I worked for Waitrose for a few years so I am going to give you my perspective. I think you’ll find it interesting and surprising.
The Waitrose store which I worked for took over a Coop store. (For our non-UK readers, Coop is short for The Cooperative Group and Waitrose is part of the John Lewis Partnership (JLP).) In many ways, their values are quite similar, i.e. ethically sourced food and profit sharing. Coop share their profit with their customers and JLP shares their profits with their staff.
I was able to observe first-hand how the take-over was undertaken. Initially, the old Coop store was closed for a month for a complete refit and the old staff was retrained.
We would be sent by taxi to flashy hotels to meet and be greeted by our new manager and his underlings. We were served with Waitrose champagne and cakes. As I looked around the room I thought about how the Romans came to Britain and tried to sell the idea of Roman rule to hairy, tattooed Britons who had never encountered villas, baths, central heating, and sewers.
We were a motley crew but a nice set of ordinary, good folk. Some of us, like myself, were lone parents who had a degree but unable to find lucrative work whilst juggling the demands of lone parenthood. I had three jobs. Others were kind and honest middle-aged men and women who had worked in Coop since they left school.
It took a month to refurbish the old store. Meanwhile, our induction to the Waitrose way was supervised by smiling, young managers.
We were told to attend an event where we were fitted with our new uniforms, one for every day we worked and even given a tax allowance to keep them clean – not that I earned enough to pay tax. Carrying my new uniform home in its cellophane wrapper reminded me of getting married though I felt the compulsory Waitrose aprons made me look like a cleaning-lady, particularly when they required that my hair is tied back. It was all so exciting with all the hype we were given by our new masters.
Waitrose is without a doubt a good-quality store. I saw behind the scenes and everything was kept impeccably clean and fresh. I do believe Waitrose deserves its reputation as a quality grocer with good products. It is just a shop. Before Waitrose took over that store, pigeons would fly through the delivery doors and poop on the products. I expect Waitrose solved the problem in some way.
When the day finally arrived for the doors to be opened to the public we were all ready and primed. I stood at my checkout and to dismay, I saw through the window hundreds, if not thousands of cars pour into the car-park. They were ‘posh’ cars and big four-wheeled drive cars. It was quite daunting seeing hoards of people surge into the store dressed as though they were going to a wedding except for hats.
When I worked for the Coop it was quite different. The evening shifts were so quiet and tedious. I would do anything to relieve the boredom such as reading the books that people had left on a charity table. I even read a good book on chemistry that was written in the 1930s. It was a delight to be told to put the items back on the shelf that customers had dumped on the till just for some excitement.
However, Coop was very busy on Saturday morning and I met some truly lovely people who became personal friends to this day. Coop customers seemed to be decent people without a sense of superiority who wanted to shop ethically if they could. There were sweet, elderly people who had a particular loyalty and fondness to Coop that stretched down generations particularly if they were born in North of London. Personally, at that time I was there, I did not think Coop deserved such loyalty and that it had lost its way. The Reverend Flowers’ scandal did not help its reputation. I do hope it has found its way now as it is good to have healthy competition and for consumers not to be dependent on too few corporations.
As I saw the customers in their cars arriving, our excited manager said that there was a queue of cars down the road and that the car park had become gridlocked. Never before had that car park been so well-used.
The doors opened and the customers began to mill around the store and approach the tills. I looked for my favourite Coop customers whom I had not seen for a month. I did not see even one of them and strangely I rarely did again. In fact these new faces I had not even seen around town – I wondered where they had come from.
As I began to serve these new Waitrose customers I became baffled and shocked to discover that generally, these people were not nice people at all. They were complete snobs.
I had had a few hours till training in another store and was a little slow, to begin with, to ensure everything was done well. We were all novices including the many new staff they employed. There is quite a lot of multi-tasking when you first work on checkout in addition to engaging with people. Before long, I received my first verbally abusive remark of a kind I had never encountered before. The computer system had crashed and we were powerless but became the object of their frustration.
As I looked at my colleagues around me they too were struggling due to the volume of customers and their attitude. Before this occasion, I enjoyed developing a rapport with customers and people have told me since that they would seek me out and be disappointed if I was not there. I cannot understand why people work in jobs where they meet the general public and are sour-faced and dismissive. A few pleasant words and ‘how are you this week’, relieves the boredom of the job and provides some job satisfaction in an otherwise unskilled job.
Sadly, for the rest of my time at Waitrose, I came to realise that there is a good portion of their customers who are truly horrible in their attitude towards the ‘lesser mortals’ who serve them. I even saw some people so verbally abuse young, sweet members of staff that they honestly should have been arrested. One particular woman was a cross between Hyacinth Bouquet and Cruella De’Vill – she had an evil face. Her verbal abuse was terrible and the staff hated her.
Many customers seemed to look down on us. They behaved as if we were imbeciles. Some customers did not engage with the staff at all neither a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ but an arrogant silence. I am not saying that the staff expects a chat and I realise that some people would rather be left to their own thoughts but I am talking about an unpleasant attitude.
Nowadays I spend very little time in any supermarket – I take a few bags, my card at the ready and I am in and out within 20 minutes because they are boring places. However, I always make eye contact with the staff, ask them if they are having a good day and thank them for serving me. Invariably they appreciate being acknowledged.
The worst thing that a customer can do is speak on their phones while they are being served – it infuriates staff and is intensely rude and dehumanising. In fact, a certain bald BBC cooking show celebrity did that to me. If I should see him on TV I am reminded of him being a foolish little man showing off.
Another thing that upsets staff is when people put their baby on the area where food is placed after it has been scanned. I have seen babies placed there with very full, leaking nappies. Fortunately, Waitrose provided disinfectant to spray and clean the area. I have even seen people change their babies nappies on the cafe tables.
Anyone who likes people watching or who are studying psychology should get a job in a supermarket. It is most fascinating. For the staff, due to team dynamics, you are aware of what the other staff members are doing in your view – the customers are peripheral. Whenever I go into my former Waitrose store which is very rare indeed since I shop at the German discounters, immediately I am clocking all the staff members. It is just automatic. Even if I have not been there for a few years, the staff who knew me before notice me and acknowledge me however busy they are. I can sense the dynamics immediately and even sense the mood in the store.
I watched the very good Sky series ‘Trollied’ and found it hilarious. It is a caricature of reality in a supermarket. It is very funny but somewhat accurate.
Waitrose gives customers a free newspaper when they shop there, either the Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail or Guardian. I used to notice a strange phenomenon which has no reflection on my own views since I rarely read a newspaper. The Times and Telegraph readers were generally very nice and pleasant, quite friendly and undemanding people. They paid by debit card (we could tell that because if it was a credit card there was not the option to offer cash-back). The Mail readers were the most down-to-earth, verbose, friendly but impatient. The Guardian readers generally-speaking were the customers who were the worst snobs, the rudest people and treated the staff badly.
They tended to use their credit cards the most. I could almost predict which newspaper would be selected when I offered it by the manner of the customer.
Some of the Waitrose customers’ children were really badly behaved and had ridiculous names. One family had two of their three children named after a well-known young children’s TV programme which depicted 4 baby characters wearing different-coloured suits with a TV aerial on their heads. I hope it was just a nickname they used.
So why is Waitrose posh? It simply is not posh – it is a supermarket, a large grocer which sells good quality products. It is just a shop.
However, in my humble experience, people who think they are better than other people and want to be seen as better people than anyone else tend to shop there to appear ‘posh’. For those of us who have observed them from the inside, they are rude, insecure, obnoxious, ignorant, social climbers.