Thursday, February 22, 2018

Retail Work and Customer Relations: An Interview

Retail Work and Customer Relations: An Interview
By Devon Bowers

This is the transcript of an email interview I did with former UK retail worker Helen Howard in which we discuss retail work, relations between customers and workers, and where the US retail industry is headed.

1. How did you wind up working in retail?

I started at the age of 16 in 1997, and by the next year I needed a weekend position to help me out financially. I was given four hours on a Sunday afternoon working in the music/video section of the store my brother worked at, with the opportunity to work extra hours during the week to fit in around my studies. Once I left college in 2001 I decided to stay on as I didn't know what I wanted to do for a career. I worked for the one company in various branches for 16 years, then left to enter education in 2013.

2. You stated in our discussion that you went all the way from a regular worker to an asst manager. In what ways did you see the personality differences and attitudes towards workers change as you moved up the ladder? Did you internalize some of these attitudes?

As members of my family had worked in the same store, I was pretty well known anyway and it was always assumed I would have most of the answers to questions. The store I was working at was unlike most other high street stores, giving all members of the store team the authority to solve most issues without having to call a supervisor. As I grew in confidence I dealt with most things myself and soon noticed that my weekend colleagues would turn to me to help them out. I discovered I was good at solving problems and when I was given a new member of staff to train up, I was able to help her settle in and eventually empower her to make her own decisions over refunds etc. I was given the promotion to supervisor in another store when I left college.

I soon gained a reputation as a 'fix-it' person, and was sent by the area managers to other stores that needed support in getting back on track with tasks. I only met with negativity in one particular store, but the whole attitude of the store team was not as it should be, and although I got a few people onside it was not a big success, and I left soon after. I didn't take these attitudes on board, as I knew the problems in that store ran deeper than I could fix.

3. When the internet first came into existence, how did that affect workers and what was the industry concerned about, if they were concerned at all?

We first noticed that people were starting to question why something was cheaper online than in stores, not something we were prepared for. When people then said, "Oh well I may as well get it online then," we knew we had a problem.

This grew when the cuts to overtime came in. Then we noticed that we were increasingly left with fewer and fewer colleagues around, and that people who had left were not getting replaced. When the large, two-floor store I used to work at was reduced to one floor in the early 2000s: that was when the alarm bells started ringing.

The company saw takings fall and knew it had to increase footfall into their stores and away from the internet so there was a huge increase in promotional activity in the store. Confectionery and stationery companies now do deals with the company to push their merchandise. This was by far and away the biggest change. Bigger signage, more cardboard display stands, more hanging signage, more pre-orders on books and videos were introduced. The pressure increased on workers to offer exemplary customer service, give out vouchers, keep displays filled and push certain confectionery lines at the tills. Stores in the 1990s were clear, tidy and quite open plan. By the 2000s, they were filled with colour, huge signs and displays everywhere to the point where they now look cluttered and visually 'noisy.'

4. You did a study in which you examined interactions between retail workers and customers. What were your findings and how do they relate to the alienation people experience in the workplace and larger society?

I had long been fascinated by the reactions some customers would have when told they couldn't have a refund, even though I remained calm and explained the store policy very clearly. This led to me deciding to explore this when I went back to university to study a degree in Psychology. I interviewed both customers and my colleagues at the store I was working inat the time. I compared their responses, and discovered something rather interesting. I saw that both the customers and sales assistants had a 'them and us' mentality. The customers saw the assistants not as individuals, but as faceless representatives of the company, and the assistants saw each customer as just one of many people they would serve that day. Significantly, both sides saw themselves as unique individuals. When this view was challenged by the other side, that's when the high negative emotions began to emerge.

Additionally, it should also be understood that human beings have a strong need to belong and to feel safe in a collective. Customers would band together and support each other against the assistant in a refund dispute, and so would the assistants. This effect would heighten the more serious the dispute. (I would theorise that if something extraordinary happened such as armed gunmen coming in to the store, the customers and assistants would then band together against the gunmen as it would make them feel safer.) This all relates to social identity theory, which aims to explain how people behave and feel in society. Tajfel (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g. social class, family, football team etc.) which people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem.

Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world. So customers would see fellow customers as their 'in-group,' and the assistants as the 'out-group.'I understood from my study that the best customer service was when a customer was made to feel their uniqueness and individuality, particularly when an assistant would make an extra effort to solve an issue or query. An assistant would always remember and appreciate a customer who would smile and be pleasant to them, perhaps offering a compliment or something. On each occasion, the customer or the assistant would have their sense of individuality recognized and appreciated, rather than just be treated as 'one of the out-group.'

As a supervisor in a large store (as I was in around 2004), I was effectively Assistant Manager although the official title was almost obsolete by then. I knew that team morale was lead by the store manager and myself. I could sense that when there was conflict between us, the store team was unsettled and uneasy. When we were having a laugh and the store was doing well, the team was happy and worked very well together. If any member of my team felt unhappy or alienated, I would do my very best to talk to them and identify what the problem was. It was essential to make every person feel they were valued, respected and that I was grateful for every contribution they made.

5. Retail work many times is manual labor. Why do you think society looks down on retail as not a so called real job, but simultaneously admires manual laborers?

Twenty to thirty years ago, a career in retail was admirable and respectable. Nowadays this is not the case.

I would say that the main reason that retail is looked down on by most in other professions, is because there are no real qualifications needed to start, and many store managers have risen up the ranks by experience alone. (We do have some qualifications in the UK to assist in a career in retail, such as a BTEC or NVQ in Business Management, but these are not necessary.) The skills needed in retail (common sense, practical thinking, solution-focused problem-solving, numeracy and literacy, stress and time management amongst many) are not taught in a course but developed over time and mostly learned on the job.

Even though not everyone can develop these skills, they are still not valued as much and are therefore not as well paid. Most people in other professions would have taken a Saturday job in order to bring in a bit of pocket money, so it would be seen as a stop-gap job and not taken seriously.
People admire manual labourers such as builders, plumbers, electricians etc, because there are necessary courses to take to learn how to perform these jobs and a lot of money can be made. To most people, fixing a car or their central heating system is completely beyond them and therefore those that can, are respected and admired.

6. In the US currently, many retail stores are shutting down due to folks shopping online. Is there a same affect in the UK?

Yes, absolutely. We have lost many beloved high street stores over the past twenty years, particularly record and electronic shops and have also seen many companies buy each other out. However the various pound shop chains are alive and thriving.

For those that remain, store staff has been reduced to a skeleton and pressure exists to cut even more. Branches have been closed down with staff either made redundant or forced to relocate. Self-service checkouts have been introduced to attempt to cut queues. As a side-note, this further exacerbates the feeling of 'de-individualisation' of customers by the company, as they are not even served by a real person!

I think in the future, the convenience of shopping online will slowly bring back the desire to be treated as a human being and people will return to shopping in actual stores. People have never liked using automated systems such as telephone banking or choosing options on a phone keypad and really appreciate more than ever a personal service.