Thursday, November 13, 2008

Supermarket weep! Somerfield fumbles the PR ball and deserves to lose customers

Crisis management is not for the faint-hearted. Wobble, waiver or blink and you can be dead in the water - or face down in the fresh produce aisle if you are Somerfield in the wake of the staff instigated Chip and Pin fraud in Hungerford.

How incredulous was I to read their unhelpful comments in today's Newbury Weekly News and online at Newbury Today? I'd be shaking my head in sorry disbelief if that didn't make it hard to post this!

Let me recap for those yet to be stunned by the mismanagement of a retailer who is dependent on customer confidence for survival: A staff member has been sacked after stealing 'hundreds of pounds' from customers' accounts after adapting a Chip and Pin machine to clone their cards. Some 14 people were victims and the theft was only rumbled because the banks cried foul.

What jumps out? 'Sacked' - so someone in a position of trust commits a sophisticated and well planned fraud and is sacked. Not arrested so the crime - which is almost certainly more than the work of one person working alone - can be investigated and we can be reassured.

Newbury Today has the store's press officer blundering through comments as follows:

Spokesman for the store, Pete Williams, confirmed a worker had been sacked.

He said that a chip and pin card-reading device had been stolen and tampered with so that it cloned customers' bank details, which could then be used for illegal transactions.

Mr Williams said that quick action from the store's manager had prevented hundreds more customers from having their details stolen.

He said he could not confirm exactly how much money was involved.

“We have increased our security measures at the store since this incident,” he said.“We offer our apologies to those customers who were affected. Fortunately, they are fully covered by their banks,” he said.

He said the police had interviewed the dismissed staff member, but Thames Valley Police spokeswoman Laura Deane said the force had no record of any incidents.

Mr Williams said the case may have been referred to UK payments association APACS, which investigates many similar cases every year, but spokeswoman Sandra Quinn could not confirm or deny whether they were investigating the scam in Hungerford for security reasons.

First let me look at how I feel as a customer of this store. This is the impact of this statement:

I feel really angry that this has been allowed to happen and that it doesn't appear to be subject to a police investigation - do they not consider it serious enough? It is like they are saying: 'No worries - it is only customers' money'! Without knowing what happened and how sophisticated the scam was I am very reluctant to return to the store. I feel that the customers' losses are belittled by the assertion that the banks will refund the money. Oh well, that's alright then! Honestly!

From a PR point of view there are a multitude of ways this could have been handled better. The line about increasing security does work, but how differently would people feel if the statement had said:
"We deeply regret this incident and would seek to assure our many customers in Hungerford that every step has been taken to ensure that this cannot be repeated. Obviously this is a crime and Thames Valley Police has been asked to investigated so it would be innappropriate to comment further at this time."
You would be better advised to limit your exposure by keeping the comment brief, and involving the police effectively makes the matter sub judice so you could not comment much further without risking compromising the investigation.

Customers would have felt reassured and with less said there is less to interpret or feel unhappy about.

Morgan PR offers public relations advice as part of our crisis management service; if Somerfield had spoken to us about this we would have hopefully influenced a much less harmful outcome.


Expertise on Tap said...

I agree Nigel, this is all about effective reputation management and customer confidence. How do we know this person and the criminal team behind it are not going to try and repeat this elsewhere?

ray said...


You are correct and I think the store handled it as if sweeping it under the carpet. Instead of making an example of this person so other employees can understand the seriousness of the crime and thus also reaffirming customers of their committment to protecting them, they took a hush approach and quite frankly how can I trust them again.

chris said...

It would be funny if it wasn't so bad. I doubt if anyone involved has 'learned' from their mistakes. Certainly sounds like a case of poor management from start to finish.

Newbury Business Group Member said...

It is almost as if Somerfield can't be bothered, shame as it is their customers money they can't be bothered about. It is a shame they could have turned this around and been portrayed as a company that takes customer relations really seriously by getting the police involved.

If thats how they treat their customers they'll find they won't have many left!

Karen Chapple

Graham Jones said...

You only need a quick search of the Internet and you discover that Somerfield in Hungerford also recently sold out-of-date produce, that its home delivery service was scrapped much to the annoyance of locals and that people over the age of 30 are still asked to prove they are old enough to buy alcohol. Add this new event to the "blogosphere" and Somerfield's new owners (The Co-Op) could well be wishing they hadn't bought the supermarket.