Woolworths is in administration, MFI looks doomed, Currys and PC World have reported record losses... is this, we wonder, nature's way of sending retailers a message about the way they deal with customers? Is it mere coincidence that the chains that are most in trouble are those offering shoppers the least pleasant experience on the high street?
No. Extensive investigations by this newspaper have established that many stores have been using an under-the-counter, anti-customer service manual whose existence has long been suspected, but never proved. Instead of telling staff how to make stores friendly, helpful places, this document – produced by head office accountants – shows how to run them on the cheap for the management's convenience, not ours.
A copy of this manual, hitherto circulated only in the higher reaches of British retailing, has been obtained by The Independent on Sunday. Here is an edited extract:
* Recruit only staff who know nothing about the products on sale. This not only saves the cost of training, but means you can recruit ignoramuses, who are cheaper. Applicants who appear to be catatonic at interview should be hired on the spot.
* Encourage staff to talk to each other rather than serve customers. This will force customers to serve themselves, and so buy the wrong item. Research has shown that 17.6 per cent of customers who buy the wrong thing are too embarrassed to return it, and will, instead, come back to the store to buy yet another item. Result: more sales for less work.
* Make sure very few tills are manned. Punters will have to queue for longer, but so what? The longer they're there, the more time they have to pick up the high-margin items near the check-outs.
* In women's clothing stores, buy in the same quantity of every size. It's easier for head office, y'know. Of course it means that common sizes sell out within days, leaving only size 6s and 18s, but what the hell.
* In electrical and photographic stores, don't sell a product, sell its extended warranty – for the big, fat juicy mark-up. And, with very gullible punters, you can try selling them just the warranty. Some are so keen to spend they'll never even notice. Kerrr-bloody-ching!!
* If they look desperate enough, sign them up for a store card: at an interest rate of around 30 per cent, and debt collectors queuing up to put on the squeeze, we can't go wrong if the punters buy with "prat's plastic". Suckers!
* Constantly and loudly announce special offers. This will annoy discerning shoppers, but you don't want them anyway. What you're after is the soap opera ad-break fodder who'll buy what they're told to. "Ding dong! In Lingerie, we have a three-for-two offer on Moldovan nightdresses... Ding dong! Down in Kitchens, we're selling electric tea-bag dispensers at just£69.95."
* In hip men's clothing stores, pump up the music. This will disguise the inarticulacy of the very few sales staff, who've all been out on the lash and are incapable of more than a surly look.
* In DIY stores, arrange products so customers have to walk nearly every aisle to find what they want. Philips screwdrivers, say, should be placed the maximum distance from screws. Paint should be well away from brushes. That way, punters get to walk past loads of things they don't want but might just pick up, if only to break their journey.
* Stock up in November with loads of useless gift tat. Big margins. Very big margins. So what if you ruin millions of Christmas mornings when people expecting a thoughtful present get some over-packaged, low-grade toiletries? We're here to help ourselves, not them.
* In department stores, get rid of those over made-up women on cosmetic counters. They might look attractive, but they know too much. Some of them even think their job is to help the customer. Get 'em out before they contaminate the rest of the staff.