Menswear Buyer article for August

‘The customer is always right’. How many of us learnt that on day one of retail school? And how many of us have come so close to throttling a customer or slamming their fingers in the till?

This aphorism came home to roost this week in one of my stores that shall remain nameless as I wouldn’t want all of Crystal Palace to hear about it. Picture the scene; it’s a quiet Tuesday morning towards the end of the sale. The manager’s on her own and a young man walks in, headphones on, unable to hear the ‘Good morning’. ‘Where are the sale items?’ he asks, somewhat brusquely. ‘They’re all around,’ the manager replies, ‘Just look for the sale signs.’ The young man takes issue with this. It’s not the service level he’s expecting. Clearly, he expects to be taken round the store and shown where all the individual items are.

Matters deteriorate. Rapidly. A heated exchange follows where he says the service is appalling and she tells him not to be so cheeky, the latter in a good humoured way to try to defuse the situation. She may as well have poured petrol onto a simmering barbeque and hoped the sausages wouldn’t burn.

About a minute later and I received his phone call. There were numerous references to his being a frequent shopper in the Boutiques of Bond Street and never experiencing this. I promised to look into it.

Now I should explain that I select my store managers not just for their experience and abilities but also for their personality. I want them to ‘own’ the stores; to be characters whose individuality reflects my brand itself. This comes with risks and benefits. Mostly, Simon Carter customers love the fact that it’s not a Bond Street experience of identikit staff dressed in black with well rehearsed trigger point sales patter. Then, occasionally, banter can be mistaken for offhand over familiarity. But I’d rather run that risk, and have managers whose customers bring them cakes and coffees and call in for a chat because they’re real people.

So, back to the incident in Crystal Palace. Magnaminously, my manager called the offended customer, and apologised if her cheeky approach had offended him. He began to lecture her on retailing and declined her offer of a pair of my £18 Italian socks by means of an olive branch. Instead, he emailed to me to say that he’d never grace me with his custom again. After 30 years in this business, I think it’s fair to say that I’ll still sleep tonight. We’ll muddle through without Mr. Bond Street.

So, is the customer always right? No; plainly not. The decision is ours as retailers if we put up with it. But sometimes, you have to make a stand. And today I stood firmly by my staff.

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