Shopping: Staff find store chain's line in flirtation at the check out a turn off

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A nation-wide stores group's attempt to exploit the twin obsessions of sex and shopping has affronted some of its employees. Barrie Clement, Labour Editor, on one company's promotion of `titillation' as a sales technique.

A supermarket chain is encouraging its check-out operators to flirt with shoppers to increase sales. "Forget the sweet lure of chocolate at the check-out - what male shoppers really really want is a little titillation," according to management at the Somerfield group.

At a time of growing awareness of sexual harassment, Usdaw, the shopworkers' union, is not amused. In a "survey" conducted by Somerfield, "amazingly" a third of all men agreed they would swap supermarket chains if they could chat up staff. "In a market worth over pounds 63bn a year that could mean millions of pounds of extra business per year," management says in a newsletter.

According to the straw poll, almost half of men would find their trip to the supermarket more enjoyable if they were served by "flirtatious check-out girls". The survey, conducted in two London stores over a two- day period, also found that women wanted to see more `hunks' at the check- out."Almost a third admitted to being partial to tasty male check-outs and 29 per cent stated that a quick flirt would be a welcome boost to their ego.

Shopworkers told their union that while some employees had found it funny, others were annoyed. In a letter to the union's journal, Geoffrey Fearn, of the company's Chesterfield shop, wrote that such suggestions put staff in a potentially hazardous situation: "Trying to get women to flirt with male shoppers is not only stupid, but also dangerous. It also degrades women and men check-out staff and makes them no more than a cheap sales gimmick. People should not be used in this way."

A letter from Romaine Moulton, of Tesco's store in Newport, south Wales, said staff at one store had been subjected to a "10-year reign of terror" after a customer had used name tags to find out their telephone numbers and addresses." They were subjected to verbal abuse and frightening telephone calls. This is the reality of shop work in today's retail environments. Perhaps Somerfield's directors would like to sit on the check-outs and `flirt' with the customers."

John Hannett, deputy general secretary of the union, said he hoped the newsletter was a management "aberration". He argued that flirtatious behaviour could put employees in "awkward situations".

A spokesman for the company said presentation of the survey was meant to be "light-hearted" and that the message was that people wanted a friendly and efficient service from staff. "Overwhelmingly customers responded that they were drawn to stores where the check-out staff were chatty and approachable. In no way does this condone any from of sexual harassment."