Customer service died with my grandad.

Popping into a local supermarket to pick up a pint of milk I skip to the self service checkout where a shop assistant stands surveying his self service checkout kingdom. A couple of beeps later I’m out of the shop and on the way to the car.

I managed to walk into the store, over to the milk aisle, back to the checkouts, through them via self service and out of the store without a single soul talking to me, not even the self service guy acknowledged my presence as I strolled though his kingdom.

I did have a small interaction with another customer as their trolley sort of got in my way but that was it. No one said hello, no one said good bye.

Asking too much?
Of course the interaction I’m referring to and looking for above is from staff. No one representing that store and that brand had the time of day for me. No one tried to make a connection with a valued customer, not even to raise a smile and acknowledge my presence.

No one said thank you for driving to their store and buying their produce and putting my hard earned money into their tills.

So was it a privilege for me to be there? Should it be I that is truly thankful for that store being in my community? Did anyone see me? Does anybody there care?

So what about my Grandad?
Grandad worked in retail. Not big retail as in the superstores we see today but village centric retail. He was a grocer and worked for the village grocery store called Pukess’ of Brockenhurst, established 1894. Of course back then they were all independent and very much the hub of the village during day.

He started working there in 1928. I even have a copy of the written reference he received when he left his previous employment to move to Brockenhurst. In part of the reference it says “We feel sure he will give faithful service”.

Here’s a photo of my Grandad (in the middle) inside the shop:
Purkess grocery store in Brockenhurst

Back then grocers knew about all the products and they knew all about their customers, in fact all shop keepers and their staff knew these things. Employees didn’t need customer service training or be taught how to smile in was part of life. The customer was king and shop keepers knew how to worship the majestic lifeblood of their retail establishments.

Every customer had personal and dedicated service. People didn’t mind queueing because they knew they were in line for that same personal and dedicated service.  Shoppers trusted their chosen purveyors and they sought their professional advice week after week.

Most shopkeepers were also part of the local community social circle. How many superstore managers do you know who can be seen in the local community?

Where are we now?
Most of these types of stores and store practices are seemingly long gone, an example given at the start of this post. But has our desire for good service gone? Have we moved the goal posts to make it easier to be pleased by the service we get? Or maybe our expectations have lowered?

This post could go on and on but all I know is good (not old fashioned) customer service died with my Grandad.  My hope is that we’ll moving into a time of renewal where business owners, brands, shops etc have to start giving a rat’s ass about their customers and start meaningfully connecting with them! Note that doesn’t mean a better loyalty system!

Oh and what about Purkess’?

Established 1894…..sadly R.I.P 2005, an all too familiar site these days. Do you think customers who walk in the that same building get the same service they did 75 years ago?

Your comments are most welcomed, please do leave them below.


I love: Norfolk | Food | Cooking | Community | Speaking | Marketing | My Wife x | Great customer service & engagement | Running a business (or 2) | Humour

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  1. Good thoughts Gary – (enjoyed the photos). This lack of customer service is particularly puzzling because good service increases sales and repeat visits.

    I remember working with some Americans about 15 years ago who constantly stressed the need for companies to become more like the US clothing retailer Nordstrom.

    Nordstrom makes a brilliant case study in marketing and customer service. It’s Employee Handbook used to be (changes in legislation have forced an increase in content) a single sheet of 5×8-inch card with just 74 words on it*:
    “Welcome to Nordstrom

    We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

    Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

    Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.”

    That should be the starting point for every business – no matter who you serve.


    *Source: Wikipedia

  2. Very pertinent blog. Just had a very desperate meetign with a close friend and client, who has had enough of the increased expectation and reducing resurces he is being provided by his employer ot deliver a value retail customer service.

    Is it rife or a consequence of the pressures on business at this part of the economic recovery? i.e. all the good staff sacked or left due to budget cut backs, and now people what a service there are no appropriately skilled worker to provide the service?

  3. I have a different point of view Gary, which, I hope, takes nothing away from yours.
    Its easy to get dewey eyed about the past but I’m quite glad that there is no nosey parker noticing if I buy the best or the cheapest brand, if I’m buying extra ‘cos I’ve got guests or wants to know the latest gossip about my family. That’s how I remember my local store as I was growing up.
    I like to choose who I connect with and I see good customer service as unobtrusive. I don’t want to be friends with my waiter or my hairdresser, I just want them to do their job.
    I did enjoy the photos tho and your grandad’s story is lovely.

    • Hi Ann, Yeah to be honest I’m with you as well. This very thought was niggling me when I was writing this but the post was already getting quite long. We’ve all been in Currys or Dixons when the cocky sales clerk badgers us haven’t we. Where good service comes into play is knowing when to try and connect and when to stay away.

      Taking that further some people choose to be ignored and go about their daily lives without any connection outwardly displaying hard independence but I think deep down that maybe what we inwardly seek is relationships and connection, this is known as cultural inversion.

      Lots to follow up on in future posts. Thanks for your comment.

    • Ian Afford

      They don’t need ‘nosey parkers’ Ann, they have computers logging it all against the personal information on your loyalty card!

      I agree in a way, I don’t like to be pestered when I shop, but a smile and perhaps a ‘Good Morning’ is always welcome.

