Carola Long: Why can't all shops be like John Lewis?

Bargain prices have lowered our expectations of good service

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You can get practically anything on the UK high street, at any time, on any day of the week. However there's one thing that it takes real scavenging, scouring and usually fruitless searching to unearth: good service.

Modern shopping is supposed to be an "experience", and it often is, but not in a good way. It's turned into a purgatorial ordeal by staff in mobile phone shops who recite new tariffs in the grimly monotonous tone of judges delivering prison sentences. Then there are the shop assistants who scrutinise the outfits customers are trying on with the same incredulous disdain that Simon Cowell first directed at Susan Boyle.

A bona fide exception is John Lewis, which is one of those rare things – a national treasure that's actually really good.

In December a hundred of the shop's staff and customers were snowed in and spent the night in the bed department of a store in High Wycombe. Forget the Ritz. A night under the Egyptian cotton percale, with friendly staff on hand to ensure that you've never knowingly underslept sounds like heaven, and the chain's popularity was underlined further this week by its announcement of record Christmas revenues. Like-for-like sales were up 12.7 per cent from last year in the five weeks leading up to 2 January.

There's no secret to its success, however. As any John Lewis groupie – or MP – will know, the thing that keeps us going back there is its customer service. John Lewis is so renowned for it that when those cheeky Dixons ads invoked "middle England's best loved department store... where an awfully well brought-up young man will bend over backwards to find the right TV for you", it's immediately obvious which shop they are referencing.

John Lewis stands out because elsewhere on the high street decent service is about as scarce as road gritters. It's not just shops that offer a less warm welcome than the customs officers at Heathrow. Service at UK restaurants, cafes, pubs, airlines, and holiday companies is often pitiful. Just as John Lewis's results were released, Which? Holiday published a survey that criticised the holiday company Thomas Cook for "unhelpful resort staff".

Unless we have splashed out on an expensive holiday or product, many of us have developed low expectations and are relieved the people serving us are just chippy rather than aggressively rude. Much of this attitude comes from our pursuit of rock-bottom prices. We have become used to paying so little for things that used to be much more expensive – be it cashmere or air travel – that we haven't felt entitled to demand helpful staff on top. We aren't surprised if an assistant in a budget clothes shop says they are going to the stock room to find a particular size, only to disappear for a chat with their mates; we feel as if we don't deserve any better. This acceptance of poor service has ensured that many consumers are grateful for being treated well when it should come as standard, and companies have got away with it.

But as John Lewis's popularity shows, shoppers are becoming tired of being treated with disdain. Retail success is often regarded as an inscrutable formula, but perhaps the secret of keeping your customers is as simple as being nice to them.

c.long@independent.co.uk

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