Bad Shop Days at Cargill’s

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in the Gripe Corner section of The Nation on Sunday September 2 2012

In the two years since I wrote this, things have got worse rather than better. The fundamental problem is that there is no “management” in the sense of awareness, supervision, monitoring towards the main objective of pleasing customers. To take our nearest branch as an example. There used to be a named individual responsible for the branch. He was on site most of the time. He was welcoming and approachable. One could tell him about any problems and he would be responsive. Have Cargill’s adopted a new policy? For a few years now, there has been no manager of the branch. There are four or five management types who appear at the store from time to time and mainly keep out of sight. When they do put in an appearance, they wander about with a clipboard checking the shelves. This does not prevent items going out of stock. They are strangely blind to the fact that a queue is stretching to the back of the store and only one till is open.


Why does every branch of Cargill’s have a notice prohibiting photographs? Are they afraid that someone would capture the lengthy queues, or the wet sacking under the freezer, or the rodents running around or the aisles blocked by boxes, the general filth. A camera could not capture the awful smell from the meat counter or the drains outside which encourage flies.


A camera did capture the disgusting toilet.



There is rarely anyone serving at the pharmacy. There used to be a complaints book near the pharmacy counter. I had a look through it and saw that other people shared my concerns. Obviously no one in authority has done anything about this, apart from removing the complaints book.


I have had many bad days in Cargill’s supermarkets. One lingers strongly in my mind as particularly hellish. A queue snaked its way from the checkout to the back of the store and around the aisles. The beleaguered girl working the solitary checkout counter kept desperately ringing her bell but no-one came to her aid.

On another occasion, a member of the “management” team was busily staring at the shelves with clipboard in hand while a huge queue had built up at the check-out and aisles were impassable because of boxes and trolleys that had not been removed.  On another occasion, an ugly mood was developing because only one checkout counter was open. After persistent pleas for help from the checkout assistant, a female management person emerged from the recesses of backstage and opened up a counter herself. She was heard to remark, “Sir hasn’t prepared the rota”.
One of the company’s stated values is: “Customer focused: Focused on customer delight”. This customer is rarely delighted in Cargil’ls these days.

The frustrations I describe here may appear to be minor cavils but they do represent common failures which blight many areas of business and government.  Staff and “management” have slipped into an attitude of mind where the retail outlet, hotel or government department in which they spend their time exists for their benefit rather than for the paying customers.

This is not a gripe solely about our local branch. Lack of awareness is a systemic flaw that I have noticed at many branches of Cargill’s. Friends wrote to one manager to complain about foul smells of rotting meat and pools of water under the freezer. They strongly believed that the freezer was switched off at night. I bought a packet of cheese slices. It did not surprise me that the packaging was filthy – I had become used to that. It did surprise me that the packet was over a year past its sell-by date. When I returned it, I was promptly and smilingly refunded but no-one seemed to appreciate the seriousness of selling ancient food. At another branch, an item I had intended to purchase had been nibbled by rodents. At my local branch, I often see mice running about. On my last visit, flies were swarming everywhere and the floor was filthy.

One often feels that one is being intrusive and spoiling the social life of Cargill’s staff; they are too busy chatting to each other to notice customers and managers don’t seem to care. Recently, I left my bag with the security lady in a Colombo branch. I paid for my purchases and when I tried  to collect my bag the security lady  was not there. I spotted her in a huddle of staff laughing and joking, all of them ignoring the customers. After some time, one of the group broke away and approached me. In a very arrogant tone, she directed me back to the end of the store and said I had to approach the security desk from the outside of the shop.

Bruce McClendon, in a 1995 issue of the Public Management Journal wrote that customer care must start “at the top of the organization and be communicated to every employee. Managers must demonstrate a commitment to customer service and lead by deed and example.” At Food Cities, managers do not seem to understand that they should manage.

McClendon writes: “if the service is not accurate and dependable, then it does not matter how courteous and friendly the employee is”. He told a story of a US government office, where so many employees were engaged in hanging banners announcing Customer Service Week that a huge queue built up at the service window. When an irate customer asked about customer service, a clerk responded, “Oh that starts next week.”
When will ‘next week’ come, for Cargill’s, one wonders.

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