Feeling in an oddly celebratory Easter mood (never before experienced), not long after arriving home for the holidays I purchased a crateful of Fever Tree Ginger Beer from my local Waitrose. It was the most disgusting drink I’ve ever tasted.
I love ginger beer and had never tried this brand before, but I could not believe, after tasting it, that it was stocked in a supermarket… let alone that bastion of supermarket pretension, Waitrose. Not only was the taste disgusting, but after just two sips from one bottle my lips were burning so severely that they felt as if I had eaten an entire scotch bonnet chilli. This is not an exaggeration. The two should not have been comparable, but they certainly were. I had to throw the rest of the bottle down the sink; I pitied the poor drain. The remaining bottles will have to be donated to medical science.
‘I know that this email is probably most unwelcome and I hate to add to your in-tray backlog…’ was how I began my email of complaint. Yet why did I feel the need to apologise? I shouldn’t have done, but I did. For some reason, I felt too rude to open my complaint with: ‘This drink was awful. Please reassess whether it should be on the shelves or not.’
I know people will find it amusing that I complained about something as insignificant as a bottle of ginger beer, but if we all just sat by silently as problems reared their ugly heads, then nothing in the world would ever improve and positive change would not occur in our society. I know that this doesn’t really apply to a bottled beverage – I’m not crazy – but my reasoning is defensible. Most of the world’s greatest inventions are improvements on previously existing forerunners, after all.
My theory was that if Waitrose got other complaints about the product, which I was sure they would do, they would take the drink off the shelves. If that failed, then I thought my advice to them would at least be considered: ‘I think you should insist that the manufacturer’s marketing team print a health-warning on the bottle or at least get them to provide an equivalent scoville rating. It’s simply misleading without it and again, my tone may be light hearted, but I am not jesting. To sum up: the product is not worthy of Waitrose and should not be sold there.’
Was my advice listened to? Did I get a personalised message from a concerned member of staff? No, instead I got two automatic computer generated responses asking me to catalogue the item’s name, barcode, manufacturer, batch number, fault, price paid, time/date/location where purchased, my address, blood group… okay, I made that last one up but the rest were genuinely required. And that’s when I gave up.
Waitrose’s ‘one form fits all complaints’ policy made my grievance seem so ridiculous that I couldn’t face progressing my complaint any further and I bet that other people with the same experience gave up as well. Even though my issue wasn’t trivial, it certainly made me feel that way. I felt deflated. It made me feel like I was making a hassle over nothing. The only way they could have made it more obvious that they didn’t give a damn about what I had to say was if they only accepted complaint letters by carrier pigeon, and only if written in blood.
The sad fact is, that in Britain, there is more red tape protecting corporations and sellers rather than the customers who purchase from them. Customer service used to rely on the fact that everything was personal – the local butcher, greengrocer, baker; all knew your name and treated you properly to ensure your continued custom and because it was the decent thing to do. Now, with large retailers, there is so much red tape to cut through that is requires a diamond edged chainsaw and a PhD in complaints procedure.
Many times I have been in a restaurant and been asked: ‘Was everything to your liking?’ More often than not they sprint away without even waiting for an answer… Nevertheless, in a restaurant setting, you can usually get some recognition. You are noticed even if you have to threaten them with: ‘A. A. Gill is my uncle’, which is a complete lie but usually has the desired effect where well-mannered discussion fails.
Yet with big retailers and stores, I shan’t bother seeking an apology anymore. Whether these companies think my complaint is trivial or not, my concerns should be listened to… but now I expect to be ignored. If Waitrose had wanted my opinion on Fever Tree Ginger Beer, they would have made it easier for me to contact them. In the end I resorted to Twitter – and though an eight-character brief apology was sent, I’ve never received any information about the offending product or what’s been done about it.
However, I am not content enough to remain under-acknowledged or for other people to make the same mistake I made; at least not without trying to give them a warning first. So, what do I do about it? I write a magazine article.
Image credit – Wikimedia Commons