There are three pillars to any retail proposition: product, service and environment. If any of these wobble, shoppers notice

From a shopper’s perspetive, there are three pillars to any retail proposition: product, sevice and environment. And depending on who you talk to, you’ll find a different emphasis being placed on each of these, although it is fair to say that product does tend, ultimately, to assert its primacy.

Nevertheless, if any of these wobbles, shoppers do notice. Take this example. A retailers perhaps best known for its insistence on never being undersold and which has scrupulously polite and well-informed staff as its hallmarks can come a cropper as easily as any other high street denizen.

Imagine being told by a member of staff in the Oxfords Street flagship that a product that is on display is not actually in stock, nor is there any news on when it next will be. Helpfully, it is suggested that you might like one of the display models (a TV accessory, as it happens), but on close examination this proves damaged and so, even allowing for the offered reduction, you think twice and walk away.

Unabashed, you head to the lighting department, where a steel Angelpoise light on a tall stand is on sale for just shy of £100, the same price as the same light offered in a desk-light version. You decide this is what you want, but when you ask for it, you are told there has been a mistake and that there should have been a printed ticket on the stand that should have been priced separately: an extra £55.

Now in most circumstances and in recognition of what most retailers term “goodwill”, the product would be offered at the lower price. Instead the paragon of politeness that is the manager of the department says that it will be removed from sale for 48 hours and will not be sold at the lower price because: “she knows the law.”

Enough. You pay, but you’re feeling bad and it’s time to leave. In just a few moments, two members of staff have shattered your view of this particular retailer, of which you have been a standard- bearer ever since the dim and distant days when you were dragged around its haberdashery department by your mother.

It takes a very long time to build a reputation, but it can be destroyed in the course or a few minutes. This is, of course, an isolated incident, or so you’d like to imagine. But are you really alone? Any amount of good product and fine store design won’t restore the natural balance of things. Perhaps it is service, rather than product and store environment that swings things. After all, there’ll always be someone else willing to sell you the same thing for the same price…