The retail experience

Posted: September 6, 2010

Amongst the features in the September issue of ETO is a report on a new branch of innovative adult retailer Sh! Women’s Store, and I would recommend anyone who runs a shop of their own to have a read through the piece, especially if they are looking for inspiration for their own business.

Sh! Women’s Store does far more than buy a product from person A in order to sell it to person B at a higher price – there is an admirable ethos behind everything the shop does, and it offers a true ‘retail experience’ to its customers. No doubt its customers could buy some of the products Sh! stocks at a lower price online, but I bet they don’t.

Anyone looking for the antithesis of the Sh! experience won’t have to travel far to find it in modern Britain; the supermarkets appear to be in the process of removing that one little bit of human contact that they offer their customers. Self-service tills must look like a genius idea to bean counters – instead of having six human cashiers they can have one person keeping a watchful eye over six self-service points simultaneously. That’s not just an obvious saving of 83% in staff wages, there’s also all the NI, tax, holidays, uniforms and even tea breaks that no longer have to be accounted for. And, as a bonus, with no one chit-chatting about the weather at the point of purchase, customers should be processed faster and more efficiently.

I have always avoided these areas on principle. Having spent the first 17 years of my working life in retail I am not prepared to now put in an unpaid shift, however brief, for a firm that counts its profits in billions. I’m fine with putting my purchases on the conveyor belt but having to pick them up in a certain way and make sure the scanner picks up the barcode correctly? And then I’m obliged to hurriedly pack them myself, struggling to prise apart stuck together carrier bags, because behind me I can hear the impatient tutting of an office worker with a sandwich and an attitude, then I’ve got to figure out which buttons to press on the till… No thanks.

Last week I had no alternative though. I only had a dozen or so items and every human-operated till in my local Sainsbury’s was queuing two trolleys deep. The self-service section was like a vision of retail hell – miserable looking customers morosely picking and packing while the single supervisor dashed from till to till trying to help those who were slowing the line or couldn’t figure out how to pay. And yes, I was one of them.

I later learned I had swindled Sainsbury’s out of £2 because the scanner had failed to register one of my purchases, though I hadn’t realised it at the time. I felt neither delight nor guilt at this discovery though; just resentful of the whole ‘retail experience’ I had endured. I hadn’t intended to steal £2 of provisions from the grocer but at busy times these chaotic, largely unsupervised, points of purchase must be a bean feast for a practiced shoplifter. Yet any losses the supermarkets make through pilfering will probably be more than offset by the savings they make.

A key current buzzword in corporate circles is ‘engagement’ and forcing customers to adhere to this new way of buying products is the complete opposite of engaging with customers in the way that Sh! Women’s Store does so successfully. If I was an independent retailer and had to choose between investing in cash-saving technology or personnel who can interact with the customer I know where my money would go. Sadly, thanks to the rise and rise of the supermarkets, there are very few areas of retail left which can support specialist independent retailers – but thankfully adult is one of them.