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Sainsbury's faces etiquette dilemma over phones at the checkout

Woman refused service while on the phone sparks fevered debate

When a Sainsbury’s checkout worker refused to serve a woman who was chatting on her mobile phone this week, commentators hailed her as a champion of good old-fashioned manners.

But instead of denouncing the customer’s rudeness and urging people to put their mobile phones away, the supermarket apologised and offered her a £10 voucher.

Now, after considerable public support for the checkout worker, the retail giant has offered the worker its full backing and welcomed the “wider debate on politeness” that the story has created.

Last week, Jo Clarke, 26, was at the till at a branch of Sainsbury’s in Crayford, south-east London, when she was told she would not be served unless she put down her phone. “I ended my call swiftly,” she said, telling the lady on the checkout that she “didn’t realise that it was Sainsbury’s policy that you are unable to use your phone at the checkout”.

The lady replied: “You learn something new every day.” Ms Clarke has now decided to take her custom to a nearby branch of Waitrose, but the tide of public opinion was firmly against her.

According to etiquette guide Debrett’s, transacting business while having a conversation on the phone is “insulting”, and you must “give people who are serving you your full attention”.

It seems Sainsbury’s now agrees. “It is clear this story has touched a nerve as the weight of comment shows,” a statement said.  “Whilst we do not think it would be right to have a policy to refuse to serve any customer who is using a phone, we hope that the discussion this has created leads us all to think twice before reaching for our mobile phones and to recognise the great job the many thousands of sales assistants working across retail do.”

Neil Saunders, managing director at retail analyst firm Conlumino, said Sainsbury’s was in a difficult position. “It has to be seen to support its staff,” he said. “But you can’t afford to alienate customers at a time when market share is thin on the ground.

“It may be impolite to be on your mobile phone at the checkout, but you may be having an important call with your kids.”

The analyst said that often the shoe is on the other foot. “It’s not unknown for customers to be completely ignored by checkout staff either chatting to each other or failing to address the customer. If you’ve just been in a queue for ten minutes because they haven’t got enough checkout staff and you’ve started a call because you want to make a productive use of your time, then the supermarket’s to blame.”

Firms would do well to ask themselves “what would John Lewis do?” he added. “They would consider it rather rude and lacking in etiquette, but they would just accept it because they put the customer first.”