ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Marks & Spencer, Wheelock Place
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon and I had gone into the men's section dressed casually in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. The store was fairly crowded, comprising shoppers as well as passers-by who were using the store as a short-cut to get from Orchard Boulevard to Orchard Road.
While there were about seven staff members on the floor and another three manning the cash registers, none was present at the shoe display where I was browsing.
After waiting a minute or two, I decided to ask someone for help. There is a main walkway that winds through the store, so it did not take too long to catch the attention of a sales assistant passing by.
I asked for a pair of socks before I tried on a pair of leather shoes. After checking, a female sales assistant said the store stopped providing socks for hygiene reasons.
I tried on about four pairs of shoes in different designs and sizes. Each time, after handing me shoes in the size and/or design I asked for, the sales assistant would scurry off, presumably to attend to another customer.
It would appear that attentive service was as elusive as that perfect fit. Perhaps the manpower crunch meant that staff had to multi-task. Marks & Spencer declined to comment for this story.
I finally found a fit I was comfortable with with the fourth pair of shoes. But the sales assistant was nowhere to be found. A few minutes passed and I decided to get help from someone else.
Then I spotted her hurrying by, clutching a fluffy pink soft toy, probably enroute to attending to a customer. She smiled apologetically and I took the chance to ask about other shoe designs in the size that would fit me.
Off she went again after giving a vague response I did not quite catch, leaving me unsure if she was checking on my request. When she came back after a while, I remarked: "I thought you had forgotten about me."
She smiled and apologised and said she had been checking the stock in the storeroom but, unfortunately, there were no more designs in the size I wanted.
There was no offer to check on availability at other Marks & Spencer outlets.
This was also the case on my two previous visits - on a Tuesday evening and a Saturday afternoon. During my Saturday visit, the staff seemed so harried that I hesitated to stop someone to ask for help. When I did eventually get someone to help check on the size of a shirt, the service was friendly enough.
Things were much less hectic on the Tuesday I was there and a male sales assistant took pains to explain why a shirt I was eyeing was not available in my size ("because it's from the past season").
He also pointed me to some new styles in the size that I wanted.
He added helpfully that alterations were available, although it would take two weeks instead of the usual one week as the sole tailor was away on holiday.
In general, service at the store was fine if you could get it, but do not expect the staff to go the extra mile.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Royal Sporting House, Suntec City Mall
It can be a bit hard telling the sales assistants apart from the shoppers at the sporting goods retailer as there is no standard uniform for the staff.
The service here pretty much depends on individual staff members, so it is all about the luck of the draw. Due to the layout of the store, there are also some blind spots where it can be hard to attract the attention of a sales assistant.
On each of my two visits, there were three to six sales assistants on the floor.
On my first visit on a Tuesday evening, when there were about 10 other shoppers, my search for a specific range of swimming goggles was met with a lackadaisical response.
An information panel had indicated that the brand offered several lines of goggles, so I picked one that was not on display to test the service.
I was referred to the cashier, who then made a call to another outlet to check for stock while ringing up the purchases of other customers.
She seemed to enjoy catching up with her colleague on the phone for a few minutes before giving me the news that Royal Sporting House does not carry the range I wanted.
Well, should that not have been indicated on the display panel in the first place?
My luck improved on my second visit on a Saturday afternoon that same week, even though the store was more crowded.
The store did not have the shoe design I wanted in my size, so I asked the sales assistant helping me to check with other outlets. It took him a while, though he did inform me after a few minutes of waiting that someone else was looking into my request.
I was subsequently informed by his colleague - in an apologetic manner - that while the computer system indicated that the shoes I wanted were in stock at two other outlets, telephone checks proved otherwise. I thought it was good that he had taken the initiative to call the two stores or I would have made a fruitless trip to another outlet.
Royal Sporting House declined to comment for this story.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Charles & Keith, Ion Orchard
The staff at the Charles & Keith outlet in Ion Orchard were perfectly civil and did their job but they were visibly harried and perfunctory in their service. They were obviously swamped with work.
I visited the Ion outlet three times: on a Tuesday evening (when there were 20 to 30 customers), a Saturday afternoon (30 to 40 customers) and a Sunday afternoon (40 to 50 customers).
Each time, the store seemed to have the same number of staff on duty: two cashiers, who also doubled as floor staff when needed, and three to four sales assistants.
On Sunday, there were about 15 pairs of shoes strewn across the floor because the staff simply did not have the time to pick them up, and these were cleared slowly, in between helping customers.
On every visit, I found myself wandering in the store for several minutes trying to get the attention of the busy staff, who were always carrying several pairs of shoes.
If a shoe I wanted to try was not available in my size, they rarely, if ever, offered to check if they were available at another outlet and I had to prompt them to do so.
On Tuesday, my wait for each pair of shoes was two to three minutes. On Sunday, the waiting time stretched to eight to 10 minutes. I spent 45 minutes in the store trying five pairs of shoes, compared to about 10 minutes to try on three pairs on Tuesday.
Staff members would often attempt to serve several people at one go, dropping off a pair of shoes I had requested before moving on to the next customer. It was next to impossible to get any staff's undivided attention on any of the three visits.
Twice, on Saturday and Sunday, I asked the same harried salesgirl for two pairs of shoes ("I'll check for you," she said distractedly), only to see her rush back to the cashier to serve other customers instead. I had to ask someone else to help me out.
I heard one staff member tell another urgently: "You're needed at the cashier now. Now." "It's really crowded," I remarked to one of the sales staff members.
She smiled uneasily and replied: "Saturdays."
Charles & Keith declined to comment for the story.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Tangs Orchard and Takashimaya Department Store
It should be hard to ignore a customer who hangs around your section checking prices and examining the items on offer.
