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Shop till I drop

By Val Schefe - posted Wednesday, 26 May 2010

I can’t believe I’m the only person in the universe to be regularly incensed by the shopping experience. We’re used to car salesmen and real estate agents taking liberties with the truth as they try to separate us from our hard-earned cash, but when did it become common practice for businesses, particularly retailers, and more particularly the big grocery retailers, to use smoke and mirrors as their normal modus operandi? And why have we let this happen?

The latest incident to raise my blood pressure involved one of the big two supermarket chains. I recently needed to replenish my vitamin supply. There was a ticket over the normal price tag on the shelf, and it said something like “LOWER SHELF PRICE $32.50 WAS $32.95 as at 24/6/08”. (The date part was written in such a tiny font it was barely legible.) I lifted the ticket to check the normal price and it said $32.50. What the …? I muttered as I rummaged around in my bag for my glasses to read the tiny font. As at 24/6/08? Then I looked at some of the other white LOWER SHELF PRICE tickets to find a similar story - the price on the ticket was exactly the same as the price on the shelf underneath, although it looked, and at first glance read, as though the item was on special.

The impression busy shoppers get is that this item is on special today compared with its regular current price. Well, it isn’t. It’s lower in comparison with a price from a couple of years ago. Do the retailers think customers will say “Wow, I’ll stock up on these because, although they’re more expensive than they were last week, they’re a great buy in comparison with their October 2006 price?” Of course they don’t: they count on us being too busy to read the fine print.


Then there are the shrinking pack sizes that have been in the news lately. Memo to the companies doing this: don’t. Just put your prices up. Customers understand you have increasing expenses. We mightn’t be happy, but we understand. Don’t try to trick us into believing we’re still getting the same “value”. You let your stock run down in the supermarkets because you think when the “new improved” pack appears we won’t notice the difference. We notice. And we think it’s sneaky and unprincipled.

And the self-checkouts - as a matter of principle I won’t use them. In regular displays of bloody-mindedness, that worry the stores not a schmick, I stand fuming in the ridiculous queues doing my bit to ensure no more jobs are lost, and to show that I can’t be bullied. Of course the stores will turn the thumbscrews on recalcitrant customers still determined to be served by humans, and make us wait even longer until we finally say “uncle” or just die of old age waiting in the queue. They’re charging me at least as much as before, but now they want me to do the work myself? I’m old enough to remember when discount food chain Jack the Slasher brought in an equally revolutionary idea, but they at least had the decency to offer cheaper products than the opposition to compensate for the fact that the customer was now doing half their work.

And don’t get me started on the food courts in shopping centres, complete with big screen TVs, and a multitude of outlets selling artery-clogging plastic “food”. As much as retailers and centre management would like us to believe otherwise, these are not community centres where our lives are enriched by quality interactions with others. They’re simply places you go to buy overpriced, and in many cases unnecessary, groceries - a process that might take a couple of hours max if you can stand the crowds and noise. To my knowledge no shopper in Australia has ever died of malnutrition because they haven’t refuelled during the weekly grocery shop.

We hear about rude customers on their mobile phones while sales staff are trying to serve them and there’s no question that it’s an issue, but what about the reverse? More than once I’ve had sales people process an entire transaction of mine without even looking at me, because they’ve been speaking on the phone the whole time. On a bad day now I will just stand after they’ve handed me my change, until they realise something is amiss, and with a quick “gotta go, I’ve got a customer”, hang up to ask what I want. Well, as a “valued customer”, I demand my right to a (usually surly) greeting.

And what about the message over the PA system in a large variety store: “Attention customers, the store will be closing in 15 minutes. To enable us to serve you better, please make your way to the checkout now.”

Serve us better? Oh no, make them stop! We all know the service gets quicker (hence better) the closer it is to closing time, so it’s patently untrue. They don’t want to “serve us better”, they just want us out of their store by closing time.


Then there are the signs on the deserted checkouts reading “Allow us to serve you at another checkout”. Pardon? What would happen if we said, “Nah, that’s OK. You can serve me at this one.” I grew up on “checkout closed” signs, and I don’t think I’ve been psychologically scarred by the experience. For Pete’s sake, we can handle being told that the checkout is closed. I would much prefer a more honest sign

Being of a “certain age” is a real disadvantage because we can remember when stores used to sell essentials (as in “may I have half a pound of flour please”), when the customer was always right, and when the garbage generated by a large family each week would fit into a 45-litre (10-gallon) bin. There were always shonks but, generally, businesses took pride in providing good honest reliable products and service. And staff were knowledgeable about their products and services and proud to tell customers about them. They didn’t tell you, as I was after a fairly basic enquiry about a particular product stocked by the store I was in, to “go home and look it up on the internet”, or on another occasion “we know it’s in the store somewhere, but we can’t find it”.

A significant purchase used to involve doing your research, then making your decision with a degree of confidence. Now it’s doing your research, making the purchase, then sitting back and waiting for the trapdoor to open. You just know that some vital piece of information was missed, hidden under the mass of unintelligible blurb. Ah yes, here it comes … “What? I have to send my fridge to Outer Mongolia for repair? At my own expense?”

I didn’t read that anywhere in my 25-year Extended Warranty.

“Oh, I had to look it up on the internet? And I needed a secret password? And the information was only accessible during months with an ‘R’ in them, and then only when there was a full moon?”

If I could be granted one retail wish, it would be that retailers just tell the truth. It’s exhausting, time-consuming and soul-destroying wading through the ever-increasing morass of fabrications, distortions and downright lies. Sadly it doesn’t look as though the consumer juggernaut hauling its trailers of avarice, egocentricity and ignorance will be turning around any time soon.

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About the Author

Val Schefe is a librarian who is currently working as an Assistant Editor.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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