Jayne Dowle: Are the big supermarkets way past their sell-by dates?

Pleasing the people who come through the door of the supermarket is as crucial as stocking fresh lettuce.
Pleasing the people who come through the door of the supermarket is as crucial as stocking fresh lettuce.
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I’m polishing up my CV. I’m even thinking of buying a new suit. There’s a job I’m thinking of applying for. One of the top numbers in retail – big boss at Bradford-based Morrisons – is up for grabs, following the departure of chief executive Dalton Philips this week.

What do you mean I’m not qualified? I might not be the most obvious candidate but I could certainly bring some experience to the role. Indeed, I seem to spend a significant proportion of my waking hours in a supermarket, so it’s not as though I would be unfamiliar with my workplace.

And let’s be honest. With profits falling and customers deserting in droves, the boards of the “big four” supermarkets – including Morrisons – must be desperate to find a fix. New research from retail analysts Kandar suggests that more than half of all British households visited discount supermarkets Aldi or Lidl over the festive period, deserting the traditional names in droves. In these tough times, perhaps they might give me a go?

I hope you don’t mind if I bat a few 
ideas around with you then. I’d start by saying that above all, the customer must come first.

Running a supermarket might have a lot to do with logistics. However, whoever is in charge should never forget that pleasing the people who come through the door is as crucial as fresh lettuce.

Supermarkets should be welcoming places. They should make customers feel valued, loved even. Unfortunately, most of the time they make us feel like collateral damage in their never-ending price war.

Let’s start with parking, shall we? It would be nice for it to be free. There is nothing more annoying that having to scrabble about for change when you’re wrestling with a trolley. And if the supermarket is on the fringes of a town centre, free parking has wider benefits. It brings in shoppers who might otherwise be tempted away and encourages them to spend their money locally.

I could offer one of those “challenges I have faced” scenarios here. In my own town a certain supermarket recently revised its “free parking” rules. When it opened a few years ago, everyone welcomed the chance to leave their car on its car park for 90 minutes. Now, for some reason, it’s reduced the free car park to one hour only and introduced a stress-inducing number-plate recognition system. Result? A half-empty car-park even on Saturday afternoons, which means fewer people shopping in town. As a customer, I feel cynically manipulated. Did the promise of free parking secure planning permission for the store? Mmm.

Cynical manipulation of the customer. I could write a book, never mind a job application. Under this heading also come those imaginary offers which try to convince us that certain goods were “on sale at a higher price in High Wycombe”.

Do they think we are daft? I would just try and keep prices as low and uncomplicated as possible, without attempting to fry the brains of customers by distracting them with too much information. Under this heading also come BOGOFs, here-today, gone-tomorrow deals which suck you in then let you down on your next visit, and too-good-to-be-true offers which have mysteriously run out by the time you make it to the store.

Don’t the bosses realise how infuriating and time-wasting this is for us? Supermarket shopping is exhausting enough without befuddling us and letting us down. It would be my vow to make sure prices are kept reasonable week-in, week-out. Really, that’s all customers want. A bit of security and reliability in a stressful world.

And while we are on the subject of supermarket exhaustion, I’d also mention the eternal issue of queues. I’d like to see the equation which weighs up “five o’clock / busy store / closed lanes”, because it certainly never works in favour of the customer. What kind of crazy thinking closes down a bank of tills when everyone turns out of work desperate to buy something for tea? I’d definitely recommend an end to this practice, and use a recent example of walking out of a certain store leaving a laden trolley behind as illustration.

Ah yes, tills. This would come under the heading of “how would you improve service?”. I’ll tell you exactly how I would improve service. I would call a halt to the roll-out of self-service tills. As previously outlined, supermarkets are frustrating places. And there is nothing, yes, nothing, more frustrating than having to pay for your goods using “self-scan”. Anything more than a tin of beans and a cabbage falls off the bagging area. Anything heavier than a feather dropped in error threatens to set off the sprinklers and lock down the store. Anything out of the ordinary – loose potatoes say, or a bottle of wine – demands the attention of an assistant who nine times out of 10 looks murderous.

What’s that? My time is up? You’re sorry to tell me that I haven’t got the job? Oh dear. Well, all that’s left for me to say is good luck to the person who does get it. You’re certainly going to need it.