SINGAPORE - If you are starting to do your Christmas shopping in town, here is a tip: Avoid peak hours because the sales staff are likely to be too busy to give you personal attention.
But if you go during non-peak hours, be prepared to hang around and wait for service because staffing is not at optimum levels.
This is the Catch-22 situation that a SundayLife! team of five reporters found themselves in when they visited 13 retail shops and department stores to test their service.
The brief was simple: Check the staffing situation at the stores and the impact on service, given the retailers' refrain this year that they face a manpower crunch.
Retailers say the crunch is caused by the tightening of measures in the hiring of foreign labour and the difficulties in finding Singaporeans who are willing to be service staff.
The reporters visited high-street fashion stores Zara and Topshop; lingerie store LaSenza; two outlets of women's shoe shop Charles & Keith; Japanese fashion retailer Uniqlo; Hong Kong casualwear label Giordano; and sportswear shop Royal Sporting House.
The department stores were: Tangs Orchard, Takashimaya Department Store, Robinsons in Raffles City, Metro in Paragon shopping centre and Marks & Spencer in Wheelock Place.
The reporters visited each retail outlet two to three times last month during peak and off-peak periods - at least once on a weekday evening and once on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
In general, there were fewer staff members during non-peak periods such as weeknights. At Tangs Orchard and Marks & Spencer, there were hardly any retail assistants in sight when the reporters visited on a weekday evening at about 9pm.
At the 30,000 sq ft Marks & Spencer in Wheelock Place, only four staff members were spotted in the clothing section on a Tuesday evening, with another one to two employees at each cash register point.
At Tangs Orchard, the number of staff varies with the time of the day. Half of its 400-strong sales staff are on duty from opening time to noon and the store operates at full strength after that. Manpower is cut back slightly 11/2 hours before closing time.
Likewise, Takashimaya Department Store rosters 40 per cent of its team of 220 sales assistants to work before noon and goes full strength till about 7pm.
Both stores also beef up staffing on the shopfloor on weekends by 20 to 60 per cent.
Some employees had to multi-task. At stores such as Metro Paragon and Charles & Keith, the cashiers were sometimes asked to leave their stations to help customers.
At Metro, the cashier desk was treated like an information counter - the reporter was asked to check with the cashier when she wanted a dress in another size.
A Metro representative admitted that the staffing level is "lean", which has resulted in sales associates multi-tasking, such as handling cashier duties, greeting customers and giftwrapping.
Most brands also hire just one promoter to oversee the counter or section.
Mr Ian Lim, chief executive of FJ Benjamin, which owns the La Senza lingerie brand franchise in Singapore, admitted that his stores can be understaffed during peak periods, but said the chain is working on a solution.
He added: "The manpower crunch is a reality. Our ability to take on more sales associates is not through a lack of desire or effort. The demand for manpower is simply greater than the supply."
If sales staff are hard to hire, a good sales assistant is even harder to find.
Out of the 13 stores visited a total of 34 times, the reporters found only four outstanding sales staff members: at Charles & Keith in Takashimaya Shopping Centre, Metro Paragon, Takashimaya Department Store and Tangs Orchard.
Service at most stores was lackadaisical at best. Many retail assistants lacked initiative - they did not make the first move when they saw customers looking around for help or offer to check other outlets for different sizes and colours.
Some sales staff members did not seem interested in making a sale, while a few were downright rude.
It was rare to find uniformly good service at any one store. Shopping in Singapore, it would appear, is like taking part in a lucky draw. You never know what you are going to get. You could get good and bad service from different staff members at the same store.
Ms Lau Chuen Wei, executive director of the Singapore Retailers Association, said bosses have to play a part in ensuring that staff are trained and equipped with product knowledge to be able to give good service.
She noted that "Singaporean culture" could be a reason retail staff are not proactive in offering help or better service.
"Singaporeans tend to be more reticent and shy and, sometimes, unfortunately, it takes a customer to approach the staff first," she said.
STAR SERVER #1
Lver in Takashimaya Department Store
You can count on Ms Nancy Liew not only for friendly service, but also for styling tips. The 59-year-old supervisor of home- grown brand Lver who is stationed in Takashimaya Department Store's apparel section, put me at ease quickly when I visited on a recent Saturday afternoon.
