WE were waiting in a check-out queue and noticed that the customers being served, an apparently able-bodied man and his teenage daughter, were standing talking while the check-out assistant rang up their many purchases, packed them into bags and put the bags into their trolley. When she had finished, they left without a word of thanks,
“Wouldn’t they have liked you to push the trolley out and pack the car for them, too?” we asked the check-out girl. She shrugged. All this time, the queue waited patiently. When we got back to my daughter’s house, we recounted the incident and she smiled ruefully. “It happens all the time,” she said. “It’s what people expect.” We pointed out that they hadn’t even thanked the check-out operator and she said that was typical.
This was in Sacramento, California, where my daughter lives and it isn’t a habit that has arrived here – yet. Check-out operators at our local Waitrose and Morrisons both ask if a customer wants help packing but most of us can just about manage the arduous task of moving the bananas or porridge oats from the counter to our shopping bags. (Some of us even remember to take our bags with us to cut down on the number of plastic carrier bags going to landfill or worse, finding their way down the rivers and into the oceans).
We came across many examples of this sense of entitlement from customers during our holiday earlier this year – people going on to social media and TripAdvisor to complain in quite horrible and personal terms about members of staff at a fashion store in Santa Monica – we had found the staff to be unfailingly charming, friendly and helpful – and rude comments about a hotel in the same town, where we received exceptionally good service, so much so that we decided, unusually, to go on to TripAdvisor and report the welcome we had experienced.
Back in Sacramento we were trying to find some items to display a large map for a family event at my grandson’s school. We went to a giant stationery and office supplies warehouse (not the sort of place where you generally expect any help, just hope you can find what you want). The duty manager phoned around to the other stores in the sprawling city to find a practical solution to our problem. When we had to pop back later for more pins for the little flags on the map she was still there – two-thirds of the way through a 12-hour shift, still smiling and helpful.
Before we get too critical of American behaviour in supermarkets compared to ours, look around next time you are at a check-out and see how many people are on their mobile phones, treating the operator as if they are invisible, or holding up the rest of the queue while they finish their conversation before unpacking or packing their shopping. And we witnessed one of the most arrogant and unpleasant demonstrations of customer power at a small restaurant in Cranborne, when a drunken party at the next table set out to humiliate a young waitress, even loudly making comments about her looks.
We are used to the way American supermarket and store staff pack your goods for you – whether it is the ethical chain Trader Joe’s or the huge Raley’s or Safeway, you will get your purchases packed (usually into recyclable heavy duty brown paper bags.) And you say thank you (well, we do).
Here you get this style of service, uniquely, at two motorway service stations, the family-owned Tebay on the M6 in Cumbria and the same family’s Gloucester Services on the M5 – you also get locally sourced food, making them the only “destination” motorway stops in the country, and perhaps in the world.
And you find it in one of London’s busiest shopping and fashion centres, in the American-owned Whole Foods Market. We recently went to the flagship Kensington store, on several floors of the old Barkers department store, with a trendy street-style food hall, a mouth-watering display of fresh fruit and vegetables and an encyclopaedic range of whole foods (well, they would, wouldn’t they!), where we found the slightly obscure ingredients we were looking for.
When you take your purchases to the check-out, they are packed into brown bags for you. And you (we) say thank you. I didn’t notice anyone at the check-outs on a mobile phone, and in this busy cosmopolitan part of London, where you hear more languages than you could name, there is a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Whole Foods has struggled to make its mark in the UK – it certainly isn’t cheap – but in the heart of London, a melting pot of nationalities, where money swills around like sardines in a barrel, it brings a touch of almost old-fashioned service with a smile to the cut-throat world of food retailing.
I don’t know when saying “please” or “thank you” passed out of common usage, or when we began to think that it was acceptable to treat people in the service industries either with contempt or ignoring their existence. Whole Foods Market (like Tebay and Gloucester Services) is a reminder that we are entitled to want high quality goods and good service, but that we should expect to pay a proper price and to reward good service with a smile and thanks.