Are You Being Served?
By Kamal Sunavala

This is an open letter to Phillip Clarke, the head of Tesco stores in the Czech Republic. And if he has fled these shores, then to the person responsible in his place.

Dear Mr. Clarke, when we heard that Tesco was taking over Carrefour in this country, we, the lovers of British brands were more than happy that there would be more opportunities to feel at home, shopping for custard and chicken tikka masala in a glass jar. But the past weekend, we were appalled to find that not only was the Tesco at U Slavie,  poorly and shabbily stocked but it was also completely under-staffed with extremely rude people wearing your staff colours.

Since we were with people from other countries, keen to prove to them, why the British store was a better idea than the French one it took over, we were extremely put out when one of our companions pointed out that it was strange for Tesco to have won the Retailer of the Year Contest in 2006. For what? Rudeness? Ugly shelves in disarray? Under-stocking?

Let us give you an example. We were hunting for birthday candles and came upon the section upstairs which had half the items missing on the shelf, no labeling and all of two candles. Great if you’re 6 or 4 years old but what should a 24-year old do? But of course, we looked around for a friendly face in blue and red. We found one that didn’t even let us finish our sentence; he cut us off extremely rudely, in Czech, saying he worked downstairs and didn’t even break his stride while telling us this. We were standing there shocked. Our non-English friend raised an eyebrow and said, “So much for the British culture of politesse.”

We tried to explain it as a one off incident, even blaming the Czechs en masse as a rude people and tried our luck again. We thought it would be better to go downstairs and talk to the lady who sat at the service desk to deal with tax refunds for foreigners. We asked her if she could help us. She refused. Point blank. We tried again, asking her politely if she spoke a little English. She said no. Obviously she understood what we had asked her but simply said no and turned her face away and started chatting with another lady.

We walked around the store thrice. There were a total of two salespeople walking the floors, one being the extremely rude punk from upstairs who had floated to his post downstairs and one lady who was arranging milk cartons. Finally, we abandoned the cake we had bought since we couldn’t get candles or help.

Silently, we stood in the billing line. The lady at the checkout counter scowled at us because we hadn’t weighed two of the vegetables. We were tempted to explain to her that usually at Tesco there was a person who helped to weigh vegetables and stick the price on them but there was no one here. Instead, being thoroughly fed up with the unpardonable unhelpfulness and rudeness, we decided to give her a taste of her own medicine and scowled right back.

As we were going home, we were still wondering how to salvage the English culture of good manners. How could we explain that in England, people still came up and asked- are you being served? That Tesco was meant to be a mark of home comfort in a foreign land? That its international service standards were meant to be everywhere and not just in England? That it didn’t usually hire staff who looked more like they were ready to verbally stick their middle finger at you than help you to shop?

Upon reaching home we realized that we had forgotten to buy coffee and since we buy only fair trade coffee, we would need to ask if Tesco carried it and did we really want to go back to that unpleasant place again? We decided finally that Marks and Spencer would be a better choice. People would rather shell out a few crowns more for someone to come up to them with a smile and help.

We, Mr. Clarke, were most definitely not being served.