Ask the Audience?

Our local branch of Tesco has a board at the back of the store which features responses to customer questions. 80% of these take the form of “You asked why we no longer stock Freeman’s Biscuits. These are no longer available from our supplier.” and the vast majority have a negative answer. Perhaps what Tesco need is better engagement and consultation with their customers. They could run a survey, mainly targetting people who have never been to their store, perhaps asking people who don’t even know it exists questions about the workings of the store. They could also ask the local Big Shop User Group, the response from which will actually be solely the opinions of the chairman, Brian. Brian posts a lot on Facebook about the local shops (usually critical), but actually gets all his shopping delivered from the Morrisons in Wells and hasn’t stepped a foot in Tesco since 2018. Perhaps somebody might even tip off the local political groups.

Anyway, for the sake of a narrative, we’ll say that Tesco carried out this entirely ficticious survey.

Tesco decide to look closely at the responses of their survey and find that a surprising number of respondents are requesting the shop opens earlier and closes later despite the fact that it used to do this up until a couple of years ago but found the demand was far too low to cover the costs of staffing the shop floor.

There are also a lot of requests to provide a Cafe, again something which used to exist but was found to be very poorly used and not to cover the cost of staff, equipment and supplies. The survey replies report that the Cafe was always busy and should be reopened at twice the size and opening hours of the one that used to be there.

Several people replying asked for a Youth Club corner to be provided for young people to sit around it and consume energy drinks and huge packets of snacks after school. Apparently this Youth Club corner should have Bluetooth speakers built in, charging points for mobile phones and e-scooters and all be provided free of charge.

Tesco also asked those carrying out the survey how their product ranges should be arrived at. They currently use analysis from their product buyers to see what is popular and stock these items and items related to them, along with new lines and promoted items they think may be popular. The response from the survey was clear – the products the store offers should be decided by staff at the local council, who should also set the prices of them. Instead of providing several different types of biscuits (some of which are occasionally out of stock), there should be just one basic biscuit with a number of kits to make them a bit like the biscuits you like, but far more time consuming and awkward.

Most importantly, every branch should carry exactly the same product range. This may lead to some larger branches being almost empty, whilst smaller ones are hopelessly overcrowded, but everyone would get the same potential access to their shopping.

In terms of the experience at the tills, the response on this was also clear. If somebody is visiting several supermarkets in a day, they should only have to pay once and those who are over 65 or on certain benefits shouldn’t have to pay at all.

Brian at the Big Shop User Group also replied that Tesco should open a store at the bottom of his garden which would open 18 hours a day, every day of the week and offer every item at 50% of it’s normal price. Apparently this is something that all members of the Big Shop User Group want to see and it would be very popular if provided.

A small number of very similar looking surveys simply stated “U need to rip up ur shop n start again wiv the council running it” or similar, although nobody offered any reasons as to how that would make things better.

Several of the surveys commented on a view that “half the time the shop isn’t open anyway”, which although they had recently suffered some staffing problems was demonstrably not the case 95% of the time. Others commented that the shop ought to become lots of smaller, mobile shops which they could gain access to through their phone (although in areas where this had been trialled, mobile shops were rarely available at the times people wanted them and were economically hopeless to run).

A few of the surveys had some useful suggestions, such as replenishing the hot snacks cabinet after the lunchtime rush rather than leaving it empty all afternoon, or reducing the usage of the huge home shopping pick and pack trolleys when the store is exceptionally busy, or moving the queue for Customer Services and the tobacco counter so it doesn’t block the main store entrance. But these considered, viable opinions were drowned by those who had organised themselves to provide noisy, overwhelming responses illustrating made-up demand which wasn’t truly there.

The store manager picked out one survey response and pinned it to the staff notice board. It simply read: “Please keep doing what you’re doing because my partner and i value your efforts” and nothing else.

Here endeth the metaphor.

The bus industry generates a massive quantity of data on passenger demand and usage which can be evaluated by well trained, experienced and knowledgeable staff in order to plan network changes or improvements. So far, i have yet to be convinced that this can be done by an algorithm or by somebody highly qualified in office work with only partial information to hand. Just because something has become policy due to being favourably surveyed amongst a narrow group of individuals and pressure groups, doesn’t mean it will work in the real world.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the real world. Surveys and rigid policies are only a tiny part of these. Talking to people who actually use existing services, analysing and observing travel habits may be time consuming, but it is far more likely to generate useful results.

Once supermarkets are bulldozed, they are very expensive and time consuming to rebuild. So be careful what you wish for, eh?

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