Saturday, 29 October 2011

Britain, NZ, Customer Service and Product Variety (or a lack of)

I've been back in the motherland for a whole week, but it's been rather busy, and normal life has resumed only over the last couple of days. So it was only yesterday going shopping in town that I was struck by a couple of differences between here, the UK, and New Zealand.

The thing is, Britain does seem like the Land That Customer Service Forgot. On our visit last year, Kiwi Ex-Girlf was a little shocked at how poor the customer service was - you go into a shop, and there's usually no-one around to help, and even if there is they don't offer any anyway. It's a far cry from New Zealand and/or Wellington, where within the first 120 seconds of entering a shop/store, you'll be ambushed by someone asking if they can help you at all. They're cosy like that, New Zealanders.

As far as I know it's a personal space thing. In Britain, we've evolved over decades to be wary and cautious of others' personal space - in Tesco for instance, the woman at the deli counter didn't even acknowledge me until she was sure I had finished looking at the types of ham and wanted to talk to her. What comes across as being rude or dismissive (and in the case of surly teenage shop assistants, it can genuinely be these things) is actually just the instinct to give a respectful amount of personal space.

I can see both sides of the coin. For most of my life, I was always annoyed if anyone approached or talked to me in a shop - I'm just doing my thing, leave me alone, aaargh! - but have now learned to cope in the same way  as with chuggers* ("no thanks, I'm okay ta" covers it 9 times out of 10). And every now and again, as happened yesterday in Boots, I wanted to ask someone for help and there were no shop assistants anywhere to be seen.

While it's not all about personal space, I do find it ironic - one topic of discussion amongst our international friends is about exactly that in NZ, and how Kiwis feel much more comfortable if you talk at a distance of a few feet (or, preferably, metres). Yet NZ is a country with customer service by a human being deeply ingrained in its culture still.***

The other difference is that of product variety. Again, what I've found is quite counter-intuitive - you would expect Britain and Europe, with their huge markets, to have a vast array of product choice, and little old New Zealand that has to import everything to have not much. For the most part this is correct.

So imagine my bafflement when I went out to the supermarket and tried looking for a sliced loaf of soy linseed bread, or dark rye bread, or even any actual type of bread. Britain doesn't have them. What Britain has is a) white, b) brown/wholemeal, c) rather spurious "best of both" varieties which are brand products invented by the manufacturer.

Now, this is on one visit to the supermarket (Tesco****) in Chelmsford, on the back of 3 years shopping mostly in Wellington New World supermarkets. So it's not very scientific. However, my reasoning is a) From memory, both Chelmsford Tescos and Wellington New Worlds are representative of their chains around their countries, and b) Tesco and Chelmsford occupy very similar spaces in their respective markets (I wouldn't be surprised if Tesco gobbles up New World in 20 or 30 years).

Also it fits with other products, like chocolate and beer. While the UK obviously has more producers and outlets for products, and thus a large variety in the market as a whole, the average choices by the main manufacturers on a supermarket shelf are actually smaller. New Zealand's primary chocolate makers, Cadbury's and Whittaker's, have far more varieties of chocolate than Britain's standard choices of white, milk and dark.

Similarly for beer: what you have in the UK is that Carlsberg make Carlsberg lager, Carling make Carling lager, Stella make Stella lager, and so on and so on. Whereas on most NZ supermarket shelves you'll find Mac's and Monteith's each make a red beer, white beer, black beer, pilsner etc. In Wellington, we have thankfully have access to many more smaller breweries like Tuatara who also have 5 or 6 different types of beer. Even the lager-only breweries like Tui, Speight's and Steinlager have more varieties of their lager than British lager brands.

Having said that, no country - not even New Zealand - has the same real ale culture that Britain does, which I intend to make full use of while I'm here. Good day!

*Eurgh. Chuggers seem to inhabit both the UK and NZ. I'm sure there are worse crimes, like being a mime in pubic, but they still definitely deserve to be dropped in the scorpion pit.**

** Except you T, if you're reading this! I'll spare you ;)

*** Even to the point where there are no photobooths in the entire country, as far as I can work out. I still think getting a human being to physically take your passport photo is quite quite unnecessary.

**** I agree with my mother's view that Tesco is Evil and Trying To Take Over The World, and yet here we are after all these years, still shopping at Tesco - fail.

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