Retail service needs a shake-up

May 30 2011 by Ellen Roseman

Are you tired of going into a big store and not being able to find help? Retailers should treat you with respect when you try to spend your hard-earned money. Instead, they make you do all the work.

You have to figure out where the stuff is located and how much it costs. To choose among several items, you have to do your own research, since you can’t rely on store staff to know anything.

Then, you often have to scan and bag your own purchases to avoid line-ups at the cashier’s desk. Whatever happened to service with a smile?

There’s nothing more frustrating than being ignored or shrugged off when you try to ask questions. But that’s the status quo at many large retail chains.

I recently went to my local Canadian Tire to buy an iron. I found two $49.95 models with the features I wanted. But the cashier rang up one at $59.95 and one at $69.95, saying they were on the wrong shelves.

A staff member was sent to track down the lower-priced irons that matched the shelf tags. Nothing turned up. I ended up paying $10 more than I thought I would, just to minimize my wasted time.

I think Canadian Tire needs a shake-up. While some franchise owners care about service, others don’t seem to want our business. They let customers fend for themselves.

In contrast, the Hudson’s Bay Co. has upgraded its staff training. I used to wander around looking for someone to help me. Now I find greeters on every floor and people who know the products they sell. It’s a welcome change.

So, what’s going on? Caitlin Kelly’s book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, talks about working at The North Face, a U.S. chain. She says sales associates are treated badly, leading to surly service and lots of turnover.

A Canadian journalist living in New York, Kelly found her writing income dried up during the 2008 recession. She took a part-time retail job at $9 an hour, but found her work unsafe and injurious to her mental health.

Retail workers are treated oppressively by management, in her view. They’re forced to work long hours with low pay and little chance of advancement. She quit after two and half years, unable to quell her dissatisfaction.

As a customer, I’ve decided to stay away from stores that stint on staff. If enough of us boycott underperformers, we can start a revolution. Let’s try to bring about change for shoppers and sales associates.

Please tell me your retail horror stories and happy stories. My Moneyville post on this topic drew more than 120 comments.


  1. bobsuruncle

    Jun 3 2011

    CT is one of the worst run retailers, and they are also expensive while selling low quality junk.

    On top of all this, their staffing is horrible, you can barely find anyone when you need them and when you do find a person they act like you are bothering them.

    It really surprises me how this company is still in business, oh yes: by selling cheap Chinese junk on a 2000% mark up.

  2. JL

    Jun 4 2011

    Ellen, I very much related to your column on Canadian Tire. As many have pointed out, bad customer service seems to be the norm at many Canadian retailers. I imagine part of it is simply a lack of competition; there are few options if you don’t like the service at a big box retailer, unlike the US where there seems to be an endless number of stores to choose from.

    Canadian Tire has long proven itself to be a nightmare for customers, especially the location at Bay and Dundas at the Eaton Centre in Toronto. A relatively new store (only a few years old), customer service has always been nonexistant and it’s gotten worse. I found myself there today for probably the first time in about a year and nothing had changed – the shelves were a mess, prices didn’t match the items on the shelf and staff were talking amongst themselves, doing their best to ignore customers. I happened to hear the store manager, who had gathered floor staff around, telling them that something in the flyer hadn’t arrived. Her advice was not to apologize to customers, it was to tell them that there was nothing the store could do about it and no rainchecks. Doesn’t that make for a great customer experience?

    I am, I admit, pleased to see that this particular store is far less busy than it used to be, and I hope it’s because customers are choosing to shop elsewhere. Until we speak with our wallets, nothing will change.

  3. Jamie

    Jun 13 2011

    For things like the advertised item not in stock/no rain check, and the 9 volt battery, you can complain to the advertising standards council (they have issued rulings on small things like the battery.)

    This is \industry self regulation\ that appears more intended to protect industry then the consumer, but at least some companies appear to take it more seriously when the complaint goes through them.

    I’ve got 3 complaints upheld this year against one store. I don’t expect them to change their advertising practices, but they did offer me a gift card after each complaint.

  4. James

    Jun 16 2011

    To Liz Hamilton, Canadian Tire spokeswoman: I will never go back to Canadian Tire EVER.

    I last shopped there in late 2002 and, after being treated like trash by the Auto Service Centre, vowed never to return.

    Not only that, but I got another mechanic to prove that your company attempted to rip me off on the repair.

    So not only was it a case of trying to screw me out of my money, it was a case of adding insult to injury by being rude and arrogant with me about it.

    The lesson for you here is that you’ve so far lost almost nine years of business from me. I hope your company enjoyed the $300 rip off and made it last.

    No, madam, I shall NEVER give your outfit my custom again.

  5. cc

    Jul 31 2011

    I like Canadian Tire, but pricing does seem to be an issue.

    Recently I was in the store for some items and decided to get some fishing lures as a present for a friend. They were all marked as being reduced to $2. They were identical, except one was white with black stripes and one was white with black dots. They all rang through as $2 except one which rang through as $7.99.

    I pointed out that was wrong. so the clerk rang for a price check…the guy came back later and said ‘Yup, $7..99’.

    I pointed out that wasn’t it strange that ALL the lures of that type would be on sale except that one color combo? Anyway, I told them to forget it and when I was in the next time, sure enough, that one was sitting there under a $2 label.

  6. Jennifer Reese Cermak

    Aug 10 2011

    I think that retailers today have a tough balancing act – offering today’s price conscious consumers the low prices that they expect and, at the same time, turning the profits that ensure their organization’s stability and their employees’ jobs. With that said, though, friendliness and helpfulness are vital in all retail environments – from the discount store environment to the full-service retail environment. As such, customer service training is paramount for the personnel of any organization that wants to make it in this tough and competitive world – and this training should not be a one-time thing but an ongoing process. Based on what I have read here, I would say that Canadian Tire has to reassess its human resource training program.

