From the aisles to the airports, some of retail’s biggest names have faced open revolt from suppliers and shoppers over the past week.

The cowpats hit the fan in grocery as dairy farmers, angry at falling milk prices, targeted supermarkets and Morrisons in particular. Protests included herding cattle into stores and blockading a distribution centre.

At airports, consumers reacted with fury when it emerged that the palaver of showing their boarding passes when making purchases at stores such as Boots and WHSmith was nothing to do with security and everything to do with retailers’ ability to claim VAT discounts. While understandable from a business perspective, it’s not from a consumer’s.

Feeling at best duped and at worst swizzed, shoppers have begun to refuse to comply with retailers’ demands to show flight details.

Different as the two disputes are, one holds lessons applicable to the other.

Morrisons, after at first adopting a confrontational stance with the farmers, changed tack in order to resolve the showdown. It opted to forego any fall in farmgate milk prices and for any resulting benefit to be passed back to the farmers.

“Retailers cannot take sole responsibility for issues such as the health of agriculture. That’s a matter for the whole country”

Chris Brook-Carter

Morrisons will also introduce a premium-price milk brand from which farmers will directly benefit. By doing that, Morrisons brought the focus back on to the customer.

While it was right for Morrisons to give some ground, retailers cannot take sole responsibility for issues such as the health of agriculture. That’s a matter for the whole country.

Consumers have shown themselves to be acutely sensitive to food prices, evident in the rise of the discounters and the resulting price wars. At the same time they dislike the idea of ‘big’ businesses throwing their weight around with suppliers.

Now they have a choice. They can buy the more expensive milk or not. As so often, the retailers have put power in the hands of the customer.

A basic lesson in customer experience

The same approach should be taken at airport stores.

The general airport experience is pretty dismal. After people put their shoes and belts back on following security checks, and before they are herded to the departure gates, a bit of retail therapy is welcome relief.

But fishing around in pockets and passports for a boarding card for the privilege of being able to buy a book for the flight or some suncream does not enhance the customer experience.

Now it turns out not to be necessary. Not only do shoppers feel they’ve faced needless hassle, they also resent missing out on savings that retailers are benefiting from.

How ironic that customer experience is one of the biggest buzzwords in retail at the moment. What sort of customer experience is being provided at the airports?

The greater irony is that retailers, including those in the firing line at present, do in the main put customers first. The controversy over airport retail stands out because it is so atypical of retail generally.

In that respect it’s a great reminder never to forget that the customer holds the purse-strings, as Morrisons recognised with its solution to the milk crisis.