"I don't know your brand. What would you recommend for me?" I asked.
She promptly trotted out one outfit after another, saying: "Try first and come out and let me see, darling." When I emerged from the changing room with complaints such as "black dresses make me look grey", she was undeterred. Pulling shawls, belts and necklaces to go with the outfits I was unhappy with, she offered several ideas on how to accessorise the clothes.
When I lamented that a striped dress made me look like a walking zebra, she laughed and whipped out a black scarf. "See, you wear this around the neck. Like this, " she said, as she demonstrated.
In all, I tried nine dresses, two blouses, three skirts and a pair of trousers. All the while, she assured me when I expressed concern about taking up her time: "Don't worry, darling. I can't just expect you to buy without trying. You must be comfortable before you buy."
At the end of the 80-minute session, I asked if I could reserve four items, including a beige cotton dress with kimono-like pleats and a cream and black peplum blouse.
I told her I was planning to visit the new Robinsons Orchard at The Heeren and she looked disappointed for a brief moment. She then tried to clinch a sale, saying I could get a 15 per cent discount if I bought the items that day as part of a promotion.
Still, I declined and apologised as I walked off. But she said with a smile: "Aiya, don't worry."
Ms Liew, who has been with Lver for seven years, is married to a 63-year-old retired cement truck driver and has no children. Before that, she worked as a factory operator for nine years in a Japanese plant that produced television screens until she was retrenched.
Her boss, Mr John Lim, 38, director of Fashion.Lab which owns Lver, told SundayLife! he had offered to promote MsLiew three times but she turned him down each time, saying she did not want the pressure of leading a team.
She finally felt ready for the challenge and was made a supervisor two years ago. Mr Lim said: "When I hire, I look for people like Nancy. She has fire in her eyes and a spring in her step. She has the passion to serve."
Besides the basic three-month training at Fashion.Lab during the probation period, which includes learning how to match colours and accessories, Ms Liew said she also takes note of how mannequins in trendy window displays are styled so she can dish out practical advice to her customers. She earns personal and group commissions at the outlet but declines to reveal her salary.
Her work motto, she said, is to "treat the customer as a friend so she can shop with no pressure".
She added: "Remember that your customer is your boss - her purchases make up your income."
THE GOOD: Uniqlo, Suntec City Mall
If the Singapore Retailers Association were to give out awards to employees who give speedy service, I would nominate one young man who works at the Japanese fashion store Uniqlo in Suntec City.
A request to find a shirt in another size set this sales assistant - unfortunately, I did not get his name - racing across the shopfloor to look for the shirt, despite it being a crowded Sunday afternoon.
The bespectacled youth - he did not look older than 21 - did seem rather frazzled, probably because he was inundated with queries from two other customers before I approached him. But he did his job with commendable fervour.
I had moved to another spot in the store but he located me after a few minutes, slightly breathless from speeding about to get the job done.
"Hi, I'm so sorry but this shirt in size M is not available in this store," he said, before informing me that the item was available in five other Uniqlo outlets across the island.
I gave him extra points for taking the initiative to check the stock inventory system without me asking. He then suggested that I pick a store which was convenient for me and offered to call to reserve the item for me.
It was impressive customer service, given that it was peak period and I counted only 17 staff members working the 22,000sq ft shopfloor that busy weekend afternoon.
On a Tuesday evening, when I counted 10 sales assistants manning the store, cashier area and changing room, the friendly service staff were also more than happy to assist me.
One member stationed at the changing room was quick to whip out a touch-pad device that informed her of stock availability across all 13 Uniqlo outlets in Singapore, which made her job easier than ringing up each store to check.
She offered to call and reserve the item I wanted - a pink silk shirt - at the Bugis+ store, which was one of two stores where the item was available.
"It's also available in City Square," she said, then added conspiratorially with a wide smile: "But don't go there lah, because there are fewer items to browse there."
This was truly service with a smile, I thought.
Wing Tai Holdings, which manages Uniqlo in Singapore, declined to comment for this story.