  7. Troy

    Sep 7 2011

    I’m no fan of Crappy Tire but in terms of customer service I think if the customer is rude in the case of JAMES then of course the repairman will dish it right back to. James must have done something to upset the service department so that they tried to rip him off. Customer is king to a certain point but when some people think they are all high and almighty then the retailer has the right to say enough is enough and not tolerate bad behaviour and dish it out in kind. Touche!

  8. James

    Sep 30 2011

    And how did you come to the conclusion that I did something to upset the service department or to be rude, Troy? Do you have some kind of ESP that we should know about? It would seem we have a Canadian Tire employee in our midst, ladies and gents. The attitude fits. Anyone who doesn’t take being ripped off with good nature and aplomb is “high and mighty”.
    Try to read slowly this time. They ripped me off on a repair. It was corroborated by another mechanic. Under those circumstances, I have the right to be upset since I am the injured party. The service department has ZERO right to be upset, since they’re the perpetrators of the rip off. Get it now, genius?

  9. Sarah

    Nov 9 2011

    Very true. You cannot expect an employee that works so long for so little and is treated badly by management with no chance to move ahead to be the perfect employee.

    I have been doing some mystery shopping for a number of big chains and what I did notice was that stores that pay employees well and with friendly management have much more cooperative employees.

  10. wendy

    Jan 16 2012

    Thank you Sarah. AND a shout out for my C Tire in >>ville, and Home hardware in Burlington and Toronto..from my late dad and very alive daughter.

    Background: 23 yrs married to (dec’d) Retail (Prd Mgr and Sales rep trained by Sam Steinberg (for retail geezers: orig of Metro, etc). You would never have known his motto was; Pay peanuts, get monkeys..

    He raised 1. daughter age 23 student and pt AMBASSADOR ? (see complaints) at high end store. (Did anyone see the line up at Tiffany s in Y dale on Dec 23.. what recession??)

    Worked Boxing Day at 8 am; did not have time to come home for Christmas. Horror stories of people why do I have to? Getting refunds, breakfasts and then telling their friends to trump up same thing.. WELL paid, benefits after 3 months. HELPS service a lot.

    Dtr no. 2; pt time: 11 yrs retail; 2 years at your other American high end store. Smiling at you while you may or may not whine, or hearing your concerns and telling managers they may have a problem. (Does not always help performance review, but it helped you).

    Nice to hear that some of you actually go and note her service. Cuz SHE has NO benefits after 2 years, $12 an hour while going to school in morning after working til 11 p.m. (see TO bus service cuts??) and walking home by herself; with a homeless saint who warns her of problems while she gives him a dollar for dinner (no drugs, booze: just beautiful music).

    SO: C TIRE: SHOUT OUT: NOT all bad people.. check some attitude. I am keeping a) the folding bike I bought: no problems with the bill, thank you;
    b) the breadmaker replacement I should not have, but.. hey, the staff went and retrieved one for me..from way back..without my suggesting it. And as empty nest single, showed me how to install the toilet float..

    And re Credit: RIDICULOUS rate sometimes; WAY too complicated but to change exp gas card but..when we needed help with dental surgery emergency out of town, they were there.. and helped us rebuild a few years ago.

    SO , C Tire Belleville thumbs up (and you can tell that one to Marketplace and C Tire!!)

    (Note: Service Dept pretty honest too; even if I don’t use them.)

    b) HOME HARDWARE: (Burlington, TO); To whom my (dec’d 2009) returned his 10 year old bundle buggy for a ball bearing in 2008 after his first hospital stay. Sold his Christmas ergonomic Lee Valley replacement. Granddaughter above now uses in .. where Home Hardware 2 months ago, with no request, helped her find and instructed on how to safely install draperies on 10 foot window.

    AND as for chains who expand at expense of Staff (Shoppers Drug, are you listening?). Boutiques?? Don’ t shop there if staff do not.. and write them.. or not..

    Check out how Northern REfl is going.. bill said one thing, web said another. Two months to fix after a death made purchase unnecessary. (HOWEVER, props to Catherine, the manager taking the phones, who knows how it feels….even if it DID cause great unnecessary stress and my permanent business.)

    IN short (really?) TRY, just try to give these people a break. And give them credit if they DO try. If not to Mgr, to someone higher.

    (To Star: REALLY, for those who really think they need to shop Boxing Day//? Now you want Christmas too? What happened to YOUR values??)

    Did I mention no. 3 whose S. O had to work in Mjr Bank ctre until 11 pm? Or the fact that Family Day is not a stat holiday? BUT once upon a time and still could..

    AND, oh yes, PLEASE whine and complain effectively. Think, thanks are due to Ellen as well as their D for C service//

    When I left my field, I could not help but think that this cell generation will PROBABLY not be able to remember 2 milk, 2 sw.. without training..

    CAN we all try to be effective consumers? Anyone got an effective complaints template out there?? As we need it; and so do the employees and their EMPLOYERS!!

  11. leland

    Feb 7 2012

    As a former employee of Canadian Tire, I would like to say that I always tried my best to satisfy the customers.

    But with the owner being the cheapest person I have ever met, it meant they cut back to minimum staff at all times and it was very difficult.

    Added to that was the fact that he was too cheap to bring in sale items and would make most customers get a raincheck before he would order the merchandise.

    His idea of giving employees a raise was giving us the minimum wage raises dictated by law.

    I left after 5 years because I was hurt on the job. He did not want his workers compensation rates to go up and tried to get me not to fill out a claim, even though at the time I did not know whether my sight in my left eye would come back.

    After being off for 2 weeks I returned, only to get blamed for all mess ups in the store. I quit shortly after.


  12. leland

    Feb 7 2012

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