  4. A interesting conversation. Having read Gary’s post and Ann’s comment, I guess I’m in the middle.
    There is a difference between good customer service and being a friend. What constitutes “good” will be context dependent: you expect to be treated differently by your doctor and your therapist. What is common to all contexts is courtesy, respect and professionalism.

  5. I really like this post. I too would like to see better customer service. It is interesting the point Ann makes in that customer service in the past has been fuel for village gossip.

    I would like to see something in the middle, being 24 the shops in which you refer to were sadly mostly gone by the time I reached adulthood, but it still infuriates me when I am spending my hard earned cash paying for the privilege of someone being at best indifferent about my custom at worst out right rude.

    It seems that retail establishments (even small independent ones) take our business for granted.

    All it would take is a simple smile,a “thank you” and perhaps “have a good day” and I would be happy. Is that really too much to ask for.

    Robyn :)

  6. As Gareth and Robyn say, there is a balance to be struck between indifference and interference – context is all. For instance:

    A music teacher was in a London guitar shop recently waiting to see the owner (a friend of hers). While she was waiting, various customers came in and started browsing. The shop assistant ignored them – except, when asked, to say they could try the various display instruments.

    After a few minutes the customers were looking lost and on the verge of leaving. The shop assistant made no move to stop them. So the music teacher decided to offer some help.

    She asked them what they were looking for – suggested instruments for them to try – told them when she thought the sound didn’t suit them – played some of the instruments for them to show them the range of tones.

    After an hour she had sold six instruments – not by trying to sell but simply by sharing her love of music in an open and friendly manner and by being empathetic, understanding each customer’s needs.

    Sometimes the personal touch works.

  7. John Wilson-Smith

    Living where we do, we have a choice of 2 supermarkets, and a small number of specialist retailers. Of the supermarkets, Sainsbury employ friendly, very helpful staff, many of whom we have got to know very well. Seeking an elusive product, the nearest “stacker” always accompanies us to where it lurks, and always goes to check on availability. How much more “service” would I require? I think they do a splendid job.
    The other store is Lidl, infamous for its shunning of any customer contact, customer help, etc. I only use it for certain continental products not obtainable elsewhere, and I’m always irked that no baskets are provided, only whopping great trolleys.
    The specialist retailers – baker, butcher, fishmonger, greengrocer – are uniformly helpful and polite.

  8. Nice thoughts Gary. There shouldn’t be any difference between local retailer or national chain store for customer service. In reality do we want to stop and chat, or just dart in and out and get on with our busy lives. Maybe we have swapped conversation for convenience and all the retailers are doing is giving us what they think we want.

    We are lucky to have a village community where even the bank tellers recognises you. Our local butcher, after decades of closing early on a Saturday, decided to try and capture the summer BBQ market, by not only opening all day, but additionally a half-day on Sundays too. He has moved with the times, but has kept the welcoming smile and chatty nature.

    Is it not slightly ironic that online in the new social media spaces we inhabit, both individuals and businesses are advised to be helpful and polite. Maybe we could teach ourselves something when we step outside into the real world.

  9. The thought of being able to do my shopping in peace and not being disturbed is an absolute dream, another dream is to get a self checkout working without a hitch!! Do you really want to be bothered just popping in for a pint of milk? I can’t imagine most people do?

    Or maybe no one wanted to chat as you were skipping and they thought you were drunk…? ;)

    • Fair point but I think there’s a difference between being bothered and being noticed / acknowledged.

      I only started skipping through shops ever since you told me you did ;)

  10. I believe the poor service we see so regularly today is consumer driven. Consumers will put up with utterly crap service to save a few pounds. Ryanair is the perfect example of this.

    When retailers who do provide outstanding service (Very few spring to mind? Richer sounds?) Start to excel particularly in grocery retail the market has swung.

  11. I agree with Ralph, however, when we do save those few pounds we all moan about the level of service. By offering a cheaper alternative should not mean ‘cheaper’ customer service.
    This comes from training or not training the staff in the correct way. Staff should be aware’ helpful and polite to their customers and should interact in a positive way.. this costs nothing and in any service industry means that the customer comes away with a positive feel about that journey/experience or whatever which means that the customer will use it again and in all possibility recommend it again ..whether it be Ryanair or anyone else. Which can only mean more business and ultimately more profit.
    The thing that bugs everyone is the arrogance and rudeness of some staff which can make you feel as though they are doing you a favour…by almost ‘allowing you’ to visit their place of employment etc…each generation is no different…

  12. First of all, you skipping through Tesco’s is perhaps why no-one spoke to you?

    Seriously though, I refuse to use self-service tills and bank machines as I like personal contact and I will not help companies lay off staff.

    I am old enough to remember the days when you could go into a shop and sit on a seat by the counter, when staff would get stuff off the shelves for you because most goods were behind the counter or out the back and when staff knew about the goods they were selling.

    The music teacher story is very true, how many assistants in big electrical stores actually know anything about what they sell? (We went to the big Bennett’s Retail Do at the Showground last year and we wanted to look at some TVs in action. A whole bank of them were fuzzy and nobody could get them going because some child had fiddled with a remote! It was laughable to see these men running (not skipping) about trying to find someone who could fix it!!!

    If you want service, where do you go? Small stores. If you want no service, go to the self-service checkouts. Your choice, but don’t moan when the choice disappears as it has in garages, because someone used to put the petrol in your tank for you years ago and it didn’t cost a day’s wages to fill up!

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