The nasty side of human nature

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.

Day 4 / 365 / 2009: Sign O The Times
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.


  1. I would have been seriously tempted to just verbally lay into them. Though no doubt in this day and age they’d get violent but if not what’s the worst that could happen.

  2. Whenever I had a rude customer, I just wanted shot of them as quickly as possible. The best way to do that is just to complete the transaction with a minimum of fuss. I saw no point in wasting my breath and creating a scene. They are low people who simply aren’t worth it.

    In retrospect, with the customers who asked me when the “real” sale was starting, I should have just refused to serve them, and I probably would have done had I clocked what was going on more quickly. As it was, I was just rendered speechless by their astonishing insensitivity. I was actually so rattled that I almost gave them the wrong change, which meant I had to wait to open the till again, making the transaction that bit longer. (There was no way I was giving them more change than they were entitled to!)

  3. There’s no question that this nastiness was evident, clearly from people who wouldn’t normally have ever gone to Woolies.

    I used to Woolies quite a lot so feel safe enough slagging it but the Daily Mash summed the whole thing up perfectly:

    Wollies was never cheap (part of its problem) but nor was it hugely expensive. So if you didn’t want its stuff normally then a big sale surely wasn’t going to be that important.

    What was then evident was rampant consumerism – people buying things they didn’t really need, just because they could. And that was no doubt at the heart of the problems you saw.

    I worry about these attitudes, especially in the context of the environmental agenda. If people think they have the right to just buy rubbish they don’t need what sort of economy or world does that create? Especially for the people affected by it:

    Anyway, rant over. Just hope the people that have lose their jobs find something soon.

  4. It was clear that people were buying items just because they had money off them. A lot of the time it was clear that customers see themselves almost as playing a game, and they play very competitively in order to “win” against the nasty big business. This came in the form of ordering more money off, picking up the one damaged sweets tin from a pile of pristine ones and demanding a discount, queuing up outside the door before the shop opens to return an item they are dissatisfied with, etc etc.

    That is always the case though. In Woolworths we had certain items that from time to time went to half price — but we never got them delivered to our store when they were full price. There is some truth in the old one about putting the price up just to put it down again. But there is a clear effect. A big “50% off” sticker attracts people because it makes them feel like they’ve “won”.

    In that sense, all Woolies ever needed was a cheap poster that advertised its “biggest ever sale”, and cards all over the place telling you that you’ll get 50% off. Sales skyrocketed, and I am certain it was not just because of the law of demand. It was a psychological effect as well. People were genuinely buying stuff they didn’t really want just because it had money off.

  5. I’d like to thank you for a really insightful set of articles which have been really worth reading indeed.I might put this to someone I know who worked at Nottingham’s Victoria Centre branch for the past two and a half years.

    I agree the behavior of some people is rather disgraceful indeed – there’s no real need for any of it at all – people really should understand they are very fortunate to be able to get kit at severely reduced prices.Not to complain about the fact they couldn’t get stuff for free etc.

    One thing though which mystified me was the attitude of this particular cashier when I asked her about the fact Woolies was closing down.She just shrugged her shoulders and gave me a bit of an indifferent look.I couldn’t believe it – she was going to be out of a job quite soon and couldn’t really care too much about the store closing down with some of her colleagues being around for over 20 years.

    A final comment – on your point about store refits , I don’t ever recall there ever being a major refit at the store I mentioned in all the time I remember going there – my mum used to take me there to get school uniforms etc , and I’m 18 years old so that’s a very long time.They did perhaps rearrange a few things in terms of layout but nothing really changed in terms of colour scheme etc.

  6. Thanks, Francois!

    As regards the store refits, it is true that not all of the stores had had a refit yet — I believe they were only partway through the programme. The easiest way of telling was that stores with a red path going through the store had had a refit. I believe these were mainly the busiest / largest stores though. Stores that weren’t busy enough to justify a full refit were part of the “Phoenix” programme instead, but I think this was quite a basic update.

    All of the stores I had been in in recent years (Kirkcaldy, Glenrothes, Cumbernauld, Leith, Lothian Road) had had a refit, so I haven’t had a fresh experience of what the pre-refit stores felt like. I kind of wish I had the chance to visit a few more different stores but I never got the chance.

    In case anyone’s wondering, this was indeed my last main post in the series, but I will publish a summary with some extra thoughts and wrapping up the series.

  7. Despite being a fairly regular Woolworths shopper (at the Glenrothes branch), I was fairly nonplussed by the sale. The media definitely hyped up the 50% deal, but most of the things I might have bought were only 10 – 20% off RRP, and therefore cheaper elsewhere anyway. e.g. I had a look at an xbox game, 10% off, so price was £39.99 – £3.99 = £36 (I think). I went across to Game and bought the same game for £24.99.

  8. Duncan,

    Yup, that was definitely a problem with the entertainment stuff. People who only ever went to Woolies for their CDs and DVDs would definitely have been disappointed in the sale. Mind you, after a week or so the discount on entertainment stuff was 50% and on the final day it was 90% along with everything else.

  9. Hi Duncan

    Thanks for a very interesting series of articles about the final weeks of Woolies. I’m also so sorry that it has not just been the expected unpleasant experience of losing one’s employment, but in addition being exposed to the less pleasant side of human nature; that can’t have been nice, but I think it will prove in years to come to have been a valuable learning experience for you (my eyes were opened to different national characteristics, and how often the British seem to be at the less pleasant end of the spectrum when compared with many of our European neighbours when I had to deal with a variety of customers, usually when they were unhappy with the service they received from our counter staff, during my time in Morocco MANY years ago – I hated it at the time, but have found it invaluable ever since).

    As for me and Woolies, well I have been a sporadic customer in recent years, although I usually got things like fuses, extension cables, electric bulbs, that kind of thing there. However, I hadn’t been in to our local Nairn branch for some months (partly because I’ve been away in Spain so much of late) so when it became clear that the whole company was going to the wall I went in for a kind of nostalgic last visit. I don’t buy things just for the sake of it, however, so I walked all round the store (it was unnaturally busy and some shelves were empty) and saw nothing of interest, so after five minutes I left never to return although I did say a cheery ‘hello’ to a few of the staff I recognised. Apart from that I walked by the store a few times before it finally closed before Christmas; very sad, although it’s not the only retail outlet that has closed here in recent weeks – there have been at least two others I am aware of, both one-shop local concerns.

    I hope you will be able to replace the lost income reasonably soon. Meantime good luck!


  10. Bill,

    Thanks for your wishes.

    I am in no doubt that my time at Woolworths has been a great learning experience and very good for my personal development, especially when it comes to interpersonal skills. A lot of that, as you say, has come from dealing with the sometimes demanding clientele of Woolworths.

  11. No one can excuse boorish behaviour, but on the other hand some of the pricing policies and practices used by retailers can be infuriating. I do most of my shopping at Tesco and get a tad annoyed at things like permanent so-called discounts, bizarre pricing swings on straightforward purchases, lack of/erroneous information on the shelves, BOGOFs that don’t register at the tills etc.

    I’m quite interested in this kind of thing from the consumer perspective and thus have found your posts on Woolies to be most illuminating.

    Good luck with the job hunt as well; I’m sure you’ll get something appropriate eventually.