Being served with respect sure helps

‘Hello, my lovely, how are you doing today? Can I help you with anything?" This is how cheerful, friendly Izzie greeted me this morning.

I was having an end-of-season browse through a favourite clothing store and not feeling especially lovely, too many Christmas mince pies and too little exercise having expanded my waistline well beyond the ideal this holiday season, but Izzie made me feel terrific.

I flicked through the sales rack and a brightly patterned cotton shirt caught my eye. I tried it on, but it wasn't quite what I wanted. "Never mind," said Izzie. "See you next time!" And she will see me again soon, because Izzie is a terrific saleswoman.

On the last occasion I spent time with Izzie, I left with a cool and colourful summer frock and a pair of pretty wedge-heeled sandals, both of which I feel fabulous wearing, even with the results of summer holiday indulgence on board.

But why is my retail experience with Izzie worth relating? Because friendly, polite and helpful service has become a much more frequent experience for Nelson's retail customers in the past few years and it needs to be acknowledged.

This was brought home to me by a recent customer experience that wasn't so great.

Let me tell you about my attempt to buy a herbal remedy. Sometimes I don't sleep well. Always ready to try another solution, especially one which doesn't require long periods of vigorous exercise, I went in search of tart cherry, which had been recommended by two reliable friends.

I had been in the shop for a few minutes, before the assistant turned reluctantly away from her clipboard.


"I'm looking for tart cherry. I've heard it can help with insomnia."

"Do you drink coffee?"

"Yes, I do."

"When do you have your last cup?" Her tone was accusatory.

I stepped back a pace. "In the evening."

"Tart cherry won't be any good. You shouldn't drink coffee after midday if you're having trouble sleeping."

A short silence. "Oh."

She turned back to the clipboard and I was dismissed.

This is a classic example of the retailers' own goal, the assistant who is so unhelpful and brusque that the customer leaves the establishment vowing never to darken the door again. I won't be back, despite Madame Clipboard's undoubted knowledge about the effect of coffee consumption on insomnia.

It was a disconcerting and uncomfortable experience and, I realised later, more surprising because this kind of grumpy, grudging service is now uncommon.

In the last six months, as far as my reliable memory for these sorts of details will stretch, I've had many positive experiences in Nelson's shops and businesses. This ranges from finding six buttons of exactly the right colour and size to finish a hand-knitted jersey for my grandson, to buying a new car.

I wonder whether Nelson's business associations and retailers have been working hard at improving service. If so, they've succeeded where others have not, because I've come across some unfortunate examples of bad retail practice when out of town and, unlike good retail experiences, the bad ones tend to stick in your memory.

I remember spending a few hours in Westfield's Albany Mall a couple of years ago. The concourse was surprisingly empty, but I soon discovered the most likely reason. Disheartened by poor service, prospective customers had gone elsewhere.

In one store, I looked through racks of tops and even tried a few on. I was ignored by two assistants deep in conversation, although one did pause long enough to give a languid wave in the direction of the changing rooms.

For a brief moment, I seriously contemplated a little shoplifting to test whether I was, in fact, as invisible as I felt. Every store I entered offered the same dispiriting treatment.

There are issues over the Tasman too. Visiting Sydney's flagship department store, David Jones, last year, I found myself standing in the middle of the football-field-sized shoe department, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pairs of shoes and a few other hapless, unassisted customers.

It was seemingly impossible to try a pair on, let alone make a purchase, with the shop floor as abandoned as legendary ship the Mary Celeste. No wonder David Jones' fortunes have been reported as faltering.

Retailers doing well always have, among other positive characteristics, staff who deliver great service. Nelson's "big-box" hardware stores are particularly good, with plenty of friendly, polite and knowledgeable help available.

A request for museum wax, that handy stuff that holds ornaments secure in case of an earthquake, took 15 minutes of one assistant's time and ended in failure, but I will return to that store simply because of the great service. These stores prove that large size and low prices don't have to mean poor service.

To create happy customers, who will return again and again to spend on goods and services, all that's needed is for retail staff to treat well the people who come through their doors.

That means a friendly, polite approach and an attitude that lets the customer know you're there to help, no matter what they require. Maintaining this attitude every day is the skill of the true retail professional.

Shoppers in Nelson are lucky to have many such people working in local businesses. Let's make sure we support them.