Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Joys of Retail

I was sitting in on an interview at work for a new staff member the other day, when the manager all of a sudden threw the questioning over to me. Put on the spot, I found myself grasping to explain the complexities of being a Waterstone’s bookseller. Many people might ask how being a bookseller could possibly be complex, but bookselling is as political and money-driven as virtually every other profession out there. In this particular instance, the knot I was trying to unwind was the balance between being an individual whilst also toeing the company line.

Within every store we are strongly encouraged to promote the books we personally love, tailor the store to our own particular brand of customers, and strike up friendly conversations with customers left, right and centre in order to make them feel welcomed. However, in contrast to these freedoms, every member of staff is also expected to say a set of very specific lines to customers at the till point.

‘Do you have a Waterstone’s card? Would you like one of ours books of the week for only £4.49?’ And - my particular favourite - ‘Do you need a bag?’

Do you need a bag?
‘Do you need a bag?’ not, ‘Do you want a bag’ or ‘Would you like a bag?’ It’s an interesting choice of wording – the use of need rather than want is designed to make the customer think about their requirements rather than their wants. But does it work? Now that’s a loaded question. I get lots and lots of different responses to the bag question, but they can generally be grouped into the following categories:

Customers who want a bag even though they know they shouldn’t take one and feel like they should at least feel some fleeting guilt about taking one. ‘Normally I wouldn’t, but I’ve left mine in the car today.’

Mr and Mrs Average
Customers who genuinely consider the question and provide a direct answer – either yes or no. It’s probably about 50/50 either way, though this is often dependant on external factors – whether it’s raining, say, or the amount that they’re purchasing.

Those who jump in and tell you they don’t need a bag before you’ve even had a chance to ask the question (sounds like me).

Customers who have no concept of the environment at all, responding with something along the lines of, ‘Of course I need a bag! Do you think I’m going to carry these around under my arm?!’ This is irritating because they talk to me as if I’m stupid. I’m not stupid – at the simplest end of the spectrum, I am simply doing my job as I have been trained to do by my company, never mind the environmental aspects.

Customers who are carrying their own canvas bags, but seem to be doing so only as a fashion accessory. They take a plastic bag from each store they visit and then put each one inside the bigger canvas one – heaven forbid that their various purchases should all have to roll around together, touching each other. For me, these are some of the most irritating customers, because they’re pretending they’re eco-friendly by carrying their own bags, which often shout some anti-plastic message, yet they’re still using as much plastic as they would if they hadn’t brought their own bags.

Downright Annoying
‘Yes, if you don’t mind’ is one of the most annoying answers I get. I want to shout at them, ‘Yes, I do mind! You’re helping to destroy the world!’ But, meek as I am, I can’t help but do my job, smile politely and, simply, do as I’m told. ‘The customer is always right’ is the old saying after all. But what would happen if, one day, I rebelled? The company’s emphasis on customer service is so strong, that even contemplating the risk of alienating a customer over such an issue is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.

The Waterstone’s Way
Carrier bags do seem to be a rather contentious subject at the moment, as I’m sure is the case among most high street retailers today. I attended a regional forum today, where the representatives from around ten stores gather together to share ideas and bring forward concerns or problems for later discussion at a higher level within the company.

‘Don’t talk to me about bags!’ our regional manager said toward the start of the meeting. Not because she didn’t want to discuss it, but because it’s already very much on the company’s agenda and griping about them at a regional level wasn’t going to achieve anything.

Whenever I want to talk about plastic bags, the discussion usually includes the word ‘ban’, and so my first assumption when other staff in the meeting brought up the subject was that this was what was on their minds as well. But, disappointingly for me, from the few comments that were made, I don’t think this was actually the case. Until about two years ago, the store used what could be described as classy bags. Good quality, strong, glossy, black bags. Today’s bags are much flimsier and they are white, but – and all credit to the company here – they are made from recycled plastic. I think this is fantastic. I believe that buying goods made of recycled plastic (actually, of recycled anything) is important because it helps to support the recycling industry. However, it seems that not everyone agrees with me.

‘They don’t look as nice,’ is a frequent comment. Or, ‘Can you double bag it because my boyfriend’ll be able to see what I’ve bought him,’ is another. Grumble, grumble is my general, internal, response. I can see their points, but nobody seems to respect the sound environmental decision that the company’s made to produce their bags from recycled plastic. Although I’d ultimately like to see them phasing out plastic bags altogether, I do think that until they do, their current policy is about as strong as it can be.

