Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Reporting my "Low-Ebb" Experience

January 2, 2008

Mr. Pierre H. Lessard

President and Chief Executive Officer

Metro Inc.

11 011, boul. Maurice-Duplessis
Montréal (Québec)
H1C 1V6

Dear Mr. Lessard

Forgive me if I view with skepticism the claim on your website that your "…employees go through a rigorous training program where they learn how to provide professional, courteous customer service." Instead I recently found myself subject to what I consider to be nothing other than exceedingly disrespectful and humiliating treatment.

I appreciate that you are a very busy executive. I do expect, however, that you will ensure that this matter is investigated fully by your staff. Below is my report to you regarding treatment I was afforded by several employees at your Loeb Rideau Street Market, located at 245 Rideau St., Ottawa.

I arrived at this location shortly after 5:00 PM, on Monday, December 31, 2007. A resident of Ottawa, I had just returned home by Greyhound bus after an eight day visit with family in Toronto. Realizing that I needed some food for dinner, I decided to stop at this convenient location on Rideau Street. Ordinarily I shop at my neighbourhood Loblaws, on McArthur Avenue, but your store was readily accessible for me in that it is near the OCTranspo bus transfer point.

I picked up a cart at the front of the store, placed one of my pieces of luggage in it, and proceeded inside. I initially made my way to the prepared food section. I considered purchasing one of your $6.99 pizzas with a $2.50 off coupon on it. However, after inspecting two such items that were on offer more closely, I noted an oily residue soaking the cardboard backing, and placed them back on the rack.

I then proceeded to the fresh meat section. There, I first picked out one of the Maple Leaf prepared poultry roasts. It was placed on a rack that indicated a price of $6.99, but then I realized that this referred to another item that I was not interested in, and that the actual price was $9.99. Liquid was also dripping from it and I decided that this was not what I wanted for dinner.

I then moved along to the selections of fresh poultry and beef. I noticed that some of them were marked down to half price. However, the only date I could see on the various cartons I inspected was December 29th or 30th. I found this very confusing. Without my reading glasses, I was unsure whether this was the date the product was packed on, or its Best Before date. It was the latter date I was looking for. I could not see one. The product looked fresh, but what I wanted was assurance that it in fact was safe to consume. I could not find any product that indicated a Best Before date for early January, 2008. I continued looking at several pieces of merchandise, trying to find something to my satisfaction, but to no avail.

At about this time, a young man in a dark jacket approached me. Might someone be offering me some help? Actually, no. What he said to me was, "Excuse me sir, I am going to have to ask you to leave the store." I stared at him with what I can only assume was a look of incredulity. "What," I exclaimed, "Is there a problem!? I'm just trying to find some meat." "You have been acting suspiciously and I must ask you to leave", he replied. I then noticed his security jacket. "Did your manager ask you to speak with me?" I asked. "No," he replied quickly. "You have to leave", he insisted, and motioned for me to accompany him. I tried to ask him about how the product was labeled but he flatly refused to answer my question. I felt simultaneously embarrassed and outraged.

Not wanting this to descend into a scene in the middle of the store premises, I grabbed my luggage from the cart and complied with his request. However, as we walked to the front door I insisted that I have the opportunity to speak with the Manager. I waited at the front door. Not one, but four gentlemen came to the front entrance. At least one of them, aged about 20 with blonde highlights in his stylishly spiked hair, appeared to be covering a smirking grin behind his hand. He may have been amused. I certainly wasn't. No one introduced themselves as the Manager. No one asked what my problem was. They simply lined up in front of me blocking the entrance. They showed absolutely no interest in discussing anything with me. I felt personally humiliated as customers streamed past us out of the busy store. It was clear that I was not going to be shopping at Loeb that evening.

In exasperation I blurted out my concern about the lack of a "Best Before" date. "All of our meat is packed fresh." was the only response I was offered, as I felt myself being herded out the door. "Well, I can only hope so", I thought, shaking my head in disbelief. I knew I had to leave, and exited the store, feeling extremely insulted. I then walked to a nearby Loblaws where I quickly found exactly what I was looking for; namely, a package of pork chops with a clearly visible Best Before date of January 6, 2008.

I have begun to draw my own conclusions as to why I was treated so badly. I can only surmise that it was my appearance. I am a white male, age 56. I have a short, but greying, full beard. I have long black hair, tinged with grey, tied back in a pony tail. After a long day of bus travel, I expect that not all of it was neatly tied back. Although I usually trim my beard, I had not done so since leaving Ottawa.

I was wearing a brown toque, blue jacket, blue jeans and low cut winter boots. My clothing was clean, with no visible signs of wear. I had a green backpack on my back, and was carrying a piece of matching soft luggage. To complete the picture, I can assure you that I had not been drinking, nor did I emit offensive body odour, having recently showered. In essence, what your security guard saw was a confused, tired, hirsute traveler in need of some customer service. He judged my behaviour as "suspicious" and treated me as an unwelcome potential thief.

My dispute, however, is not with your security guard. He was doing his job. He observed behaviour that in his opinion was potentially suspicious. Apparently, he had been given the authority to view confused customers with suspicion and escort them from the premises without further recourse. I, however, did not agree with his actions and asked to speak with his superior. Unfortunately, although four Loeb staff members confronted me, no one was either willing to identify themselves as a Manager or express any interest in listening to me. This is what I find so egregious and utterly unprofessional. It is the Manager's responsibility to investigate and respond to customer concerns. I have been in this position myself in a professional capacity and have performed this task on numerous occasions. Sadly, on this evening I was not being afforded this basic respect.

