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Why are our shops so awful?

I remain stunned by the experience offered to customers by our supposedly excellent entrepreneurs. I am particularly appalled by our retail shops, most of which are woefully, bafflingly bad.

I am in the market for a couple of computer printers. A relatively straightforward issue, you might think, since we seem to have a large number of shops who sell printers. Competition in the market has meant that unlike the old days, prices are relatively low. So I thought I would just have to wander around a few shops, compare models and prices, and walk home with the printers I need.

Is anything that straightforward in Kenya? It is many weeks since I started looking, and I have visited virtually every shop in Nairobi that claims to sell printers. I still haven’t made a single purchase.

The first thing the printer shopper might notice is that almost none of the retail outlets bothers to keep the items on proper display. Most of them just stack boxes of printers haphazardly in the shop. You are then left craning your neck to read the print on the side of the box, to have any idea of what is inside. Even those who display their printers will almost never have them powered up and connected to a computer. So, should you want to check out the controls for yourself, or assess the print quality, forget it.

You will also realise that the assistants who are paid to help you choose are almost universally clueless about printers. They get by on the most basic knowledge, presumably because the average customer is likely to be even more ignorant than they are. I have yet to meet more than a couple of assistants, amongst dozens I have had the misfortune to speak to, who can offer intelligent opinions on printer specifications and suitability.

In one place I went to, which runs frequent advertisements in the press, I was told that no one could help me because the ‘printer guy’ had stepped out of the office. When I asked to see their range of printers regardless and make up my own mind, I was told this was impossible since all the printers were kept in the store, and the missing assistant had gone with the key!

In one or two cases, I found some vague vestiges of know-how buried deep in shop-hands paid to have that knowledge. Heartened, I engaged in more meaningful conversations with these fellows, and thought my quest might finally be over. I was assured that I would be e-mailed detailed spec sheets and quotations that very day, without fail. That was weeks ago; I’m still waiting.

I then realised that if you are at all a discerning buyer in Kenya, you must do your own research on the Internet and through friends, and decide on the models you need without any assistance from a retailer. You should use the retailer as a mere point of sale from which to pick up the goods. This I did, and finally settled on two new models from a renowned manufacturer. After enquiring from the authorised Kenyan dealer, I was told that those models would not be available here. Indefinitely.

Forgive the belaboured personal anecdote. I know you have plenty of your own. Printers are just one tiny example. Whether you want to buy books, clothes, household items, stationery, toys, vegetables or anything else under the hot Kenyan sun, your retail experience will in all likelihood be woeful.

What on earth is wrong with our shop-sellers? What is so difficult for them to grasp here? You set up a shop because you want to sell things. You can sell things much better if you display them properly; if you employ smiling people who know their products and can persuade the mteja to buy; if you design proper shop layouts that attract customers and encourage browsing. The whole point of a shop is to sell. So why make buying so painful?

Here, we specialise in outmoded shop layouts where we stack boxes up to the ceiling. We employ the least suitable assistants and give them no training or guidance, and watch them become surly and insolent. We scowl at anyone who asks too many questions. We have no desire to follow up an enquiry and clinch a sale. We think a retailer is a mere stockist, a storekeeper.

Can we not learn from elsewhere? Are we surprised when people of means do all their shopping on overseas trips rather than buying in Kenya? The rest of the world has understood what the shopping experience is all about. Here, everyone runs a glorified exhibition stall. Don’t get me wrong: there are some shops who get it, who have invested in ambience and expertise, and who have very loyal customers. But there are very few.

Now then, what about restaurants? Don’t even get me started on restaurants. Too late, you did. See you here next week for a look at the eating-out experience.

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