Joan Smith: Shops: do we get the service we deserve?

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State of the British high street? It's rubbish. Don't take my word for it: some of the best-known names in retailing have reported poor results over the Christmas period, and they can't blame it all on shoppers staying at home because of the snow. The companies that own Argos, Homebase, PC World and Currys recorded a decline in like-for-like sales, with the electrical retailer Dixons reporting a 4 per cent fall in the UK and Ireland. Even chocolate sales are down on the high street, with the chocolate maker Thorntons suffering a decline of almost 6 per cent.

In a recession, we should be scoffing chocolate truffles like there's no tomorrow. But something has gone wrong with our service industries and even I, an inveterate shopper, have to admit that it's become an unpredictable and irritating experience.

I walked out of a branch of the underwear shop Intimissimi the other day because an officious assistant kept asking my size and what I was looking for, refusing to let me browse. I don't want to be followed round stores like a suspected shoplifter.

At the other end of the scale, I was dismayed to discover recently that most of the tills in my local Sainsbury's have been replaced by self-service checkouts where you have to scan everything to a robotic chorus of "unidentified object in the bagging area". "I hate these things", I told the manager, and he immediately started to tell me how popular they are with his other customers. "No, they're not," declared a middle-aged man, and other customers joined in the protest.

The trend towards eliminating staff altogether is a symbol of the contempt felt by too many retailers for the very notion of "service", and I can't entirely blame poorly paid shop assistants for responding in kind.

At the same time, it's hard not to get irritated when you stand in a queue, watching someone struggle to use a checkout they're obviously unfamiliar with, or have to sort through dozens of single boots on the floor to find a pair that matches. That happened to me in Zara the other day, and the quest took so long I began to feel as though I was working there.

It's not as if the widespread dissatisfaction of customers is unknown in the service industries, but what is in question is whether companies are prepared to do anything about it. This month, two TV programmes are highlighting the problems in British shops and restaurants, challenging the notion that poor service is inevitable. Mary Portas: Secret Shopper goes into high street shops and discovers untidy shop floors and apathetic staff, while Michel Roux's Service follows new recruits who are learning to be top-class waiters and front-of-house staff in restaurants.

Some retailers, I suspect, take the view that apparently endless consumer demands for cheap food and clothes aren't compatible with reasonable standards of service; staff get the bare minimum of training and have little or no experience of how to deal with queries or complaints.

Portas was right when she observed in a recent interview that "we are buying so much so quickly that we just have sales teams stacking, not serving". We get what we pay for, a point that's obvious when you compare the service in Tesco's and Waitrose; if we're willing to pay more, we have more grounds to complain.

I feel uneasy in some well-known chains, not just because the stafflook miserable but because I'maware of the invisible people, usually women in developing countries, who work for a pittance to produceskirts and tops that may be worn only a couple of times.

Our throwaway culture is bad for humans and animals, but it's only now that the effects are being felt by retailers and consumers that something might finally be done.

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