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Sunday, 4 October 2015


My book on my retail career, Shops, Shoppers, Shopping & Shafted, will be out soon. It merges Retail Confidential and Much Calamity & The Redundance Kid.


The Happy Birthday song has been in the news as it is now out of copyright restrictions. It is a jolly song for jolly occasions but it also reminds me of hygiene, or rather bad hygiene habits.  Hopefully, all will become clear as tap water as you read on.  But, first I have a question. "What is it about the can't-be-bothered-to-wash-my-hands people?  You see them doing their business in public toilets and then giving the sink a body swerve as they exit unwashed back into the community.  It is bad enough observing these people but where a lack of hand washing is even more evident is in supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, pubs, ice cream vans and quite a few other places that sell food.
I am a supermarket management veteran as well as a customer and over many years I have developed a growing list of pet hates and a longer list of places whose doors I shall never darken again because of poor hygiene.  As part of my retail training and experience, I can’t stop watching how stores operate, marveling at the good things and recoiling at the horrors that we still endure from time to time with service et al.

One of the many ways to measure how much you trust fresh food handling services is to stand for five or ten minutes watching people as they make sandwiches, pizzas, handle meat, fish, deli and bakery products.  I keep little diary notes of the things I witness, not all bad, but looking back over the years and seeing what happens now, nothing much has changed in terms of bad habits. 

Before I go to the checkouts, I do what I always do when shopping in food stores. I spend a few minutes watching staff working with unwrapped food.  I become like the obsessive-compulsive TV detective Adrian Monk when I witness the nose-wipers, hair-flickers, finger-lickers and face-scratchers continually failing to wash their hands.  It is THE food-buying turn-off for me. How hard is it to stop occasionally and let customers see that hand washing happens?  The trust graph would rise steadily.

My ultimate nightmare is the exposed salad bar and unwrapped bread displays, having observed several times in supermarkets, people sticking their fingers into the couscous mixture or, in one spectacularly vomit-inducing incident, an old drunk man scooping up potato salad with his bare hands and stuffing it into his messy mouth.  Yuk.  I've seen people pawing through bread rolls and loaves too. Yuk 2, the sequel.

Today, bad hygiene is always evident.  If I choose to buy pre-packed food, I realise that it is probably just as prone to packers with bad habits handling it but there is some small comfort in the fact that I don’t see the process.  

I had a newspaper cutting from a couple of years ago on the subject of hand washing. It mentions that the Scottish Executive (circa 2011) had decided to spend £2.5 million on telling people how to wash their hands properly.  The newspaper featured drawings of hands in various poses with excellent instructions: wet hands with water; apply enough soap to cover all hand surfaces; rub hands palm to palm; right palm over back of other hand with interlaced fingers and vice versa; palm to palm with fingers interlaced; backs of fingers to opposing palms with fingers interlaced; rotational rubbing of left thumb clasped in right palm and vice versa; rotational rubbing, backwards and forwards with clasped fingers of right hand in left palm and vice versa; rinse hands with water; dry thoroughly with towel; duration of procedure not less than 15 seconds. That’s not a lot of time but no one can fault the need for more thoroughness. By the way, if you end up in a knot, you’ve missed a step.

At a business conference some time ago, I was told that we spend too little time giving our hands a cursory wash and that we should use the time it takes to sing (I told you I’d get there) the Happy Birthday song to ensure we do a thorough job. It may result in you getting odd looks in the toilets though.  But it is a point well made and I think we are all a little guilty of the splash and dash approach from time to time. 

I know someone who says the reason he doesn’t wash his hands every time is because either there are no towels in the toilets or there are those breathy air machines that take a fortnight to work.  If he sees one of the new turbo-blasters, then he’ll hit the taps.

The next time I observe people in a fresh food environment washing their hands so methodically will be the first time.  Hygiene in food businesses is just as much of a factor in customer service experiences as anything else.  But, like the broad picture, inconsistencies dominate practices.  Let the customer beware and be observant, and be vocal in complaining about it to whoever is in charge.
Soap and water helps to build retail trust.  So, come on, fresh food people, wash hands, wash them often, make a big public deal of it and you'll get more customers coming back.

Altogether, ‘Happy birthday to you, a wee squirt of soapy goo……..’

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