Like so many others, last night I watched Secret Shopper on Channel 4. The series follows Mary Portas as she takes on the British High Street with an aim to revolutionise the customer service offered in our favourite shops.
I worked in high street and high end retail stores for years. My first job was in a discount shoe shop selling peep toe platforms for a fiver. I was paid £3.10 an hour (below minimum wage) and worked like a cart horse. And let me tell you – squeezing a fat, smelly, size 8 hoof into a size 6 slingback does not make for a positive mental attitude. But I always smiled. I learned my stock, where specific items were located and how to do refunds on the till. Not through professional training, but through trial, error and practise.
Mary visited Primark, H&M, New Look and Pilot with an undercover camera to investigate the level of customer service in ‘fast fashion’ stores. Predictably (and very sadly), all failed miserably when measured against her pretty reasonable standards. Is it really too much to ask that staff in Primark know what an aviator jacket is? Or where it might be on the shop floor? When a customer walks through the doors of Pilot, should they be greeted with a smile and a quick hello, or should the staff continue their conversations? It’s obvious, isn’t it?
During my time in retail, I also worked in a branch of Levi’s. The difference between the cheap, ‘fast fashion’ ethos of the shoe shop and the higher end, ‘designer’ positioning of Levi’s was immense. Staff were incentivised with vouchers, huge discounts on stock and gifts for providing excellent customer care. We offered an alteration service that saw us sitting at a sewing machine, altering leg lengths while our customer shopped elsewhere, returning an hour later to pick up their purchases. We worked hard but we played hard too – team nights out were regular and often provided by head office. It was a service that the higher prices (£40-50 for a pair of jeans) paid for.
I last retail position ended in 2006 and since then, the high street has changed almost beyond recognition. Smaller boutiques and more bespoke high end chains have been pushed out by the demand for fast fashion and low prices. Focus has shifted – it’s now more common to go into a shop with sharpened elbows and clear idea of what you want than to spend 20 minutes discussing the benefits of one product over another with a sales assistant. But that doesn’t mean customer service should be non-existent. I don’t think Mary’s high-octane plans for Pilot’s dingy fitting rooms will ever make it past that first concept store, but the simple lack of communication skills and brand knowledge she uncovered should be addressed. Are brands like Primark pushing our traditional idea of shopping too far? Is a minimum wage salary combined with a busy store and high turnover making it impossible to motivate and inspire staff?
As a passionate and regular high street shopper, I’ve developed opinions on brands that influence my decisions when purchasing. Here are my top shops for customer service and experience, and my biggest losers…
They’ve got it
Next – staff hang your purchases up in the fitting room for you, and there’s a call button inside if you need help. On a rammed Saturday before Christmas, a very busy but helpful assistant quickly tracked down a pair of trousers in the size I needed.
Coast – their beautiful fitting rooms make trying on dresses a wonderful experience. Heavy velvet curtains, gilded golden rails, vases of flowers and charming assistants all convince you to spend.
LK Bennett – simply, the staff really know their stuff. A knowledgeable assistant (who was impeccably dressed) picked out a dress and shoes that fitted perfectly and made me feel fantastic.
Gap – American-style service with a touch of British reserve. Greetings at the door, staff on the shop floor always willing to help and neat, clean displays.
H&M – I’ve never been served in less than 10 minutes in H&M. Long queues at the tills, one person serving while five stand around, seemingly doing nothing.
New Look – messy, chaotic fitting rooms, supervised by staff who can’t leave their post to get alternative sizes.
Reiss – judgemental, snooty assistants to whom the concept of a size 12 is alien. Definitely don’t go in if you’re carrying a Pound Shop bag.
Urban Outfitters – a greeter on the door who ignores you, which you soon find out is a common trait amongst staff.
It’s not quantative research by any means, but my experiences in these shops do influence where I spend my money.
What are your thoughts on customer service? Is it important to you, or are you happy to put up with bored assistants, messy shops and long queues if it means bagging a bargain? Which shops do you think get it right, and which get it wrong?