Why is European Customer Service So Bad? The Amazing Tale of Two Food Stores

Note: First published in 2010 and slightly updated…I see only slight changes since this was first covered, basically it is all the same as it was. Trader Joe’s website does not even mention the Aldi connection, and anyone asking at a Trader’s store about it is met with whispers and “we don’t talk about that here!”


I just got back from a long stay in Europe, where I live part time (in Germany). I am always surprised when I am there as to how bad customer service can be. I’m not talking about business to business service, I am talking about service in retail establishments like supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. We all know that Paris has a bad reputation for surly service, although I must say it is not worse there than in many other central European countries, and to a lesser extent in my native Great Britain.

Why am I so surprised? Because the Europeans often spend so much time training people in jobs like waiter, yet the results leave so much to be desired. A Swiss waiter or waitress will go through all the training about wines, types of and placement of cutlery, on and on, but when they deliver the food, except in the highest-end establishments, they throw it on the table with little or no eye contact or words exchanged. Language is not the issue, I speak their language(s). When I point this out to my Swiss or German friends, they agree, telling me that they are amazed in the other direction when they come to the states, how friendly and good the service is here, and how they are just “used to it” in their own countries and can do nothing to change what they see as a cultural phenomenon.

Let’s do an interesting comparison between two arms of the same company, the famous Aldi food store chain from Germany. Aldi (the word Aldi means “Albrecht Discount” because it was created by the Albrecht brothers, who became billionaires as a result of their creation), is a wildly successful concept for the German food market, selling a limited selection of inexpensive and good quality items in a fast paced environment, which flushes customers one-way through the aisles rather like IKEA. When one reaches checkout, the real fun begins, not only when a lane opens, which creates a stampede, but also when one reaches the clerk doing the scanning. Let me just say, you had better be prepared! Get your bag(s) ready, and fill them as soon as you can. You will receive no help from anyone to load your shopping, and heaven help you if you load slowly and drag out the waiting time for the line….the withering looks you get will drive you to a higher-end store like Tengelmann next time, if you are thin skinned.

Now let’s cross the Atlantic to the US, where Aldi owns a food store chain with a remarkably different culture, Trader Joe’s. TJ’s, as it is called by its many fans, was bought by Aldi around 1979, but few if any Americans know that. TJ’s and Aldi’s German stores could not be more different, not so much in the way they look or the quality of food they sell, although that is a bit different, but in the way things work. At TJ’s a line which opens does not result in a stampede, instead the person first in a longer line will be invited to be first in the new one. On arriving at the checkout, clerks will, in a remarkably relaxed and friendly way, check your stuff then load it expertly into the bag(s). No rush, no frenetic feeling, yet it all happens fast. TJ’s does not necessarily have more customers in the store at one time than Aldi, and yet it will always have six or so checkout lines going. Aldi tops out at three and often has only one, with the line snaking back into the store. That changes when enough people call out “neue Kasse”, or as the military would say, “call for backup!”

How is this possible? Clearly TJ’s is a profitable enterprise even given the apparent inefficiencies built into the system vis-à-vis its parent’s German stores, such as more checkout clerks and loading of customers’ bags by them. I bet Aldi has studied the numbers and would introduce the German system if they could….but of course they can’t! This is because the US has a shopping and general service culture which demands that customers be treated in a certain way. Having to stuff your own bags would be seen as a major insult; having the clerks do that is a minimum expectation. Having long checkout lines, the same. Germans are of course rather oriented to rules and perhaps they see the Aldi system as “those are the rules and I abide by them”. Faced with this situation, Americans would say, “those are the rules and unless they change I am voting with my feet and going elsewhere”.

This is a blog about morale and here is where I am leading to: I have shopped Aldi in Germany many times and when I look at the workers there they look somewhat burned out and certainly harried, tired, stressed. They rush from one task to another as if their life depended on it, and that includes when they have check-out duty. On a recent visit to a German Aldi, a friend of mine was looking for an item which she could not find and a clerk who was stocking shelves was working in the area; instead of stopping to help my friend, the clerk berated her for being in the way! The pressure on the clerks seems to be so intense that stopping for a customer, also in my experience, is almost the last thing they want to do.

Trader Joe’s people on the other hand, no matter if they are in California where I live or any other state, seem to have that “laid back” relaxed style even though they work fast and efficiently. They are friendly. I’m willing to bet their morale and engagement is head and shoulders above that of their German colleagues, which has many significant long-term implications for their business, their longevity on the job, and yes, on their individual health. This is a shame, Aldi has proved that they can master a system in the US that makes both workers and customers happy. For me as an Aldi customer in Germany, I only tolerate it to get the cheap coffee, cheese and wine which they have.

As for the heavily trained waiters in Switzerland and their non-existent people skills, give me an untrained US worker any time, who smiles at me and says the classic “have a nice day” when I leave. Better a fake smile than a real scowl.

Have a Nice Day!

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  1. Hi David,
    Funny thing this topic. I have had some different experiences. We’ve talked, and you know I spend a fair amount of time overseas, especially in Paris, and have been going there for 20+ years. The one time I had consistently bad customer service was the first time, when I was a bit chicken (and a lot younger) and didn’t try to speak French. Lots of problems with rudeness. Starting on the next trip, I switched to French and the change was amazing. Even in the beginning, when my French was so-so at best, the fact that I even tried resulted in excellent treatment all around. That pattern has continued. I have had similar experiences in a couple other countries where I am fairly fluent in the local language.

    Flash forward to this year, when I have had a series of terrible, hair pulling, want to scream customer service experiences with several of our national vendors who have physical outlets here in San Diego. I did a bit of muttering about one of them on my blog, but saved my real rant for the somewhat more private arena of Facebook. So I don’t know. I think the situation may be more complex than it seems.

    • Lisa I know things can be bad just about anywhere! My focus actually was not on France, which I love and where I generally have a good experience, although sometimes I get that snooty French thing. I lived and studied there so my longest period of time was in Paris; however I am also often there in other parts. Mainly though this was about Germany, Switzerland, Austria, etc. By using two stores as examples, Aldi and Trader Joes, I was talking about hundreds of trips to them over the last few years, not an occasional bad experience somewhere, and a consistency which became a trend. Although your bad experience in San Diego is frustating, I think you need more than “samples of one or two” before you come to a generalizable conclusion. One thing I do when I have a bad customer experience is let them know directly, not through some other medium. How else will they be able to change, without feedback? I usually get good results that way, at least here in the US. In Germany (and I do love that country) they get angry and defensive!

  2. Hi David – I did some abbreviating of details and compressing of experiences myself as well in replying to your post, as I didn’t feel like getting specific. And be assured, the companies in question did get direct feedback from me!

  3. Hi David,

    I like the comparison of both supermarket chains but owned by the same stockholders. Nice.

    I think it has to do with the perception of the customers. In Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands or even France we are not used to so much customer service. We perceive it as fake and over acting. Not necessary.

    At the same time (in Europe) Aldi isn’t known for their customer service or happy shopping experiences. You go to Aldi to buy cheap groceries. If you would like more services you go to another store/chain.

    Till here. Nevertheless this doesn’t change that the morale of Aldi employees seems to be very low indeed. I am quite sure you know what to do 😉

    Kind regards,

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