in a shop, leisure centre or museum, we have mystery customers. If you're in a call centre we will be listening to you. As for the drivers, we're tracking you all the way. Any unscheduled stops will be monitored. No-one is beyond our reach"

I'm very pleased that service has improved since the days when many shop assistants talked amongst themselves and treated customers like an inconvenience, but the growing trend of subjecting poorly-paid employees to an Orwellian regime of constant surveillance and 'thought police' who look for any signs of dissent disturbs me deeply.

In some cases, the result isn't even good service, but manic, rather desperate and intrusive behaviour that is deeply off-putting. When I walk in a clothes shop I want to be left alone, not befriended by an insincere assistant who is clearly terrified that I might be a mystery shopper, beaming at me every time I glance in their direction. Also, I'd like to be able to just buy something without any nonsense about bars of chocolate, loyalty cards, mobile phone top-ups and stamps.

During my last few months at Waterstone's, we were encouraged to get 'added value' from purchases by asking customers if there was anything else they wanted and, if there wasn't, would they be interested in buying "this £12 book on wine for £5? No? Well how about joining our loyalty card scheme..."

Some people responded, but most looked embarrassed or irritated and couldn't get out of the shop quickly enough. We were able to measure how many customers joined the loyalty card scheme, but not how many were put off by this approach. I hated it and knew that it was time to leave.

High street retailers are trying to save themselves by squeezing as much money as possible out of their diminishing pool of customers, but their methods are simply driving people like me towards the hassle-free environment of the internet. Sadly, they usually can't give their customers the thing they really want: value.

Back in the Arndale Centre I rejoined my mother, who was in Bon Marche, buying a coat that looked as if it would repel a chemical warfare attack. The shop assistant was desperately trying to sign my mother up to a new loyalty card scheme, but something wasn't working properly and I sensed a growing desperation. "I'm really sorry madam. I'll just try one more time..."

As we left the shop, my mother turned to me and said "That poor woman. I don't suppose I'll ever use this thing."


Grey Area said...

Dealing with shop workers and retail staff is depressing and heartbreaking at best - in my local COOP, you can divide them into the basic groups 'just passing through - I'm a student' - 'I identify myself as retail staff and love it because that's all I am' - and most depressingly 'I work in a shop and hate it because it reminds me I'm a failure and my life is going nowhere' - the last group have the look of frightened, caged animals in their eyes, they have a crushing sense of heartbreak and pain about them that makes shopping difficult. Brighton is a particular horror, even the lowliest are young, good looking, well groomed and highly educated - but shop work is all that's available and they know that even one mistake.... and another bright young thing is waiting in the wings to serve tea or bag a pair of knickers. I had to do a consultation at the Habitat store in Brighton a few years ago, to try and devise better ways of packaging the linen - it was an interesting commission - and i'd been looking forward to interviewing the staff about their observations of customer habits etc - the first thing that my first subject said to me was "look, I hope you don't think I'm doing this for a living, I'm just waiting for the right opportunity - I have a PHD, you know" ( he's been there 2 years )

Desperate Reader said...

I'm currently doing a job in the lower end of retail because it's what was available. I'm very good at what I do and could almost enjoy it if it wasn't for the constant demand to join in the company culture.

Steerforth said...

What particularly angers me is the way that modern retailers have no regard for the dignity of their employees. They treat their staff like advertising space, forcing them to wear hideous t-shirts with special offers and new products. They also prostitute their staff, expecting them to attract customers by pretending to be friends with them. It's awful.

Employers want more and more from their staff, but seem to be offering less and less, even though the senior management still get their six-figure bonuses.

Bookselling was always a little different because the product was something worthwhile and the job had a higher status, but when HMV took over Waterstone's (who then bought Ottakar's), the chain was flooded with retailers who'd spent their life working their way up through Tesco, M&S etc. They seemed to resent and despise the booksellers and were on a mission to turn them into retailers. It was horrible. I'm glad I got out (and made life a little difficult for them in the process).

I was very bitter about the demise of Ottakar's because it was genuinely different and the senior management actually had a genuine regard for the well-being of the staff, at all levels. Seeing the signage thrown into skips to make way for the bland livery of Waterstone's was a sad day.

Steerforth said...

Desperate Reader - I was replying to Grey Area when you wrote your comment, but my sentiments could also apply to your words.

If you're good at your job, why can't they give you the respect you deserve. I should imagine that customers would rather be served by a 'real' person rather than someone who is just going through the motions, working to a company script.

In my experience, the middle management of retail organisations is full of people who aren't particularly bright and regard anyone with a bit of individuality as a threat.

It's not as if they pay much, so at least they could just try and provide some job satisfaction.

zmkc said...

I laughed and laughed and laughed

Chris Matarazzo said...

It's all insincerity being encouraged by the insincere, isn't it? I think of my sister, a graphic artist, who works for a company that loves to have "pizza Friday" and mid-day cook-outs with food served by the owners in "Kiss the Chef" aprons. Really warm and friendly, right? Yet, the day she was promoted to "Art Director" she was informed that there would be no pay increase. The only thing that increased was the responsibility, tenfold. Still, she had pastries to look forward to on Monday and kickball in the parking lot on Wednesday. Team-building, at its finest!It's sickening.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I agree with most of this posting and the ludicrousness of being expected to be excited about being a lowly-paid shop assistant. Except that I have not noticed retail service is getting any better trained, knowledgeable or polite sd a result of the threat to the High Street, just more intrusive (unless replaced by self-service tills altogether) - a huge threat to the High Street in its own right if the usp of human interaction in the High Street is to be phased out.

