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Are you being served?

While supermarkets score over the general store around the corner in terms of volume, variety and display of goods, it could learn a thing or two from its predecessor on the courtesy and friendliness department.

MAY I HELP YOU: Courtesy never hurt anybody. — Photos: Mohd Yousuf

LIFE WAS once an endearingly picturesque phenomenon. Time was in abundance and happiness prevailed. Many saw reason to stop and cherish the smaller pleasures of life. For such people, a general store was an ideal halting-place, as it seemed to embody the sun of joy, radiating and spreading cheer. A general store was a family entertainer with something for everyone. All this, however, changed with the advent of the supermarkets. Described as "everything under a single roof," these enterprises invaded the neighbourhood and pushed the friendly general stores into oblivion. Commercial and professional, these superstores did not have time to spare for its customers.

Smart young men in ties and in a hurry, replaced portly uncles with ever-smiling faces behind the counter. Consequently supermarkets, though more convenient, lack the personal touch that general stores had and this has become a major issue of concern. Patrons who frequent these stores complain of poor service. "This could be because of the indifference of the staff; their lack of awareness or exasperation of finding our continual beckoning falling on deaf ears or not being understood by the personnel," says Sesh, a supermarket regular.

When deciding on which supermarket to go to, customers give a medium-level priority to the service it offers. Its location gets maximum preference; the prices at which products are sold and the reliability of the supermarket are other factors.

"If there is a supermarket 15 kilometers away, I would not go there even if the service is excellent, but I would definitely opt for the most hospitable one in my neighbourhood," states Ashwin Samant. The quality of service, however, has veto power, driving away clientele who are not treated properly. It is amazing how both customer and employer are agreed on the etiquette to be demonstrated by an attendant and yet there is room for so much bad blood. "An aide shouldn't be officious; he should offer his services only when asked for. Besides, he should be prompt, well informed, and should be able to communicate well," say Arunabh and Smriti. Shoppers feel that service with a smiling face makes a lot of difference.

"It makes us want to come back again," says Jayesh Kumar. But if both parties are of similar views, why doesn't the system run as smoothly as it should? Very often, it is a case of one or two bad apples making the entire batch rotten. A gawking staff member who can make no sense of an alien language cannot be blamed of indifference, but his client might not realise that. Likewise, an insufficiently trained worker might not know where a product is placed and might irk a customer.

The employees, however, feel that the clients are indecisive. While assistance may be mistaken for distrusting the customer and spying on him, leaving a buyer alone causes them to being termed indifferent.

MAKING DECISIONS: With variety comes the problem of too wide a choice.

Despite the advice given by the employers, there is no efficient way out of this catch-22 situation. "Workers in supermarkets are often of a different educational and social background and hence it is natural for them to behave unlike what is expected of them occasionally," says Nagarjuna Choudary

To add to their difficulties, the staff has to evaluate incoming stocks that arrive during peak hours. Once again they are faced with a difficult choice between unattended customers and partly evaluated stocks.

Workers feel that their efforts go unrecognised. Time and again, they have to set aside their self-respect and apologise to arrogant customers for no fault of theirs. And they are perennially under risk of losing their jobs.

"An employee is a human being, and has his own problems," says a frustrated staffer. "A bad day might wear off the smile that I have to paint on my face. Ideally that should not put off a customer, but people are never that understanding," he points out.

These handymen are entrusted with the duties of assisting customers, redressing complaints and helping clients with their packages and billing. In return for their month long efforts, they are paid a pittance.

On the other hand, people do prefer large superstores to smaller, dingy outlets. They are probably willing to compromise on the much-missed homely touch if they get a few rupees off on their groceries or if they get a lucky coupon in return for purchasing goods.

The rare snags pale in comparison to the host of benefits. These drastically different viewpoints make us wonder if there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept of supermarkets. If there is a lapse native to the idea of supermarkets, then how do we overcome it? "A more careful recruitment procedure in which interpersonal communication skills are given more weight might help.

The training given to the employees should also be stepped up," says the manager of a supermarket.

A simulation of the friendly neighbourhood general store, with its personal touch, in these commercial ventures should do the trick. Of course, that would mean that the customers have to look at supermarkets as larger general stores and behave as they would in a familiar shop. And we could soon have a smoother relationship with both sides enjoying the joyous experiences of the days of yore.


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