The good, the bad and the ugly of supermarket comms

Supermarkets are hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons again but three examples of customer relations failures show that it's not the size of the mess you make but how you clear it up that makes the most lasting impression.

How you react is almost more important than the gravity of the mistake
PR Week takes a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of comms reactions to unhelpful headlines.

The Good: Waitrose
When a family found one of the most deadly spiders on Earth among the bananas they had just had delivered by Waitrose, they did what any sensible people would do and promptly fled their home.

The Brazilian wandering spider, which has a Greek scientific name - Phoneutria – which translates as murderess, is armed with venom that can kill within two hours if not treated in time.

The family called the RSPCA first but the animal charity described the situation as being above its capabilities, so the family called the police, which also said the problem was above its pay grade.

Incidentally, neither of these institutions – a specialist animal welfare charity and an emergency service – has exactly covered itself in glory from a comms perspective as a result of this.

Waitrose, however, sent in the cavalry in the form of a pest control officer who promptly captured the spider and neutralised the egg sac it was carrying, which had threatened to overrun the family’s home with scurrying assassins.

Waitrose offered £150 of shopping vouchers and a family day out as compensation for the trauma of facing down a spider, which even the pest control officer described as "hardcore".

A spokesman for the supermarket also issued a statement in which it said it had personally apologised to the family for the incident and that it was taking the matter seriously by working with suppliers to minimise the risk of it happening again. 

The Bad: Sainsbury's
Of all the Sainsbury’s stores in the land, ejecting a lesbian couple from its Brighton shop for kissing was always going to be a comms failure.

Annabelle Paige said she was approached by a security guard after giving her girlfriend a light kiss and told to "take it outside or continue your shop without being affectionate" in order to spare the blushes of a fellow customer who had complained.
Just for good measure, or sheer bad luck depending on one’s point of view, the incident happened on National Coming Out Day.

Cue predictable outrage on the part of the gay community after Paige, who described the incident as a "hate crime", posted her account on the Facebook page of the gay rights charity Stonewall.

Sainsbury's denied threatening to eject Paige from its store but nonetheless issued a full apology, agreed the couple had not acted inappropriately and offered to make a donation to a charity of her choice.

This was not the end of the matter however and within days, Brighton’s lesbian community was back at the store in force to stage a mass ‘kiss-in’ in order to demonstrate solidarity with Paige, have a little fun at Sainsbury’s expense with banners bearing the slogan "live well for lez" and make a serious point about their right to demonstrate affection in the same way as heterosexual couples. 

Sainsbury's gritted its teeth and took a determinedly relaxed approach to the kiss-in, issuing a statement that it was happy to welcome the demonstrators to its store and for the opportunity to highlight that it was an "inclusive business and employer".

The Ugly: Tesco
When staff at Tesco’s Swiss Cottage branch demanded that a blind woman leave the store because she had her guide dog with her, justifiable outrage rightly ensued.

The fact that Maya Makri’s guide dog was wearing a high-vis jacket, together with a harness labelled "guide dog" should have been enough to convince Tesco staff that they did not have to invoke the store’s policy on dogs.

Instead, according to Makri’s account, the cashier began shouting "no pets allowed" and told her to "never come back" despite protests from fellow customers.

This was, understandably, a distressing experience for Makri but the way Tesco handled the incident after it hit the headlines is, perhaps, cause for even greater concern.

In addition to the offer of a £20 voucher, Tesco attempted to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of its staff.

A spokesman for the supermarket said: "We do allow guide dogs in stores and have reminded colleagues of that," while promising to apologise to Makri and adding that it provides additional help with shopping to customers who need it.

However, Makri correctly identified the nub of the problem and it was not the attitude of supermarket staff on minimum wage.

She said: "Tesco specifically has the funds to provide training and this is unacceptable." 

Tesco failed to give adequate training to staff which, if it had, would have prevented this situation arising.

Instead, when the problem arose, it made a miserable offer of compensation and tried to blame its staff rather than taking responsibility.

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