Sainsbury's welcomes debate on phone use after checkout row


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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 838.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 772.

    What I find most disturbing is that someone would go to the press over a minor argument with a shop assistant... I guess the same kind of self-important person who considers it OK to hold a private phone call while being served at the checkout.

  • rate this

    Comment number 700.

    It's so rude. We do this at my workplace when customers are on the phone. We ask them to stand to one side so other customers can be served while they have their chat. It's the only thing more annoying and rude than queue jumping.

  • rate this

    Comment number 642.

    This is not just a problem with mobile phones, it's a problem with etiquette in general. Loud music on your ipod or eating smelly food on the tube, talking loudly in a quiet area because you need to be heard. Some people just have not got a clue about the very obvious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    Having worked in retail for 6 years, I think it is unbelieveably rude to be on the phone whilst at the check out, there are times when the customer needs to and it's acceptable because they have apologised and explained its important, but when you turn up to the counter, no say a word and just walk off, that is just plain rude. You would think its rude if the cashier was on the phone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    Being on a phone whilst at a checkout is rude. It shows no respect for the person on the checkout and I am sorry that Sainsbury's apologised and gave this woman a reward for her rudeness. I'm delighted they are supporting their worker though - she was right to refuse to serve this customer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    It's that "me first" attitude that is prevalent these days. If a telephone conversation is so important that it can't be left then it deserves a persons full attention, that can't be achieved while doing other things. This was clearly nothing but a chat which could have waited for a few minutes.
    The person on the checkout was probably wrong for berating a customer but that customer was also wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    Is it rude? I've worked in Sainsburys checkout, and not really cared if they've been on the phone. It's rude, but then there are so many facets in society where people would be perceived as rude. How often do you say hello to the bus driver when you board the bus? How many say thank you when someone offers a seat, or apologised for brushing feet on the tube? I'd be a very angry man otherwise.


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