Melissa KokTHE GOOD: La Senza, Ion Orchard
The staff at lingerie brand La Senza's Ion Orchard outlet got a little hands-on with me - but for the right reasons.
On both my visits to the store, staff members were quick to make sure I was getting the right bra sizes. The first time, one of them grabbed me gently around the torso, while a different staff member used a measuring tape on my second visit, which I have to admit I much prefer.
La Senza staff offer to measure the bust of anyone who is unsure of her size.
There were 10 to 15 customers in the store on a Tuesday evening and the moment I stepped in, a salesgirl came up and handed me a discount coupon: Buy any bra, get $20 off.
There were about five staff members in the store, plus a cashier and two other staff members manning the fitting room. They did not hover but let me browse until I signalled that I needed help.
While the number of staff on a Saturday afternoon was the same, with about 20 customers browsing, service was as prompt and efficient as it was on a weekday. All I had to do was make eye contact and a salesgirl would appear by my side.
During my first visit, I asked for a demi- bra - a half-cup bra style - and the salesgirl who helped me gave me two different styles and consulted me on the colours I liked. She measured me with her hands, to my slight surprise, but was otherwise gentle and polite.
After I emerged from the fitting room, she was quick to ask whether I liked what I'd tried and smiled and said "okay" after I handed them back apologetically. I did not feel pressured to buy anything.
On my Saturday visit, I asked a sales staff member who seemed to be a trainee for a seamless bra. She stared at me a little helplessly. "Do you mean cotton?"
"No," I said, a little perturbed, "it's the kind of bra that's smooth and that you can't see under clothing."
She quickly took me to another colleague, who was more experienced. The second assistant, who measured me with a tape, immediately suggested several ranges of seamless bras and pointed out their various features without prompting, such as gel cups and padded underwire that would not cut into the skin.
She was helping someone else when I came out from the dressing room, but another staff member was quick to take over, answering my questions about the bra I had tried and the various discounts available. All in all, a very smooth experience. I will be visiting again, although I must admit I do prefer a measuring tape over hands.
Asked about La Senza's manpower situation, MrIan Lim, chief executive of FJ Benjamin, which operates the label, said in an e-mail response that each store was staffed based on its size and anticipated sales volume. He also said the company hoped to do better.
"Ideally, we would like to have more sales associates on the sales floor during key trading periods. This would include early evening on weekdays and most certainly on the weekends. We recognise we are understaffed during these key times and are committed to finding a solution."
Corrie TanTHE GOOD: Charles & Keith, Takashimaya Shopping Centre
The outlet in Takashimaya Shopping Centre is a well-run outfit with an excellent and courteous store manager at the helm.
On the Tuesday evening I visited, I was greeted politely as I entered and was immediately asked if I needed help.
The store manager also encouraged staff members to be attentive. At one point, he nudged one of them to pay closer attention to me and start a conversation.
On his prompting, she gave me feedback on which colour she felt I looked better in and said I would be able to get 10 per cent off my purchases if I had a membership card.
Clad in a smart black blazer instead of the regular polo T-shirts donned by the other sales staff, the store manager was not wearing a name tag but appeared to be in his late 20s or early 30s. He is one of the best retail managers I have ever encountered.
As I examined one of the handbags, he was able to tell me, effortlessly, about the various materials used for the bags, the differences between them and how I could care for my accessories, including those made of leather, suede and synthetic materials.
What impressed me even more was how he kept his cool under pressure when I returned on a Saturday afternoon. While the staff strength was similar to that on a weekday, they were efficient and the store was less messy than the Ion outlet.
There were about 30 people in the store and I overheard the store manager explaining, patiently, to a group of Asian tourists how they might be able to get a GST refund at the airport. He also apologised to another customer for having kept her waiting after presenting her with a pair of shoes, even though she had been waiting for just two or three minutes.
I gave the store manager an extremely vague description of the heels that had run out at the Ion branch.
He was able to pinpoint the exact style of shoe I was asking for - he showed me a picture of it on his computer just to be sure - and said that the Marina Bay Sands outlet had a pair. He offered to call the store to double-check "because our system takes a while to update sometimes".
About a minute later, he came up to me apologetically to say that the outlet had run out of the style too and suggested similar styles.