Carrier bags are on the agenda for the company’s upcoming Corporate Social Responsibility meeting. In what context, I don’t know, though obviously I’m eager to know whether or not the possibility of removing them altogether is under consideration – or charging for them, as WHSmiths currently does. I think probably not. Charging for bags can be viewed as being negative – it puts the customer in a bit of a bind, and those who don’t understand why the charge is in place (and my experiences tells me there will be plenty that fall into this category) are likely to view the company in a negative way as a result, which means that they’re less likely to come back and spend their money there in the future. And so Waterstone’s has gone for the carrot rather than the stick method. Instead of charging, they reward customers with extra loyalty card points for not taking a bag. Another idea that makes sound business sense. But does it work? Not every customer has (or wants) a loyalty card and of those that do, despite advertising the ‘eco-points’ scheme, most don’t realise it exists. I always try to make a point of telling customers who don’t take bags that I’m giving them extra points because of it, and nine times out of ten their response is surprise or mild bewilderment.

Plastic bags: valid issue or a distraction?
At today’s meeting, our regional manager did tell us that ‘bag costs are down by about half of what they were two years ago.’ She didn’t expand on the comment, but I assume this is a result of a combination of the change in bag production from glossy to recycled as well as the company-wide introduction of the ‘Do you need a bag?’ question. I wonder what the reduction in bags in terms of number are? Probably not as much as half, but I’m sure bag usage has gone down as it becomes a bigger and more widely acknowledged issue within our society. This, however, leaves me with two thoughts.

Firstly, when shopping in other stores on the high street I continue to be surprised by the number of companies who don’t appear to have a bag reduction policy in place – which, although I feel they could take the issue further, makes me feel proud to work for a company that is thinking about it.

And secondly I am reminded of an article written last year by The Guardian’s environmental commentator, Leo Hickman, on the subject of plastic bags. Is the ever increasing focus on them as an environmental concern detracting us from more serious environmental issues? Despite this being a subject that is close to my heart, I fear he is right. It’s easy to get wrapped up in one issue and forget about everything else. It’s also easy to forget that there’s a lot more to the issue of plastic itself than plastic bags – plastic bags are, after all, a long long way from being the only plastic pollution created by modern everyday living and I think there are lots of people out there who, while they may reject a plastic bag from their local Waterstone’s store, probably wouldn’t think twice about the fact that they’re buying a plastic booklight encased in plastic packaging, or that the cool cover of their new hardback copy of ‘C’ by Tom McCarthy is also plastic.

Oh dear, I’m never happy, am I?

Extra reading: Waterstone's carrier bag policy


  1. I can see no merit in flimsy plastic bags that may well not survive the trip home in a state to be re-used for any other purpose. I think such bags should be banned and there should be a charge for more robust plastic bags.

    If only it wasn't so cheap to make plastic bags, but if oil prices are really set to rise as predicted then plastic of all kinds will become a lot more expensive and manufactures will probably start to use what might seem to be more old-fashioned types of packaging. People will then find it worthwhile to invest in a sturdy re-usable bag like the old-fashioned shopping bags our mothers/grandmothers used to use.

    Meanwhile you might enjoy this video

  2. This is quite a read but, being passionate myself about reducing my use of plastic, kept me interested to the end! I love the descriptions of the different customer responses and recognised quite a few of them. I'm mostly the Eco-Warrior but very occasionally Apologetic.
    Teresa x

  3. read that same article in the Guardian Isoblel, as well as other similar pieces, where the author argues that instead of spending our time on plastic bags, we should be concentrating on other, more serious concerns to the planet. Fair enough, but, try telling a fish, seabird or other mammal, who face daily possibilities of chocking or strangulation on the millions of tonnes of plastic dumped in the oceans, rivers and soil, that we don't consider them important enough to bother about. Them again, there is every likelihood that the nodules of plastic that fish and birds ingest now reach all of the way up the food chain

    We do what we can, I know that my conscious won't allow me to stop demanding that this synthetic material is withdrawn from circulation as soon as possible.

    There are a lot of question marks over so called biodegradable bags too. A recent report suggested that their decomposition time may be much longer than the manufacturers suggest. Also, these bags will only break down in intense heart. Personally I avoid plastic bags full stop.