Yet, except for three sales assistants who showed initiative, I had to approach staff in the household, shoe and clothing sections of both stores for help.
I visited the stores on a quiet Tuesday night when there were no more than a dozen customers in the fashion and shoe sections. I returned on a busy Saturday afternoon, when there were more than 100 customers in the household section of both stores.
When I did catch the eye of a staff member and asked for help, the service was more satisfactory than outstanding.
For instance, at Island Shop in Tangs' women's clothing section on Level 2, one staff member seemed to be busy in the changing room area and did not notice me for the three minutes I was browsing there on Tuesday night.
She was friendly enough when I approached her and agreed to reserve two dresses for me, taking down my mobile phone number. But there was no follow-up call when I failed to pick up the clothes that weekend as promised.
On Saturday, there were two retail assistants at Island Shop. Neither greeted me.
I walked past one of them no fewer than four times but I might as well have been invisible.
When I approached her to ask if there were more sales items other than those on one rack, she replied: "No, ma'am. The sales items are all here." She did not bother to ask what I was looking for.
Over at Takashimaya, the promoters of several clothing brands on Level 3 seemed more preoccupied with chatting than serving customers.
I counted six promoters in the shoe department on Level 2 on Tuesday and about twice the number on Saturday. Some were attending to customers but others were talking to one another, even though there were customers in the department on a busy Saturday afternoon.
On the quiet Tuesday night, the staff members stood around and did not offer help unless they were approached.
In Takashimaya's kitchenware section, promoters mostly stood in their sections and did not offer help when I picked up a kettle and a deep fryer.
When I headed to Tangs' household department at 9.15pm on Tuesday, 15 minutes before closing time, it looked like it had closed shop.
I asked to see the Philips AirFryer promoter and was told she had gone home. A Tangs staff member stepped up and was able to tell me how to use the appliance.
On Saturday afternoon, it was again a Tangs staff member who attended to me when the Philips AirFryer promoter was busy with a customer.
Tangs said all its staff members at Tangs Home are placed in different zones and given information on the brands in that section so they may "adequately serve customers".
Both Takashimaya and Tangs said they will look into the cases of unsatisfactory service and take action.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Robinsons Raffles City
In the large shoe department in Robinsons Raffles City, there is an elevated area that I call "Siberia". It is the land of no sales assistants or, if I am lucky, a grumpy one.
On each of my three visits - on a Tuesday night, Saturday afternoon and the following Saturday night - there were at least 30 shoppers trying on shoes, but I got attention only when I moved to the ground level. On a Saturday night, I was the only customer in Siberia and had to wave frantically to get the attention of one of at least 10 sales assistants on the ground level.
The promoter who finally assisted me was courteous. He stood next to me as I tried eight pairs of shoes - one of them did not come from the brand that he represented but he still tried to be helpful in answering my questions. This visit was when I received the most attention.
On my first visit on a quiet Tuesday night, there was a sales assistant in "Siberia" who was sorting out price tags when I asked her for help. She frowned and picked another shoe from the shelf in the size I asked for. The design was similar but it was not the style I had asked for. When I told her so, she replied, without checking, that the one I wanted was out of stock.
Over at the household department that same night, there were barely any sales assistants in sight, while fewer than 10 customers milled about.
The only two sales assistants I spotted were manning the cash counter. I asked for help to locate an oven thermometer and one of them - probably a supervisor, going by his uniform - immediately took me to the correct aisle.
In a friendly tone, he added: "You're very lucky, Miss. These oven thermometers just came in this week." I repeated my oven thermometer inquiry on my next visit, a Saturday afternoon that same week.
This time, there were more sales assistants - about five - in the household section. But I was passed around three staff members who did not appear to know if the department stocked the oven thermometer. I was relieved when the same helpful supervisor who attended to me on Tuesday came to my rescue.
During my visits to the bedding section on Level 3, I felt, for the first time, that there were enough staff members. In fact, I experienced the luxury of having two sales assistants attending to me each time.
Like a tag team, one would ask what I was looking for while the other would wait for my response and then head off to look for the item I had asked for.
Neither of them was pushy and both were polite and patient even when I commented that the range was limited.
Robinsons declined to comment for this story. Overall, I thought the service and product knowledge among staff here could be improved, especially in Siberia.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Zara, Ion Orchard
The changing room at fashion retailer Zara at Ion Orchard was not a pretty sight on the Sunday afternoon I visited.
Besides a mountain of clothing that had been tried and rejected by customers, there was also a never-ending queue of people waiting to try yet more articles of clothing.
But the two sales assistants at the fitting room remained cool and collected, even when I tried to be as difficult as possible.
I took five items - the maximum number allowed was 10 - into the changing room.
"Sorry, this does not fit. I want a smaller size," I told one of the sales assistants manning the changing room.
She quickly radioed a colleague on her walkie-talkie with the model number and the colleague promptly arrived with the white blouse in the size I asked for.
I went into the cubicle and quickly stepped out again with a new query: "I like this top, but do you have it in other colours?"
She said yes and there was a long pause. I waited for her to offer to show it to me but she did not. I asked where I could find it and if she could show it to me.
She asked the colleague next to her to assist me and the item was brought to me in a matter of minutes, but this was carried out with perfunctory courtesy. She did not show any trace of impatience or frustration, but neither did she smile.
They served me dutifully without complaint, despite the packed store on Sunday - I counted 13 staff members on the women's floor, including three at the cashier point. But do not expect anything beyond basic customer service.
On a weekday evening, however, the service standard in the same outlet was better, perhaps because there were fewer customers.
A sales assistant took the initiative to check other stores to see if a dress I was keen on was available without my asking. She was polite and apologised when the size I wanted was not in stock.
RSH, the group that operates Zara in Singapore, did not respond to queries on the staffing and customer service standards for Zara by press time.