Would Sir care for a little more rudeness?

Once, British service in shops was second to none. Nowadays, the answer to a request for assistance is likely to be 'Whatevva...'

One of the many reasons I’ve always loved Americans is their dedication to the service industry, and their total belief (it’s in the Constitution, I think), that the customer is always right (even when he is palpably not). Several years ago, I drove from New York to Los Angeles with a friend and after a few days, having just been ordered to ‘Have a nice day’ for the umpteenth time since breakfast, he said that the next person to tell him that would be punched in the throat. Repeatedly. I, on the other hand, loved it, couldn’t get enough of it, and would visibly melt whenever someone enquired after my health or demanded I enjoyed the rest of my day.

Have a nice day? You bet I will.

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Have a nice day: Grumpy staff in Woolworths

I love American service. I don’t care how insincere people are; don’t care whether they mean it or not – I just love the fact that they bother with it in the first place.

How much nicer is it to have someone smile at you and ask you how you are, rather than look as though you’ve just inadvertently soiled their dog?

Customer service in this country, however, is generally regarded as the worst in the West – these days (almost unbelievably) even worse than the French.

I heard about one poor sap recently who was shunted from one phone operator to another as BT glacially tried to work out if he had a ‘fault’ or a ‘technical failure’ before attempting to fix his problem. Stupidly, he had thought they might possibly have been the same thing.

Just last week we were down in the West Country and we walked by a small quaint hardware store in an even smaller quainter village.

Outside the shop there was a basket of brightly coloured summer hats, and as we strolled by my youngest daughter tried one on, turning to smile at us in the hope we might buy it for her.

As soon as she did an unbelievably grumpy woman – presumably the manager – almost ran out of the shop, rearranged the hats and said, pointedly, that she was ‘just tidying up’.

The inference was that by putting on the hat we had somehow taken a liberty, although how you’re meant to purchase one without actually trying it on is beyond me.

I was actually toying with the idea of getting out my wallet, but obviously I decided not to. In fact, I decided there and then never to visit that part of the West Country again.

And now I hear that Woolworths is having a tough time. Shame.

Last Monday was one of the longest I can remember, as, for reasons that can only be blamed on various tardy means of transportation, it had taken me over 24 hours to travel back from a part of the country that most people would agree only needs to be visited once in a lifetime (yep, there are places in Britain worse than Basildon).

So when I arrived back in London, tired, train-lagged and grumpy from having been away from home for a week, I wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind.

Anyway, as I got home in time to pick up the children from school, I took them straight to Woolworths to buy some DVDs.

Now, Woolworths doesn’t exactly have a great reputation: it used to be said that if you saw a queue in Marks & Spencer then it looked like they were taking care of their customers, whereas if you saw one in Woolworths they were obviously not taking care of them at all.

But they’re actually very good for cheap toys, party decorations and lots of things that aren’t meant to last very long. So I’ve always felt fairly well disposed towards them.

Anyway, after a quick scout for suitable DVDs we picked up the boxes for Dr Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who!, Ratatouille and Alvin And The Chipmunks (all of which, incidentally, are probably more enjoyable than whatever the latest Mike Leigh film might be) and then took them to the counter.

Again, I’ve always found the shop assistants in Woolworths to be perfectly reasonable and rather pleasant, and while I’ve stopped going to the dry cleaners next door because they’re laughably rude (‘Excuse me, do you wanna pay for this stuff now, like, in case you don’t come back?’), Woolies’ staff have always seemed to me to be quite benign. Until last Monday, that is.

‘We haven’t got this one, it’s out,’ said a surly-looking girl who looked as though legally she could have only been employed that very morning. ‘Haven’t had it for weeks.’ She had found two of the DVDs, but Alvin was out of stock, causing my youngest daughter’s eyes to fill with tears.

As I began to say that it might be a good idea not to display DVDs they didn’t actually have, Urchin Girl looked my daughter in the eyes and shot back with, ‘It’s not our problem! Got to show them in case someone wants to order one. Not that they ever do. Not our problem.’

There was no conciliatory apology, no charm, no offer to maybe order one for her disappointed customers, just a Vicky Pollard-style abnegation of responsibility.

But do I blame her? No, of course not. I’m sure she’s paid tuppence an hour, and for tuppence an hour you’re not going to treat anyone with respect, not unless you’re taught to, that is.

It’s the managers I blame, if they don’t train their staff properly. I’ve been a line manager for most of my life and I know that everything starts at the top.

And if you act like you couldn’t give a damn then neither will the people working for you. Which is why, frankly, Woolworths deserves anything bad that might happen to it.

Do I care? Of course not. After all, it’s not my problem.

Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ

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