Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My Lame, Half-Hearted Search for Justice in Sainsbury's

I was disturbed by events in my local supermarket yesterday. There's a woman I've seen often in there. She's quite elderly, grey-haired, frail, bent over as if with osteoporosis, and also, she's handicapped in some way. If that's the right word. No doubt I will be using the wrong term. Anyway, sometimes you see her in the street, talking loudly to her shopping trolley, and in the supermarket she mumbles, and shuffles around, and stares into space. I'm probably not describing this very well, but if you saw her, you would realise immediately that she's mentally not quite normal.

I was waiting behind her at the kiosk. She had a bag of items she'd just bought, and she was trying to return one of these items. I think it was a small packet of cheese. (I'm a little short-sighted but I don't like to wear my glasses in public because I'm vain.) Probably the cheese was worth about £1.50. But for some reason the staff were giving her a rather hard time. The assistant called over a supervisor and both informed her that she couldn't have a refund if she couldn't produce her receipt.

I thought this was a little hard. The staff in Sainsbury's must have seen her very often, and would know full well that she wasn't the sort of person who was going to be easily able to produce a receipt. (Half the times in my life I've needed to find a receipt, I've been unable to.) They blankly, and quite rudely, refused to refund her £1.50 and sent her on her way. She wandered off looking very old, frail and unhappy.

I wasn't very pleased at their insensitivity. They certainly hadn't been polite to her. Anyway, it might be Sainsbury's policy not to refund for an item if you don't have a receipt, but it's not the law. They might act like it is, but it isn't. It's just their policy. I know this protects them against shoplifting, but I really don't believe this woman is a shoplifter, and no one who regularly saw her shuffling slowly around would either. She had other items she'd paid for. I think they just wanted rid of her because she was annoying them with her loud voice, and staring into space.

I did ask the assistant why she'd refused the refund but she didn't want to answer. I thought I'd like to take it further but you know, sometimes things seem like a lot of trouble. So I left the shop, feeling quite grumpy about it all.

About fifty yards down the road I realised I'd left my gloves in the shop. (It wasn't that cold outside, but my hands are often cold anyway, no doubt due to my frozen heart) So I went back, retrieved my gloves and then, still angry, asked to see the manager so I could complain. You will note I only did this because I had to return to the shop. I did say it was a lame and half-hearted attempt at justice.

The duty manager arrived, a much older man. I complained to him. He was quite insistent that assistants were trained not to refund for an item without the receipt. Which, he said, was OK, because if there was a real problem, the shopper could ask to see a manager, and the manager would sort it out. But this, as I pointed out, was part of the problem. This frail, elderly, handicapped woman was quite obviously not capable of demanding to see a manger. She'd just shuffled off, looking disappointed and unhappy.

I told him I wasn't pleased at the way I'd seen her spoken to, which had been, I thought, rude and unhelpful. I really didn't see why a massive store like Sainsbury's couldn't just give her the £1.50 back and be done with it. He seemed moderately sympathetic, and said in the case of someone who was obviously frail - his word - they would normally use more sensitivity. He said he'd speak to the assistant and supervisor involved. I left the shop, feeling slightly better. And with my gloves.

I expect the total result of this will be nothing, except that all the assistants in this shop, which I visit most days, will now dislike me for complaining, and point me out as a trouble-maker. Ho Hum. Normally I'm sympathetic to shop assistants. It probably wears you out having to deal with customers all day, many of whom are no doubt rude and annoying. Still, I really didn't like the way they just brusquely dismissed this old handicapped woman's request.


  1. i think that you're a good and decent person, mr. millar.

  2. Someone has to speak up when this sort of thing happens, and most people wouldn't. Bravo.

    I've worked as a cashier, and as a waitress and a bank teller and have seen more than my share of rude and angry people (hungry people and those having problems with their money tend to be very cranky.)

    There's no reason to be rude to a customer. A good manager will make sure the cashier calls a supervisor if there is a customer with a problem they aren't allowed to solve. That's why the bosses are paid the big bucks!

  3. Well done, even if it comes to nothing. Sometimes you've just got to stand up.

  4. I think you were right to speak to someone about this. Especially given the ridiculously small amount of cash involved, you'd think it would have been easier just to hand it over than to fight about it.

    That said, I would like to say that a lot of time counter staff probably do feel like they have no good options. I know from working register jobs that management is getting increasingly prickish about drawers being off even by a few cents and refund amounts given not matching corresponding receipts. Rack up enough of those infractions, and then you're out even your crappy service job, which, crappy as it is, still results in a paycheck.

    I would guess also that front line staff workers and most of management are never trained on even the basics of working with obviously mentally ill or otherwise challenging customers. I had a master's degree and worked as a professional librarian, and no one ever trained me on that stuff, so I can't imagine anyone in a grocery store is getting trained. It would make all the difference, I think, for people to feel a bit more prepared for and thus less threatened by such customers. I'll say this: I've seen lots of frail-looking old ladies get suddenly and ridiculously violent at staff over nothing. Not saying they all do...but you just never know...and between that and dealing with management, pretty soon you're refusing small refunds.

    Sorry to ramble on so.

    1. I think your ramble is the answer, legislate, however badly that ALL PUBLIC STAFF HAVE TO BE TRAINED to deal with disabled, mentally ill and so on customers at least in a basic way. A paragraph for each would make its way into the public awareness in a few years.

  5. Good for you, Martin. At the very least, maybe the staff concerned will think twice before acting in similar fashion in future.

  6. You give me hope that the world isn't full of self-involved, loathsome people. Thank you for trying to make a difference in the life of a stranger.

  7. From Sainsbury's website Most Popular Questions page:

    "I am disabled. What support can I expect from Sainsbury’s?

    We recognise that all our customers are individuals, with individual needs. As part of delivering excellent customer service, all our store colleagues receive disability training to ensure that they understand the needs of disabled customers."

    Based on your experience, I would say the "training" failed. The corporate office might have an interest in your blog entry.

  8. Anonymous5:24 pm

    You did a good deed.

  9. Hey Martin,

    It would be very difficult for me to send you money to slip to the elderly lady (as my currency is in American dollars) ... However, if I mailed you a pair of nice ladies gloves do you suppose you could manage to give them to her?

    You can tell her that she dropped them (chances are that she won't realize that she didn't).

    Drop me a line and let me know if I can help.

    Oh, and you did the right thing, by talking to the manager ... but I would have expected you would have done exactly what you did.

    That's always been my favorite Martin characteristic ... your soft hear :]

    Peace and Love,

  10. Ye Gads ... what I wanted to post was: My favorite Martin characteristic ... is your "soft heart" ... I hate it when my keyboard sticks, and/or my fingers don't listen to my brain.

    That's what happens when I attempt to be witty too early in the morning. It always results in total disaster (or Dee-saster).

    Wishing you a great weekend!
    Peace and Love

    1. It's all right, Dee-Marie, I knew what you meant! Actually, 'soft hear' sounds like quite a good thing anyway. x