The main problem is they seldom sell anything I want. The shoes are either ugly or ridiculous, ditto the underwear and indeed the clothing itself, let alone is it normally available in my size even when I find something wearable.

Small wonder I have largely migrated to ebay and Cotton Traders for no-nonsense clothing in my size. But since the High Street hasn't done me many favours for years, I don't feel too guilty for cheating on it.

If shops had better buyers who stocked what we actually wanted to buy and better staff training (attentive without being intrusive), they would do themselves a lot more favours.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Yes, sadly shopping isn't what it used to be. Although my daughter did tell me about a shopping trip she made recently to one of Seattle's major dept. stores (well, Macys, actually) where the clerk who assisted her was also one of their personal shoppers.

My daughter, who is nearly six feet tall, was about to give up in despair of ever finding a pair of dressy slacks to wear to her new job. However, the assistant cheerfully found not one pair but a selection.

I think the woman has made a friend for life. She saved my daughter no end of frustration, not to mention time.

But I agree that all the "perks" they try to peddle can get damned annoying when all you really want is to get back to your car before the meter expires and you get a ticket, or before you miss your train!

Steerforth said...

zmkc - I'm very glad. I never know whether the things that amuse me will appeal to others, so it's a relief to read comments like yours.

Chris - These businesses behave more like cults sometimes. Surely social relationships will evolve naturally in a happy workplace and don't need to be forced by patronising theme days. And by not giving your sister a pay rise, her employers have shown their true colours.

Laura - The business model that really works is profit sharing. Ottakar's did it and the business became one of the fastest-growing chains of the 1990s. If retail staff had a personal stake in their business, they'd give excellent customer service. It might not be what someone at their head office regarded as good service, but it would be driven by the customers rather than a management agenda to increase short-term sales.

Chickadee - Assistants like that are a huge asset to any retailer, but all too often businesses are taken over and the new management want to know why X has spent so long helping the tall woman when it only resulted in a $90 sale.

Thanks to EPOS, chain stores can now tell that Rita has served 3.7 customers per hour with an average transaction value of £19.72, but they know nothing about how many people return and spend more because of Rita's excellent service.

Canadian Chickadee said...

How right you are. Though I do think that the sales girl who helped my daughter made a friend for Macys for life. And as you say, I hope she is adequately rewarded by the store for her efforts.

Clive said...

If your mother's storecard is supplied by GE Capital Finance I recommend you cancel it ASAP, preferably in writing unless you don't mind her being harassed by bailiffs for phantom charges.

James Russell said...

If you've never seen the episode of 'Black Books' in which Manny goes to work for Goliath Books next door, then you really ought to (Season 3, Episode 1). Simon Pegg plays a fabulously psychotic manager...

My experience of living in America was that store workers, like service staff generally, were helpful, cheerful and 'part of the team'. In fact the idea of identifying with one's corporate employer seemed to be perfectly acceptable, if not desirable. Whether that's changed in the past few years with the rise of internet shopping, I don't know, but the culture certainly used to be quite different.

I was often served in a local cafe by staff who had higher degrees and talked philosophy behind the register. Rather than see themselves as failures because they were not running the country, they saw the cafe as the environment they happened to find themselves in, and which they intended to run in a way that showed them in the best light.

I also bought clothes from educated people working in chain clothes stores, who no doubt worked long hours for a pittance, but who nevertheless took pride in their work and endeavoured to impress customers with their knowledge and willingness to go the extra mile.

At the art galleries I worked in, you were expected to be cheerful, enthusiastic and a dedicated employee (not that everyone was!). Again, over-educated, talented people put up with a lot of crap but always tried to give a good impression to customers.

Why is it so different here? Perhaps because American culture is based on the premise that anyone can achieve anything, at any point in their lives, whereas here we're still trapped in the culture of Upstairs Downstairs.

Steerforth said...

Clive - Luckily it was just a loyalty card.

James - On yes, I've seen that episode many times - Simon Pegg's manager wasn't a million miles from some of the more recent additions to the Waterstone's management team (before the business was sold last year). At one point, the HMV-based senior management of Waterstone's started recruiting managers from places like Burger King and Gap, because they were proper retailers, not airy-fairy booksellers.

It was this approach, with a contempt for real booksellers, that almost destroyed Waterstone's. I hope it thrives under the new ownership, but my gut feeling is that it has a very steep mountain to climb.

As for the difference between Britain and the US, I think you're right - there's an ingrained lack of ambition over here that is a hangover from the days when everyone knew their place.

The 'pursuit of happiness' may be chasing after rainbows, but it has produced a dynamic culture. I think the problem is that in the UK, people have tried to impose American-style working practices without thinking it through.

If UK businesses want staff who are upbeat, positive and enthusiastic, they should incentivise them in some way, as Ottakar's did. The attitude has to come from the staff, not be imposed from above and reinforced by threats.

Personally, I find over-familiar assistants a pain in the neck. When I travelled around California, I became exhausted by the constant "Hi! How are you today?" refrain. I just want people who are polite and quietly friendly.

The best service I found was in independent outlets, like Earthlets Bookstore in Santa Barbara, where staff managed to be both laid-back and highly efficient, creating a relaxed, welcoming environment.

Richmonde said...

Your mother might like Alexandra Workwear (online and by catalogue). That's where the building societies got the blouses from.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the tip - that could be just what she's looking for.