Guilty before proven innocent – how not to treat your loyal customers


I sometimes come across stories that make me question whether or not the principle of ‘customer experience’ is even scratching the surface in society today. Stories that make me question whether or not organisations we transact with on a daily basis even know what is happening to us as we part with our hard earned cash. Sometimes the stories I come across make me wonder whether businesses really do care about their customers – and the story I am sharing with you today is a great example.

The lady pictured at the top of this post is Amy Kewell. Amy is a busy mum with two young children. Like millions of mums and dads, Amy takes her children with her when she visits her local supermarket, often using a double buggy. That local supermarket is Sainsburys and sadly Amy was unfortunate to make a simple and common mistake  when leaving one day. The way she was treated is astonishing. The story you are about to read is one that genuinely shocked me, and I am sure it will you too. There is no better way to tell the story than for the person it is about to tell it themselves. I am delighted that Amy feels strongly enough about what happened to her to write her story and allow me to share it. Amy is not a professional blogger – what she has written is a personal account of what happened to her from the heart. Sit back and brace yourself for what you are about to read:

I never realised how hard it could be to go shopping with children until I had two of my own. Essentially the moment you step into a supermarket with kids in tow, you’re living on borrowed time. Any moment there could be tears, tantrums or toilet training nightmares and so you do everything in your power to get what you need and get the hell out. The bottom line is, it’s really stressful and the majority of the time, thank goodness for online shopping. I mean, why would you ever chose to take two small toddlers into a supermarket if you didn’t have to?

Because…it’s part of life. It’s part of parenting and a task which should be simple enough. There are thousands of parents shopping daily in our supermarkets and to some degree those supermarkets have gone to great lengths to make it easier and more manageable – specific parking spaces, trolleys for one or two children, trolleys for your baby seats and lots more. Huge amounts of value are placed on mum and dad shoppers and quite rightly so, we are one of the biggest spenders in their stores. So why I did I not feel that ‘value’ when I visited Sainsburys in Tonbridge just a few short weeks ago.

It was half term and I had just come out of a soft play centre round the corner and I was doing a mid week ‘top up’ shop for a dozen or so items for family guests arriving that evening. I had walked so I didn’t have a car, just the double buggy with my two little ones both under 3. As ever, I didn’t have much time and I went about doing my best impression of ‘Supermarket Sweep’ using my buggy as a basket, as I’m unable to manoeuvre it and carry a basket at the same time.

After inspecting the bulging queues at the normal tills I decided to head to the self-service checkout. I paid for my shopping and left. At the door, I was stopped by a plain clothes contract security guard who had been watching me. Oh my days – the wine! I had forgotten to pay for two bottles of wine which I had put in the basket underneath the buggy rather than on top, so they wouldn’t fall off and smash on the floor. I was totally mortified and tried to explain immediately how it was an absent minded mistake. I had no intention of leaving without paying and told him I would go straight back in and pay for them.

Following him back into the store, I was held at the Customer Service Desk where I was told to wait whilst a decision to call the police was made. I must have waited ten minutes or more during which time I paid for wine, but no one from Sainsbury’s spoke to me about what had happened. Up until this point only Securitas were communicating with me. I was offered by another security guard to go with him to one of their meeting rooms but I declined. My already twitchy children weren’t going to last that long and I also felt that this was somehow admitting to the crime I was being accused of. From the moment I was stopped I was resolute in my defence – it had been a mistake.

So after another long wait, the first security guard came back and told be that he had spoken to the manager and they had agreed not to call the police on this occasion. At this point I asked to see the manager, upon which I was told he was too busy to come down. Instead I was issued a rather threatening letter outlining a lifetime ban from all Sainsburys stores. I was absolutely gobsmacked. At no point was I given an opportunity to explain what had happened. In their eyes, I was guilty of trying to shoplift and I was absolutely not welcome back in any of their stores. Ever.