As a graduate of Queen's University I consider myself to be a well educated and, I humbly believe, a well respected member of my community. However, this should have absolutely no bearing on the level of respect I, nor anyone else, is offered upon entering a place of business. I appreciate that this particular location on Rideau Street is confronted with ongoing security concerns. It is in the heart of an area that deals with homelessness, drug addiction and prostitution. I have no doubt that security costs are significant. My depth of understanding comes from my professional background in the security industry. I am a former member of the American Society of Industrial Security, having served as an Assistant Director of Security for a large multinational transportation company.

I also have come to appreciate your security concerns through my political involvement. I most recently ran as the Green Party Candidate in the provincial election, receiving almost 4,300 votes in the October, 2007 poll in Ottawa-Vanier. Time and again, during the campaign, I was presented with the stark reality of homelessness and drug addiction. These are terrible afflictions that demand attention.

It is my opinion that your security guard judged me to be a homeless or otherwise indigent person looking for food to steal. Your nameless manager accepted this interpretation of my behaviour as fact, and refused to investigate further. Although initially feeling outraged at this insult I now am coming to sense the powerful lesson I have been provided with. For the first time in my life, from personal experience, I know what it is like to be profiled and prejudged. I have been touched in the depth of my soul with how it feels to be tossed aside as someone unworthy of dignity and respect. For a few brief moments I felt the shame and despair of being summarily dismissed as a homeless bum.

I am confident that over time I shall recover from this personal insult. I already feel quite energized as a result of this bizarre encounter. I can readily shop elsewhere and encourage friends and neighbours to do the same. I expect that my written blog on this experience will be quite persuasive. After reflection though, I know that my concern extends far beyond my personal sense of injustice and desire for an apology. Who else have your employees treated in such a cavalier manner? How can I ensure that not one more person is treated so disrespectfully at your stores? Below outlines what I consider to be a minimum acceptable response from your company upon timely completion of your investigation:

  • A written apology from your organization. I expect this written apology to include a statement that makes it clear that I am welcome to shop at any of your locations and that I can be assured that I will be treated with dignity and respect.

  • A verbal apology delivered personally at a face to face meeting attended by all of your nameless "managers" who were present when I was asked to leave your store. I expect the actual Manager to identify himself to me. I expect this meeting to be attended by his superior.

  • At this meeting I expect to be given the opportunity to explain to you what my concerns were as a customer when I attempted to find suitable product to consume. I expect to be listened to.

  • I expect to be provided with an explanation as to why your "managers" chose not to listen to me at the time, identify themselves, nor offer any other avenue of resolution.

  • I shall ask to be apprised of the training your managers currently receive with respect to resolving customer complaints. I shall be asking if you agree with my position that I was poorly treated and that you need to avoid similar situations in the future. In this instance I believe that all your Manager had to do upon my protestations was offer to investigate further. He could have simply said something along the following lines:

Sir, I can see that you are upset, but my investigator views your behaviour in our store as very suspicious. I also am very concerned about what he reported to me. Therefore, you will not be permitted to re-enter our premises until I have had the opportunity make a proper judgment of the facts. This is my business card if you wish to provide additional information. At this time, however, I must ask you to leave as the store is extremely busy and I am not prepared to resolve this at this time. Thank you.

  • I therefore expect us to have a discussion on the sensitive issue of profiling. I believe that I would have been treated very differently had I been clean shaven with a styled haircut, dressed in my usual business attire, and not carrying luggage. It is quite likely I would have been offered assistance, not contempt. I shall be asking if you agree with my opinion that in this instance I was profiled by your employees and treated disrespectfully as a result. I shall want to know what measures you plan to take to balance a genuine need for appropriate security measures with the fundamental expectation that every individual should be treated in a dignified and respectful manner.

As a result of this meeting I trust that your organization will come to understand that irrespective of the circumstance, you have a responsibility to treat every individual you encounter with dignity. I have investigated numerous criminal acts, but I learned early in my career that everyone deserves to be treated with the same level of courtesy and respect.

To conclude, I understand that retail operations must have the tools to protect themselves from theft. If you perceive a threat, you must investigate. However, this must be done respectfully. If you have hired competent investigators, then they will usually make good judgments as to the intended activity of your customers, and act accordingly. In my instance, I know that your investigator misjudged my intentions. I have come to accept this as an honest mistake. However, your "manager's" utter refusal to even offer to investigate the matter any further I find to be totally inappropriate, unprofessional and personally insulting. I shudder to think of how many others have been treated in such a callous, publicly humiliating fashion. My strongest desire is that I shall be the last.

I shall be preparing a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen regarding the outcome of the meeting I propose and the circumstances that brought it about. I am also contemplating writing a lengthier article suitable for publication. I expect the theme of both shall revolve around the issue of profiling those who appear to be less fortunate in our society and how we respond to them. My hope is that what I write can include reference to how you shall be ensuring that no one else shall ever again be treated as I was in any of your facilities. I look forward to your timely response.

Yours truly,

Leonard Poole

c.c. Mr. Wayne Beaudoin, Manager

Loeb Rideau Street Market,

245 Rideau St., Ottawa, ON

K1N 5Y2

Manager, Customer Service,

Metro Inc.

11 011, boul. Maurice-Duplessis
Montréal (Québec)
H1C 1V6

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