Longing for the days of personal service and integrity
THE controversy over Walmart’s bid for Massmart highlights huge changes that have overtaken the retail industry.
I grew up in several rural towns during the “pre-supermarket” days. My parents forged close relationships with the local general dealers, which were most often run by closeknit Indian business families – father, mother, uncles, aunties and sometimes even children serving behind the counters.
They would physically deliver our regular monthly order. There was always a friendly chat when we popped in for daily items like bread. When I set my eye on a small woodworking plane (the store offered hardware items as well) the owner set it aside for months until I could pay it off from my regular pocket money.
It cost all of one pound, seven shillings (R1.70), which was a lot of money for a kid back then.
Every Christmas the local store would send us a large “thank you for your business” complimentary hamper of goodies.
We also were on personal terms with the butcher, chemist, furniture dealer, bank manager and so on.
Today business is much faster and impersonal.
Supermarkets abound in almost every little town, their arrival having bankrupted more inefficient family-style operations.
In cities, the department stores of yesteryear (Greenacres, Payne Bros, etc) have either adapted or disappeared under the pressure of the mass discounters.
This drive for greater economies of scale has not ended. Massmart itself is now set to become part of a truly global operator. Walmart has won a significant point with the competition authorities.
While obliged to meet certain conditions (and not to retrench affected staff for two years) it has not been obliged to guarantee the use of local manufacturers and suppliers. This would have placed it at a disadvantage because so many of its competitors (and even its soon-to-be South African subsidiaries) already import significant volumes of goods.
This has become a global marketplace with little place for the family store or corner café of yesteryear.
The arrival of mass discounters, focused almost entirely on the bottomline, has brought price benefits to consumers.
At the same time it has put many local operations out of business. Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions, persuasively warned last week that the trade liberalisation process has a distinct downside.
Unbridled imports, which lead to the failure of local businesses and the loss of jobs, erode local buying power.
In economic terms, this results in a lower spending power – an inability to buy even the cheaper imported goods, a vicious circle.
On the human side, these longterm trends have also removed layers of personal service – and not only among goods retailers. Today our banks, insurance companies and even travel services have become increasingly automated and impersonal. Their excessive focus on their bottomlines means we can no longer automatically rely on their advice and integrity.
Personal promises and guarantees, which were often good enough for our parents, have had to be integrated into various laws like the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act (FAIS) and the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) – and a good thing too.
Last week I had the FAIS to thank for alerting me to the fact that my insurance brokers (part of a large bank) had been overcharging me for many years.
This emerged from the nowobligatory disclosures made by a service clerk at their telephone call centre – one with canned music at the many layers of filters – press number X for motor insurance renewals, etc).
Alarmed, I took the trouble to place an alternative call directly to another insurer.
I discovered I was being overcharged (on a deal on insurance covering two cars) by R1 000 a month.
I cancelled my policies with the bank broker and vowed never to deal with them again.
However, to add insult to injury, they then phoned back to offer a price even lower than the second company had quoted – this only after I had cancelled.
So much for loyalty towards a long-standing customer!
Oh, bring back a small town mentality, the personal service and integrity of the general dealer and the bank manager – this is my futile thought!