During this whole experience the Customer Service Manager who was present throughout, did not make herself known to me. I expressed over and over that it had been a mistake, an accident, an error of judgement but she did not once speak up. I maintained my innocence and was incensed when they issued the ban. I asked if the CCTV footage could be viewed to help try to prove that I had no intention of trying to steal or conceal anything in the buggy and a half-hearted offer to carry this out was made. In their eyes, the decision had been made and I should just leave.

I have to say, this affected me more than I ever thought something like this would. I found the whole thing hugely distressing, not least for being accused of shoplifting in front of my children and the upset it caused them seeing me so angry at the way I’d been treated. When I got home I sought out other people’s views. People urged me to appeal so I contacted the Sainsburys Customer Care Line a few days later to find out the appeal procedure and wrote a letter. As a consequence of all the social media interest, the local paper picked up the story (http://www.courier.co.uk/Banned-Sainsbury-s-country-Tunbridge-Wells-mum/story-20729224-detail/story.html) and Sainsburys jumped out of their skin. Unsurprisingly, they did everything they could do to pacify the situation which by that point was receiving quite a bit of attention.

To be fair, the piece which ran in the local Courier for Kent and Sussex was pretty straight. I had stressed to the paper that I understood very well the legal issue around shoplifting but for me, it was about more than that. The incident whilst it was obviously hugely regrettable, it was unintentional so what I really wanted to know was, what was Sainsburys procedure for handling this kind of thing? Would they have treated an 80 year old in the same way? I seriously doubt it, which means they would have had the power to exercise an element of judgement and common sense making it NOT always a black and white issue. Surely by not calling the police they had made a decision that I wasn’t a shoplifter, so why treat me as one.

Above all else though, I feel there is a much wider point to make, about helping all the thousands of parents out there every day shopping with children, to not run the risk of potentially being caught for shoplifting. So many people I have spoken to have done or nearly done exactly the same as I did – beans in the bottom of the buggy, biscuits stuffed down their baby’s blanket – it goes on. Supermarkets need to help their mum and dad shoppers not penalise them for shopping with kids. The buggy is not a tool for stealing!

For me this isn’t even about shoplifting – it’s about poor customer service and a failure to treat customers as human beings with individual needs. It’s also about a fundamental lack of alternative. Sainsburys see the buggy as a threat, parents see it as the only option to shop in their store, as there is no alternative. There are disabled trolleys, trolleys for car seats – they need an option for the thousands of parents who go shopping whilst pushing a buggy every day. People are going to forever need to shop for groceries whilst pushing a buggy and we need to see a solution for exhausted parents and valuable customers who live our lives in the supermarkets.

Amy’s story should serve as one that reminds us that ‘customers are human beings’. As Amy rightly states, life is not black and white, and the ability of organisations to use their judgement and common sense in situations like this is critical. Sainsburys, and other supermarkets should see this story as an opportunity – an opportunity to solve a problem that is proven to exist. Shopping with a baby in a buggy is very difficult – and as yet, there is not a sensible solution to make it easier for customers who have no choice but to shop in this way. Rather than chastising a loyal customer who made an honest mistake, why not work with that customer to find a way of making life easier for her?

Amy’s ban has been lifted – mostly because of the visibility the story through the powers of Social Media. What happened to her will live with her for a long time. Despite what has happened, it is unlikely that the men and women who lead Sainsburys even know this has happened. It is unlikely that the process of dealing with scenarios like these has been reviewed. It is unlikely that the staff involved have been coached to behave differently in the future. If Sainsburys are a customer focussed organisation, they will look to solve the root cause of the problem, rather than continuing to brand honest, loyal customers as guilty. Wouldn’t it be great if together with Amy, they could design a solution that makes it easier for mums and dads shopping with buggies, and that also makes it harder for real shoplifters to use this as a method for stealing products?

A huge thank you to Amy for being brave enough to share the story – her courage will hopefully lead to many future consumers not having to go through the same experience. What do you think about this story? Has something like this ever happened to you. What do you think Sainsburys should now do?

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