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No service. No smiles. No future

A customer walks into one of Nairobi’s brand-new mega-malls on a weekday. It boasts many household names in shopping, both local and global. It’s virtually empty.

She enters an internationally renowned supermarket. Here, too, customers are thin on the ground. She’s looking for a refrigerator – a sizeable purchase – amongst other things. It’s a huge store, so she asks for help. Few assistants seem to know where things are displayed. Not one offers to walk her to the correct area. Eventually she makes her own way to the right place.

She looks through the stock of fridges on display. Again, no assistant comes to help or to explain features or to, you know, sell. The customer makes her own decision, then settles on a particular brand and model. She looks for an assistant to book the item. She is now told that the piece on display is the last one remaining. It is shopworn and shows wear and tear. She demurs and asks the assistant to check whether other branches of the store have this item in stock. She is told the branches all run ‘different systems’ and she will have to go across town personally to check. The assistant does not even offer to call the other branch.

Disappointed, the customer walks out and sees hope: an international electrical-goods producer has its own branded shop nearby. She peeks in and sees some refrigerators on display. This is a much smaller store, so she is hopeful the service will be a little better. Nothing doing. The shop is devoid of customers, but not one employee looks up or comes over or offers to help. Our customer can’t see anything she might buy. She walks out.

Later, she enters a small, local, family-run shop to look for other products on her list. Here she encounters one family member berating her employees in a high-decibel rant, accusing them of stupidity and laziness. Amidst the shouting, neither shop-owner nor staff members notice the customer. Our hardy shopper sees what she came for and goes to pay. Another family member is at the till. This one has her headphones on, and is engaged in a personal phone call in full vernacular. She does not even make eye contact with the buyer, let alone smile, while recording the sale.

I didn’t make up those examples; they were recounted to me on the day they happened.

Kenya has just come out of a prolonged election hiatus, one that sent an already weak retail sector into a spin. Many shops are in struggling; many malls see customers coming only at weekends. Actual sales in the shops are very low across the board, particularly of big-ticket items.

You would think that in this environment a customer looking to make major purchases is especially valuable and will get exceptional, even excessive, attention. Not a bit of it. Most of our shops just don’t get this thing called customer service. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are international brands or local; large stores or small; with the owner present or not. They are indifferent to customers. They don’t value them. They don’t even go the standard miles, let alone the extra mile, to make a sale. Even during a shopping recession.

I hear these examples all the time, and I am always left perplexed. Which part of this do shop-owners, shop-keepers and shop assistants fail to understand? The customer is everything. What you sell pays for it all: your rent, your salaries, your meals, your children’s school fees. Why do you not care?

We have some brilliant shops, of course we do. These stores are a pleasure to visit. The staff are full of smiles; the merchandise is intelligently chosen; proper help is always at hand. We love those shops and always go to them. But tell me, how many such shops can you name around these parts?

So what is to be done? Consider this: we have a retail sector populated by the lazy and sometimes by the larcenous. We have customers who hate the shopping experience on offer. We have the highest mobile-money uptake in the world. We have a nascent online shopping sector awaiting ignition.

Some smart folks are going take advantage of this situation. Amazon Go has just ignited a retail convenience revolution in Seattle: walk in, pick up your items, walk out. No checkouts, no queues. Clever folks are going to win in retail: by instilling proper service in physical shops; or by inventing digital shopping environments that are quick and convenient. Many of today’s shops will fall. So be it.

(Sunday Nation, 28 January 2018)

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