I did not take up his suggestions but if ever I want to shop at Charles & Keith, I will make a beeline for the Takashimaya Shopping Centre outlet just because of the manager's excellent service.
Corrie TanTHE GOOD: Giordano, Suntec City Mall
Not only is the flagship store of Hong Kong casualwear label Giordano brightly lit and welcoming, but it also does not seem to have a problem with manpower.
On both occasions when I visited, there were at least six staff members on the shop floor and another two to three at the payment counter.
They were more than able to handle the handful of shoppers that were in the store on the Tuesday evening I visited, as well as the more than 10 customers when I popped in again on Saturday afternoon that same week.
Most of the floor staff were busy with stock matters on the weeknight, while some were standing by on Saturday, ready to lend assistance.
Giordano's marketing head, Ms Samantha Lee, said about 30 per cent more staff are rostered to work on weekends and the company is also hiring more part-timers and interns to cope with the manpower crunch.
When I asked about alterations in English on one of my visits, I was greeted with a blank look from a female sales assistant, who looked to be from China.
Another staff member who was within earshot came over and told her "gai ku, gai ku" (pant alteration in Mandarin), then informed me that the store offered the service and the turnaround time was one day.
Ms Lee said that of the chain's 280- strong sales staff, about 35 per cent are Singaporeans, while the rest comes from China, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The second assistant who came to his colleague's rescue deserved points for being pro-active, and I found the staff friendly and knowledgeable in general.
For example, when I asked about clothing sizes, they proved to be familiar with the product range. One informed me that medium was the smallest available size for a long-sleeved tee.
Another explained why other outlets would not have the item I wanted in my size - Giordano is going for a different, more hip image at its Suntec City store, so many of the items, from the coloured jeans to the nautical-striped tees, were exclusive to the outlet.
He also helpfully pointed out that there was a discount if I bought a second item and suggested that I try some shirts as well.
Nothing else caught my eye that day, but I would head for Giordano in Suntec City if I ever need a pair of made-in-Korea coloured jeans.
Boon ChanSTAR SERVER #2
Graciela Reyes Berboso
It is rare enough in Singapore to find a sales assistant who offers smiles and help without prompting. But Tangs' retail associate Graciela Reyes Berboso, 35, goes one step further - she volunteers her personal mobile phone number.
When I first visited the shoe section on a Tuesday night, there were few customers and she was the only staff member I spotted.
It was about 9pm, half an hour to closing time, but she did not seem to be in a hurry to wrap up for the day. When asked for assistance, she patiently took out two pairs of loafers in my size and took down a red patent leather bag on the display wall.
She also took out the stuffing in the handbag for my inspection when I asked to check the number of compartments inside.
My hands were full - I had an umbrella in one hand and my own bag in the other - so her thoughtfulness was appreciated.
I asked to reserve the three items.
As part of the service test, I asked for a number to call in case I could not pick them up over the weekend. I expected to get the store number but Ms Berboso readily gave me her personal mobile phone number.
I did not see her when I returned on Saturday afternoon that week, but she called twice the following week to ask if I needed further extensions, as items in the store can be reserved for only three days.
On her second call on Thursday, I apologised for holding the items and asked her to release them. She replied cheerfully: "No problem, ma'am."
Asked why she gave out her number in a subsequent phone interview, she explained: "Sometimes, it's hard for customers to get through to the extension in the shoe section, especially during peak hours."
She added that some of her colleagues also give out their mobile phone numbers even though the store does not require them to do so.
Before joining Tangs as a retail associate in May last year, she worked as a sales assistant for a year at a clothing store in Sun Plaza in Sembawang.
The Filipino became a Singapore permanent resident in 2009.
Her mechanical engineer husband, also 35, had lived here for two years and applied for PR status for the family. They have two daughters, aged 10 and four.
Handling difficult customers can be challenging, Ms Berboso said.
Some complain about everything, including bag zippers being too small, while others gripe that she is too slow in retrieving the shoes they want.
"Sometimes, it takes time to find the style, colour and size that the customer wants," she said. "But I say sorry. I apologise every time to make them feel better."
She added: "I am a customer too, so I put myself in their position. Patience is a virtue."