The Tesco Encounter


Supermarkets I’m sure are designed to stress me out; Fridays especially when everyone seems to hit the shops. Negotiating the usually badly designed car park and trolley littered aisles leaves me frazzled by the time I get to the check-out. I have no time either for the automated self-service machines they are the route to an instant corony with their insistence of an “unexpected item in bagging area” in a middle class tone probably labelled ‘reassuring’ by a focus group somewhere in Tunbridge Wells.

It was one such Friday which found me in a Sainsburys the size of a small planet. In my frazzled state I presented to the checkout. The assistant couldn’t have been more chirpy and chatty “any plans for the weekend” she chimed as she scanned my bottles of wine. This smalltalk brightened my mood a welcome change from what I had begun to call the ‘Tesco encounter’; something I had come to dread. The reason it is so named is because Tesco seemed to me to be the first supermarket to insist staff say “hello” at the checkout. This is such ingrained practice now that I find myself automatically saying hello as I approach the checkout which can be the cause of much embarrassment on the continent where customer-service remains a gleefully underdeveloped, and more natural, concept.

The reason for my dread is firstly its fakeness; forcing people to be chirpy on a Monday morning, or after a long day, or when it’s just not their inclination and telling people off for not being friendly enough just doesn’t seem right to me. Secondly shops  have expanded the encounter to include a mini sales pitch.. “do you have a clubcard, have you got everything you were looking for today, do  you want a mars bar for half the usual price”. No, I just want to pay for my stuff and go. Reassuringly one Tesco employee at an express petrol station does a great line in subverting the whole encounter “do you have a clubcard, do you have any petrol, do you want to answer any more questions” she trots out dryly. Brilliant!

It took a couple of more trips to Sainsburys to twig what was going on. Staff engaging me in conversation everytime I was at the till with lines like “had a good day” or “looking forward to the weekend”.. I sensed that their staff had received some kind of training and instruction to go forth and engage customers in conversation. It was not an antidote to the Tesco encounter, more of a mutation.

Yesterday as I fought my way through what was the busiest retail day virtually ever of a shopping mall I noticed New Look had also evolved the encounter, its checkout staff creating what the marketeers probably describe as a ‘feel good vibe’ with lines such as “oh I love those shoes, I wanted some myself, but they didn’t have my size left”…. Where are we going with all this, will checkout staff be instructed to add customers on Facebook and take them out on the town before letting them escape with their purchases.

I don’t mean to sound grumpy, but it is all so artificial, I feel sorry for the staff involved who are probably threatened with the sack if they fail to lay on the right amount of saccharine sweetness to every single customer.

How does all this relate to the call-centre? Well we actually recently received a management memo telling us to be less ‘chatty’ to customers. Apparently it means we get through less calls if some person, who probably can’t get out of the house, wants to have a good chinwag with us about what they’ve bought, the weather or whatever else. As I’ve said before I enjoy these conversations. When they are natural they break up the monotony of a day of robot-like repetitive transactions and make me, as well as the customer feel a bit more human. It seems that for good or for bad companies and managers are trying to hijack these encounters, fashioning them to suit their ends whatever they may be; more sales, brand loyalty, or quicker transactions. This makes us all a bit less human

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