Sainsbury's welcomes debate on phone use after checkout row


The debate about phone usage: When should you hang up your phone?

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Sainsbury's says it welcomes the debate about etiquette sparked by one of its checkout workers refusing to serve a customer who was talking on her phone.

In a letter seen by the BBC, it says it is "pleased the story is leading to a wider debate on politeness".

The incident happened at a branch in Crayford, south-east London.

Sainsbury's apologised to customer Jo Clarke and offered her a £10 voucher, but many observers have said it should have backed its worker.

Those adding their voice to the debate include Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who said on his weekly Thursday radio phone-in that he had "sneaking sympathy" with the checkout worker, although he also understood why Sainsbury's had to apologise to its customer.

However, Sainsbury's is privately offering the worker involved its full support.

The company said in the letter setting out its policy: "It is clear this story has touched a nerve as the weight of comment shows.

Start Quote

A lot of retailers are really annoyed with Sainsbury's over this. The customer is not always right - the customer is often wrong”

End Quote Bryan Roberts Kantar

"However, we are also pleased that this specific story is leading to a wider debate on politeness."

'Never wrong'

The Sainsbury's worker told Ms Clarke that it was company policy not to serve people who were occupied with their mobile phones, but that was denied at the time by the company.

But Sainsbury's said in its letter that it hoped "the discussion this has created leads us all to think twice before reaching for our mobile phones and to recognise the great job the many thousands of sales assistants working across retail do".

A number of retail experts said the company's original stance had been wrong.

One of them, Bryan Roberts, from the marketing experts Kantar, said: "A lot of retailers are really annoyed with Sainsbury's over this. The customer is not always right - the customer is often wrong."

The expression "the customer is always right" is generally attributed to the retail pioneer, Harry Selfridge, whose choice of site for his department store put Oxford Street on the map as a prime retail site.

He pressed it on customers and staff as a counterpoint to the legal term in common use at the time of "buyer beware", and not necessarily to put the customer solely in the driving seat.

Perhaps, to be assured of excellent service, shoppers should head for those companies employing the motto adopted by the founder of the Ritz: "The customer is never wrong."

Despite the apology and the voucher from Sainsbury's, Ms Clarke has said she will be transferring her custom to a nearby branch of the rival supermarket Waitrose.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 840.

    Despite the fact it would more often than not be classed as rude to not give someone your full attention when engaging in some form of interaction, I would imagine that most people if in the place of this customer would find it incredulous that they were asked to put down their phone before being served at a checkout.

  • rate this

    Comment number 839.

    Talking on your phone while at a checkout is rude, but not to the extent that you should be refused service. In my local Co-op the checkout staff talk to each other constantly, even when serving you. That's far worse in my opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 838.

    My local Sainsburys has no mobile reception. Maybe they should roll that out accross the country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 837.

    Of course it is rude to talk on the phone at the checkout & the member of staff was right to be annoyed. However, as a customer, I am frequently irritated to be served by a shop worker who is carrying on a conversion with a colleague. It feels like a sheep being put through the sheep dip.

  • rate this

    Comment number 836.

    834.Megan - " I'm ruthless with those who ring me when I am busy about something else, especially if it involves real live human beings.
    My phone went off when I was teaching. I answered it long enough to say "I'm teaching, call back at 2.30" & rang off without even checking who'd called!"

    Is it not possible to turn off your Phone during lessons and turn it on again after?

  • rate this

    Comment number 835.

    What if the checkout lady phoned someone when she was serving the customer? The customer would soon complain. Customer or checkout person people should treat others with respect and It's rude, rude, rude to show such ignorance. To claim it's multitasking shows the lack of respect that person hads for others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 834.

    I'm ruthless with those who ring me when I am busy about something else, especially if it involves real live human beings.

    My phone went off when I was teaching. I answered it long enough to say "I'm teaching, call back at 2.30" & rang off without even checking who'd called!

  • rate this

    Comment number 833.

    Checkout staff are their to serve the customer. The complainant in this case may well have appeared rude, but it is not up to the checkout staff to make up rules for customers to abide by. If Sainsbury's want to introduce this rule, the store management can do so. At the same time, perhaps they could send their staff for customer service training, as in my experience many of them would benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 832.

    I am pleased that the Sainsbury staff member refused to serve this rude customer. It shows that Sainsbury are at last attempting to maintain standards. In the past it was always said that Sainsburys main purpose was to keep the riff raff out of Waitrose!

  • rate this

    Comment number 831.

    If you are making a financial transaction at the checkout it deserves your full attention. If you are making a telephone call, again, your full attention. It is rude, careless and downright silly to distract yourself from one important thing with another - regardless of how much you claim to multitask. If you must use the telephone while checking out - go and use the self service.

  • rate this

    Comment number 830.

    Should the checkout assistant have acted they way they did? Probably not. Was the customer being rude in continuing their conversation? Most likely. Does what happened really warrant this amount of attention and debate? Probably not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 829.

    It is rude to be on the phone when you are being served unless it is absolutely critical. Although Sainsbury's are supporting the employee privately, they should be doing so in public. A couple of coffee stalls in our local market town will not serve you if you are on the phone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 828.

    How can anyone interact with another if one is in a conversation on a mobile phone. Sainsbury's should NOT have reacted the way they did. How can the lower ly paid shop worker do their job, if they can not communicate with the customer. This woman's actions could have caused delays for other customers as it may have taken more time for her to get through the check out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 827.

    818 meerkat
    This does not apply to ALL staff in shops or at checkouts etc,.but
    Say your bill is £16.26,you hand over £21.26,as you want a £5 pound note for change for example,the amount of times you get a look of "what are you trying to do,it's too much"or"I don' understand you"etc,I also watch this occurring to others as well,it's like a party game,will the shop assistant understand or not!?

  • rate this

    Comment number 826.

    Whilst I agree it is rude to be on the phone at the checkout, it is also rude for the checkout staff to hold conversations between each other whilst serving me. Politeness goes both ways

  • rate this

    Comment number 825.

    798 Robin

    You what! Just to make myself clear. We were having a face to face, their mobile rang which they promptly took without a by-your-leave. And you think walking away is respecting their privacy. Good grief man. I wonder what your priorities are in general. Should they not have had their phone on silent and got back to them after our conversation? No wonder the country has gone to the dogs

  • rate this

    Comment number 824.

    If a customer wants to use their phone it is up to them. The cashier is not an equal party. They are there to complete the transaction. I have done that job. My take was always that I want their business not their friendship. Some people talk to you, some don’t. Some are ‘rude’, some are not. Who cares?! If a person is paying the bills and keeping me in work, my tolerance is high.

  • rate this

    Comment number 823.

    Even if the checkout worker was over zealous, I think it is a pity that Sainsburys apologised and made matters worse by offering a voucher. So rudeness is rewarded in that store, is it. Employers such as Sainsburys have a duty to their customers but they also have a duty to defend their staff. As a small shareholder in Sainsburys, I am really disappointed in them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 822.

    Why did Sainsbury's not back their employee and put up a sign which reads if you are using a mobile phone you will not be served.This is on the tellers window in my post office and people know where they stand. My self if my phone rings whilst in a queue I give up my place or phone back when I am free it is just good manners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 821.

    Should ban mobiles from the whole supermarket, all trains, all busses and any enclosed public space.
    Anyone playing music audible to other people should have an on the spot fine of £200.
    Sainsbury's got it wrong and haveshown how spineless they are, glad i dont shop there, and not planning to give them a try either. No one has a right to be rude, no matter how superior they think they may be


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