Saturday, 2 October 2010


Sainsbury’s were unfortunate this afternoon; their shoppers even more so. It seems a ‘technical fault’ forced the company to suspend credit and debit card payments at all 872 stores across the UK. This was in the middle of trading on the busiest day of the week. I can’t imagine we’ll hear what this has cost them, but how the company handled the problem will be of interest, and reminded me of a case history I once studied.

In the late 1980’s, when I attended the Executive Programme at Bradford University’s School of Management, we were given just such a make-believe incident to test our approach to managing the sort of failure that can dog any company. In this scenario, we are each the general manager of an edge-of-town giant food superstore:

It is Saturday afternoon, the car park is full of families loading up the week’s shopping, the store is packed, the tills are ringing, and all is well in your world. Suddenly all systems fail: no credit or debit cards can be read, cash can still be taken, but no receipts printed. The cashiers don’t know what to do, the queues are growing by the minute, customer voices being raised…….what do you do?

Well of course there is no single correct answer, but our suggestions included:

Ask everybody to abandon their shopping and leave the store immediately. No trollies may be taken out of the store. After 30 minutes trudging around the store, with the kids in tow, most people would leave very angry; some may even refuse to leave.

Don’t let anybody leave until your IT folk have fixed the problem. That could be a couple of days!

Those who can must write a cheque. Does anybody carry a cheque-book nowadays?

Ask customers to pay cash on an ‘honesty box’ basis. This is possibly the only realistic option: you’ll take a big hit but at least you’ll get some income.

Let everybody who is already queuing at a till pass through for free. Good customer service this: what you lose in income you’ll make up with goodwill.

Two other important points:

You ought to stop anybody else coming into the store, and thereby exacerbating your problems. Sure, they’ll head off to your competitor, but that might be a good result for today.

Get a grip on managing the car park: it will be gridlock out there, with more people arriving and few cars leaving.

And with the use of mobiles and Twitter, which we didn’t have in the 1980”s, the word will be round the neighbourhood that you are giving away shopping for free: even more people will rush over to your beleaguered store!

I shall keep an eye out to see how Sainsbury’s actually coped.

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