never knowingly

Instead of asking its long serving staff to work at tills alongside the automated version, don’t you think it would be a good idea if Waitrose (the grocery arm of John Lewis) divided its functions so that half its stores were called not Little Waitrose but Waitrose Auto?

Waitrose Auto would have no humans on cash desks, everything automated, a desk for its online shopping outlet, computerised notes on stock running out and complaints, devoting itself to making that run well ?   The other stores could feature humans on the cash desk – every cash desk manned (for the first time in several years), humans to refer to and be called Waitrose Service.   Asking your alleged shareholders – whose bonus was cut for the fifth year in a row – to work in the presence of machines designed to take their jobs – has always seemed insensitive. Little Waitrose sounds twee and counterproductive – if it’s little, it has a small product range and almost certainly won’t have what I want.   I would avoid Waitrose Auto like the plague but it would be much more use to the casual trade, to people rushing in for loo rolls or a packet of digestives, people who like machines. (The staff in my local Sainsburys either babysit me through the robotic till or wave it aside – “It’s always going wrong !”)

I go back 40 years with John Lewis.   I bought my son’s baby gear in a store they then had in North London and though I had a John Lewis card, I didn’t shop much there.     Nowadays I live the other side of town and buy my mascara in Peter Jones.   They’d never get rich on me. But I was taught to shop at Waitrose and they have rarely let me down. And now I can find my way round a couple of branches so shopping there becomes habit, though I actually buy less and less.

One day I was in the dispensary at Boots – another even older brand name with some of the same running problems – and heard a woman talking about shoplifting in Waitrose.   In Waitrose – really ?   “It is epidemic” said my informant. If you’re not a booster, you don’t think about it. But the reason that it goes unchallenged is because management is trying to do everything at the same time. A busy Friday morning will only have 2 tills manned out of 8, we’re all impatient and want to get on, the sandwich trade (otherwise known as the starch sag) is on the go and trying to beat whoever is coming after, there are people flooding in and out of the store, All you have to do is stand quietly and watch … and do you see !   Best place to hid is in plain sight. And I watched a young man steal breakfast out of M&S which was (I hate to say it) a lesson in confidence: target (bread, eggs, milk), bike, gone – security puffing in pursuit.   Do you think the thieves are all social misfits or just fed up with queueing?

You get such mixed messages about shopping – an Ocado handout trumpets “Don’t waste time in the supermarket.”   But the circumstances vary.   If you’re young, working all the hours that God sends, with one or other kind of dependent, trying to run a home, I can see getting the shopping done.   The one thing I have is time. And I need exercise (walking and carrying), a bit of conversational exchange, to venture beyond my four walls.   Not only do I not want to do everything via the screen (I’d rather pick my own lemons thank you), it isn’t in my health interests, physical or social. I prefer old fashioned shops – counters, same faces – it is the continuity that makes me cherish markets.

I know very little about retail.   The nearest I got to the grocery trade was being a secretary to a food pr. And I am sure it has changed like everything else. But how can an enormous concern like John Lewis be millions of pounds adrift?   You can’t blame the Brexit torpor – this has been coming for years .

John Lewis’s slogan: “Never knowingly undersold”

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