The final month or so of working at Woolworths was without doubt the strangest. It was certainly an experience. The bright new posters, along with the masses of media publicity surrounding the problems Woolworths faced, attracted a different kind of customer. As friendly Woolies regulars browsed the aisles, the vultures started circling alongside them.
I had absolutely no problem whatsoever with people hunting for bargains. A few people told me they didn’t like to buy anything from Woolies because it was already so empty. But their concern was misplaced. The point of holding a sale, after all, is to persuade more people to buy. I took advantage of the situation myself, and now my attic is full of items that I have bought in preparation for moving out.
But the sheer rudeness of some of the bargain hunters was utterly uncalled for. There were a few stories in the media about abusive customers, summarised by Silversprite, and they are not too far off the mark. I have heard stories from other stores where staff members were physically abused, had shopping baskets thrown them and more. I personally didn’t encounter anything that could be described as clear-cut abuse, but I certainly encountered some uncalled for, insensitive, outright rudeness.
For instance, there was one pair of customers who acted in consort in what very much came across as a premeditated attempt to lay into a Woolworths worker (me) whose job was on the line. The man asked me, “So when is the real sale starting?” I raised my eyebrow because I couldn’t take the question seriously. After all, the business had just had its two biggest-ever days of sales — first when the “biggest ever sale” began, then again on the day it officially became a closing down sale. As such, our store was quite bare. Plus, these people were actually buying products. It can’t be that 20%, 30% and 50% off their items isn’t enough?
The pair kept looking at me. I laughed and said, “We don’t really need to reduce the prices further — we don’t have any stock left as it is.” It seemed to me to be a pretty watertight response. It seemed to have the man stumped. But the woman said, “That’s just because it’s Christmas.” The man chipped in again: “Exactly. EXACTLY.”
The tone of the man’s voice revealed that the pair were not simply being obtuse — they were being downright malicious. It was the fact that they had obviously decided together in advance that they were going to have a go at me simply because they were disappointed in what was on offer (despite the fact that they bought a basketful of goods!). That would be bad enough in normal times, but when I was mere weeks away from being made redundant it was utterly disgusting. The sheer vindictiveness of it had me in a rage for days.
Woolworths Kirkcaldy in the final few days
Photo credit: “Day 4 / 365 / 2009: Sign O The Times” by Frankie’s Photo’s
Another customer approached one of my colleagues and started ranting and raving about how our closing down sale was all a scam, complaining that it had “been on for weeks” (actually, at that point it had only been on for a few days, but even so, it inevitably takes a while to wind down a retail empire as large as Woolworths). I know some shops have been known to run fake closing down sales. But given the massive amount of news coverage that had been given to Woolies’ woes, I would have thought it was plain that ours was definitely not a scam and that person’s hectoring and aggressive attitude was totally uncalled for.
There was also the regular complaint about how all the items that were 50% off at the start of the sale were the worst items. This also seemed like quite a silly complaint, and tempted though I was explain to them that those products had the most money off precisely because they were the worst items, I feared that it would have been a waste of breath.
Matters were not helped when dodgy media reporting raised customer expectations. Some sloppy reporters on the television apparently said that everything in store was 50% off. Of course, at first most items were only 10% or 20% off. Some customers complained vociferously. It seemed to be beyond some people’s grasp that Woolworths was unable to control what the media says. What they say on breakfast television is a matter for Terry Wogan on Points of View, not me in Woolworths.
The situation wasn’t helped by the poorly designed Hilco sign that had “up to” in minuscule writing — the source of another heap of complaints. It was not unusual for customers to demand a price check on every item in a basket or two full with goods. For a few days, I feared that the words “Is there 50% off that?” would be my epitaph.
Then there were the people who knew full well what the percentage off the item was, but were either too lazy or too thick to work out the final price for themselves — despite the handy table provided! People wondered why we didn’t change the price labels, but with discounts changing almost on a daily basis (and three times a day in the final day) this simply wouldn’t have been manageable.
Because Woolworths was closing down, some people thought they had the right to get items for next to nothing. One person had the cheek to ask for more money off because he was buying eight James Bond DVDs — but they were already 50% off!
None of these people looked like charity cases, and Woolworths wasn’t a charity. It was a business. Prices may have been reduced, but there was no need for us to give away stock (with the possible exception of the dummy CCTV cameras). It seemed to be news to some people that the administrators were duty-bound to recover as much money as possible. The familiar protest, “But it doesn’t matter, you’re closing down anyway,” makes no sense. When a company is in the sort of situation Woolworths found itself in, that’s when it needs money the most — not least because it needs to pay its workers.
A couple of customers provided a chuckle though. Some people were utterly oblivious to the problems that had hit Woolworths. One customer, just a few days before Christmas — three weeks after Woolworths went into administration — seemed confused and asked me in all seriousness, “What’s happened to all your stock?”
Woolies had been a major news story for about a month, including being the lead item on major bulletins on at least two days. This person had not heard about Woolies on the television or the radio; she hadn’t read about it in the newspapers; she didn’t even hear about it through word of mouth. Most astonishingly of all, she completely failed to read the dozens and dozens of “CLOSING DOWN” posters that were by then emblazoned all over the store!
Of course, it goes without saying that the vast majority of customers were very pleasant. In the final few weeks I had a lot of wonderful conversations with people wishing me all the best for the future.
But a few nasty people had a major sympathy bypass. The overwhelming message from these customers was: “Screw your job, I WANT A BARGAIN.” My final weeks at Woolworths brought with them a glimpse into the nasty side of human nature.