Monday, 6 August 2012

We customers are fickle and unfaithful beasts!

We are very lucky in the West of Ireland to have so many family-owned businesses on our high streets. We have bakers and butchers and greengrocers and fishmongers still, while in England they are all but a thing of the past.

Trouble is, we’re terrible at using them. Supermarkets make life so easy, and as the independent retailers close by the dozen, we puff and whoosh and say ‘Isn’t it terrible to see that shop close down?’

My butcher lays out his wares so appealingly, has time for a chat, knows my name, and is passionate about his meat, which he butchers and hangs himself. While his prices are similar to the supermarket, he’s fond of throwing in a goodwill freebie.

But he’s not sure if his business will survive. If it fails it won’t be down to his lack of effort or expertise, but not everyone is as dedicated to pleasing their customers.

I’m amazed how little thought some of our local businesses put into building customer loyalty. Having grown up in a family that always did and still does work in retail, I know how the hight street works: customers are fickle unfaithful beasts, always looking for that little bit more; that touch of class; that special offer or smile of recognition. We choose a fifteen yard walk from the car park to the supermarket over a three minute walk to the butchers shop.

I want to enjoy using small local businesses, but I’m no better at it than any of you.
One of the first things I do when I move home is choose my new café. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about trying to find the perfect blend of bean bags, biscotti and Javanese beans from a south-facing slope.

No, your colyoomist is not a man for hanging around in mocha frappaccino land with the wonderful wi-fi folk. When I say ‘café’ I really mean ‘caff’, as in greasy spoon, as in a copy of the Daily Mirror read from the back pages forwards on a Saturday morning, ideally during the soccer season. I want a heaving assortment of porky products and 2 fresh fried eggs, toast and marmalade, and a pot of strong tea, delivered with a smile.

If you can supply that, I will reward your efforts by coming to your caff every week.

My first breakfast in my new village caff proved excellent. It was a bit pricey, coming in at eleven quid with the euro tip, but I was happy to pay the extra, because the bloke was friendly.

Even better, the following week he remembered my order, which sealed the deal. Lovely to be recognised for the right reasons, and to feel a little bit special on my day off.
Sadly the third week, yer man wasn’t there and a very stressed server gave out to me, saying the place didn’t really open until 10 and I was too early.

I’d eaten there at 9.30 the previous 2 weeks, but really I want my breakfast caff to open at 9 at the latest, and I certainly didn’t feel like being guilt-tripped about my tiny but significant little treat.

Still, I cut yer one some slack. Everyone’s entitled to a bad day.

The next week the server gave out again and all of a sudden paying that little bit more than everywhere else started to feel less fun.

Dammit, so this was not going to be my caff after all. The following Saturday I headed off to the nearby town, where I found a pub that opens at 8, which serves a sound yet unremarkable breakfast for 2 quid less than the caff in the village.

‘That’ll do!’ I said to myself, but the following week, I spotted another caff in the town. To be fair, I think this place would call itself a café, because beside the ingredients on the menu, they’ve printed their history, where they came from, what little piggy had for dinner before he was cruelly slaughtered for my digestive delight, so I popped in, expecting a right royal feast.

The moment I sat down the only waitress in the place walked out the front door, disappearing into the morning rain, leaving me bombarded by 2 different radios blaring a cacophonous duet.

I sat alone in the place for 20 minutes, and then she returned, and finally delivered me the cup of tea she should have brought me an age before.

When my breakfast finally arrived, the eggs were burned and the locally-sourced organically macrobiotically biodynamically chemical-free ingredients were soaked in so much oil I alerted Greenpeace that a slick had been sighted near Galway.

So now I’m a breakfast regular at the pub. Why? Because the waitress there is a delight. She smiles and chats just a little, but not too much. She makes me feel very welcome, and that, rather than a lecture about opening times, is all it takes to win me over.

Sometimes in their wisdom local businesses make it impossible for us to give them our money. Last Sunday at 11 am I drove to my favourite garden centre, only to find that it doesn't open until 1 o’clock on Sundays.

There were three cars in front of me, lost customers all staring open-mouthed at the locked gates. How many of us were going to be arsed to hang around for 2 hours? Why oh why were they closed? Call me crazy, but if I ran a garden centre I think I might open at 10 on Sundays in midsummer.

All I wanted was to invest my cash in a business run by locals for locals. I ended up taking my euros to multinational B&Q, which was of course open, yet I felt sad.

Why don’t local businesses understand my completely unexceptional needs? I want breakfast at 9.30 on a Saturday and I want to do gardening on Sunday mornings.

Right now the small businesses of Ireland really need loyal customers, so please, consider your customers a little, eh?

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