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Saturday, 25 November 2017



I was a retail manager, of supermarkets mainly, for the best part of forty years, starting out in Northern Ireland (Stewarts Supermarkets, Penneys, BHS), then around various parts of England and that has given me more than a fair degree of inside knowledge.  If I add many more years as an observing customer, I think I have a valid point of view on a number of factors concerning shops, shoppers and shopping.  The world changes, of course, but in some cases, not for the better.  I will highlight one area that has become sloppy – employee appearance.  Department stores and smaller shops are of a higher standard, generally speaking, but supermarkets let the side down badly.  Of course, there are some supermarket employees who take pride in their appearance but they are in the minority.

The standard of dress/appearance of supermarket staff has gone downhill fast and it is depressing. I come from an era (starting in the 1970s) when Staff Managers, rather like old-fashioned Matrons in hospitals, would do a daily patrol of all staff and managers to check compliance with the dress standards code in the employee handbook. They were strict but effective. We were all terrified of them but, particularly in comparison to today, what they did worked well.  They were policing an important part of the company image. It was ‘old school’ but it worked. Anyone or anything not complying and the employee would be sent away, including back home, until their appearance was deemed acceptable.

A typical inspection would assess whether or not each employee was well-groomed, in ironed clothing, wearing clean footwear and free from body odour. In addition, male staff would be observed for unacceptable beards or sideburns and female staff would be examined for any excessive ear, neck and finger jewellery.  Clean fingernails were expected from everyone and female staff, specifically, were encouraged not to use garish nail polish. Visible tattoos on both sexes were taboo.

Nowadays, nobody wants to hurt anyone's feelings because everyone has "a right" to be an individual, the right of freedom of expression, the right to dress and look as they darn well please. Well, in my humble but experienced retail opinion, both as manager and customer, it is unacceptable.

Every time I shop in a supermarket of whatever brand, I see at least one grubby-looking employee preparing, handling and serving fresh food, working checkouts, or mooching about the shop doing whatever job they are employed to do.  But whatever role they play, each employee should be conscious of how they look.  If only they did that three-word check before they start work – neat, clean, tidy – oh, how things would improve dramatically. 

The most recent example was a lad on a fish counter. He was a mess from head to toe, greasy, uncombed hair, shaggy beard, quite a bit of face jewellery, tattoos from his wrists to the edge of his short-sleeved shirt and filthy fingernails.

In another store, the young man on the checkout had clearly been dragged through a hedge backwards and was in some kind of razor-denial cult.  He looked dreadful. But, then again, he was allowed to start work looking like that. His fault? Yes. Management fault? Definitely.

A girl on a delicatessen counter in a different supermarket was wearing her trilby hat at a jaunty angle, choosing to see it as a fashion accessory rather than a head cover.  It was as if a Frank Sinatra impression was more favourable than a testament to hygiene standards.

Who is recruiting people like this? Who is managing standards of appearance these days?  The way employees look in some customer service environments has been pushed way down the management agenda. In fact, it may have dropped off the supervisory radar altogether. Bring back the HR retail Matrons, say I.  But that’s not going to happen because anything goes and if it is not reined in, then, by default, it becomes acceptable policy.  I repeat - lank hair, tattoos, face jewellery, stubble, scuffed shoes, dirty fingernails and on and on, coupled with poor manners seem to be the order of the day.  Surely store managers see the same things I and other customers are seeing, or perhaps they need to book appointments with Specsavers.

Supermarket bosses seem to talk about variety, offers and customer service when trying to explain their successes or their woes. But the big players in the industry are all trading on common ground. Price and choice are very similar.  Customer service is all over the place, inconsistent and a lottery.  The management gurus talk about ‘points of difference’ when comparing companies but, for me and I am certain for many other customers a big difference would be neat, clean and tidy staff especially in meat, bakery, deli, pizza and fish departments et al.  Pristine customer servants (let us not gloss the job) would increase trust immediately.  Add to those essentials an obsessive, compulsive attitude to frequent hand washing in fresh food areas and I would be a regular and faithful customer.

In order to get close to the ideally presented supermarket person, recruiters must be ruthless in hiring employees and managers on a day-to-day basis must insist on high standards of appearance.  I am not really that nostalgic for Matrons of old but I do think a modern equivalent should be found.  We should applaud managers and staff who make the effort and take pride in themselves. We should never accept the scruffs.

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