Cry, the beloved Customer

Cry, the beloved Customer

“I see only one hope for our country”…wrote Alan Paton in one of the more famous quotes from Cry, the beloved Country.

To gently paraphrase Paton, “I see only one hope for our country’s retailers”…and frankCryTheBelovedCountry_Quote_01ly it involves a paradigm shift in the way customers are treated.

Whilst I certainly do not subscribe to the dated and largely old-school concept of the customer always being right, I do believe the fact we have bothered to take time, money and energy to enter a retail space deserves more than a begrudging grunt from the bored and uninterested staff.

Being from the broader marketing industry, I read with interest, almost daily,  the ongoing debate around the challenge faced by bricks ‘n mortar retailers, again the “unfair” advantage e-tailers have due to simpler infrastructure requirements.

At some stage in any debate, logically, to push your format’s strengths, there at the very least needs to be a vague effort to embrace and work, for all its worth, the tangible benefits your format of choice does offer, and embrace your customer.

In traditional retail that could be a few unique elements. Sampling, Demonstrations, Impulse Purchases etc. are all tools in the retailers arsenal – all wrapped up in a neatly tied bundle of “Customer Experience”, and all supposedly superior to the cold impersonal on-line mouse clicking of online retailing.

If my recent experience though I can honestly say that certain South African retailers are broken! They should admit defeat, fashion a white flag from unused till rolls, and head for the hills! I can honestly attest to some of the worst possible customer engagements I have ever experienced over the last weekend. Although separate examples, they paint a worrying picture of the reality of a customer wandering the aisles in current day SA.

Let’s start with a leading lifestyle motorbike retailer. Saturday morning waPhotoID9617s my chosen day to head out to try and find a Harley Davidson motorbike jacket. Not a cheap investment. Could I buy one on-line? Yup! Instead i chose to succumb to the Harley lifestyle experience, and based on info on the retailers own website, drove 50km over the hills, and far away – the allure of selection, range, and the convenience of fitting on an item of clothing far outweighing the journey.

Except that the place was closed when I arrived. Half an hour before the published close time. Locked up. I guess the rugby was more appealing than the Rand, as the shop owner had decided to leg it  in time for kick-off (I’m guessing).

Would I return? Nope! Have i bought another jacket! Yup! Was it from Harley? Nope!

Next up – same weekend, and ironically as far detached from biking as legally possible, i set out on the quest for a Furby! Admittedly on the childish side, I had seen one of the little blighters at a work function a few weeks prior, and set out to hunt down what appears to be so rare as to be an almost endangered species of toy. Apparently in the world of Toy Retail, the only thing more elusive than Furby’s, is Customer Service, and Product Knowledge…oh and Shop Merchandising – lets not forget that!


I was stunnedIMG_0967 at the lack of any form of customer engagement at a few stores, whilst those that did engage had zero interest in actually responding to my rather simple query, The cherry on the cake, was in Toys R Us, where apparently the merchandising fairies were on strike and the entire store was basically an absolute pig-sty. Dumped stock lay strewn everywhere in the aisles, badly merchandised shelves had toys overflowing from them and the general staff interest level can only be described as “irreverent inconvenience”.

Would I return? Nope!

Finally for the weekend, and always guaranteed to get my back up was a mandatory trip to Builders Warehouse. For a store so specialised in its various product categories, the only building in this warehouse seems to be a growing attitude of customer resentment. an entire lack of any form of product knowledge and a general lack of available staff in general. It is telling I have zero recollection of ever leaving a Builders Warehouse (or Dion Wired for that matter – same group) with a spring in my step and a desire to shout from the hills about a great customer experience.


This weekend was no different, the aisles were full of Zombie like shoppers wandering aimlessly, many looking like they have been there for days. Customers in clear need of help were staring confused at the shelves, often picking them up and desperately glancing around for a yellow shirted saviour to swoop down and assist. The fact that the most prominent member of customer service staff (and I use that term reservedly) seems to be manning the Popcorn machine at the entrance made me realise that even Gordon Ramsey could not save this retail hell.

I do fell sorry for the retailers, i get that times are tough. I get that staff have good days and bad days, and occasionally get it wrong. But these are not specific complaints about a pre-menstrual manager, this is an alarming trend that genuinely seems to be getting worse, not better!

A trend of couldn’t give a damn. A trend of its’s not my job. A seeming lack of concern or care for the paying customer. The reason (the last time I checked) that retail exists at all.

So I suppose the argument will rage on, about on-line vs traditional shopping. Customers will get wiser as options become greater, and a few more of the retail giants may stumble along the way. It’s just a pity that the customers were actually there all along, they were willing, able and more than ready to part with their hard earned cash – they just got lost in the system of stock control and labour disputes, and became an unfortunate by-proudct of the business of selling, instead of being recognised as vital and crucial cogs in the reason retail exists.

Caveat Emptor has a whole new meaning these days and I for one will be on-line more than in the queue-line – thats for sure.

Sad, but true.

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