Doing time at my favorite Prague splurge

Stealing A Steak From ‘Marks & Sparks’

There’s the offending "Ribeye Steak" on the receipt. For those keeping score at home, the price, 329 crowns, is a not-insignificant $16 for a relatively small slab of meat. Photo by Mark Baker.
Beware chicken thieves :) Marks & Spencer obviously chips the chickens -- a fact I learned as the guards waved my chicken breast though the security barrier to see if it set off the alarm. Photo by Mark Baker.

It was a typical lazy Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. I was sitting in my apartment and thinking about dinner. Suddenly, I felt that familiar “light-bulb” moment:  “Hey, Marks & Spencer is open on Sunday,” my mind started telling me (as it often does). “Why not head down to the Wenceslas Square branch and rustle up some grub?” Not a bad idea!

And so it was I got off the couch, took the metro downtown, entered the store, grabbed a basket and proceeded to walk (with lust in my eyes) through those shiny aisles. I was in one of those “to hell it with” moods where I simply stuck anything in the basket that caught my eye without even looking at the price. Some of that "Chunky Layered Moroccan Style Houmous"? Yep! How about a little "Sweet and Tender British Baby Beetroot"? You got it!

At Marks & Spencer those moods can be particularly dangerous. I can walk around my neighborhood Kaufland -- a culinary wasteland carved literally from the carcass of a disused public bus depot -- for an hour and still not wrack up a bill over 2,000 crowns (about $100). At M&S I can blow through $100 in 15 minutes.

Where would my Prague life be without M&S British Baby Beetroot? Alas, I now realize they pay more attention to the beets than to the customers. Photo by Mark Baker.
I confess, sometimes I walk around the store simply to gawk at the labels. They're so different from any other place in town. Photo by Mark Baker.

The first sign that everything was not going according to plan on this particular visit came as I brought my overstuffed basket up to the register to pay. As anyone who’s ever shopped at one of our local Marks & Spencers knows, in addition to toting up the damage, the cashiers also meticulously pack your bags (as carefully as if they were sending off their six-year-old to his or her first day at school). This elaborate packing ritual is so mind-blowingly over the top in Prague -- where it would never occur to a cashier to help you pack -- that it almost justifies the higher prices all by itself.

I’d unfortunately brought my own bag -- a bright red “Kaufland” bag as it turns out -- with me on this trip. The cashier gave the bag and me the once over and was obviously not very impressed. She told me she wouldn’t be able to pack my bag on this visit, and instead ran the items through the scanner and handed them back to me one-by-one. I wasn’t sure why she wouldn't do the packing thing, but this was certainly no big deal. I was a little surprised, though, and so apparently was everyone else as they stood around staring at us. (I later learned this was for "hygiene" reasons when customers brings their own bags into the store -- okay got it!).

I paid the bill, placed the receipt at the top of the bag, and proceeded down the escalator to leave the store. I was already dreaming of what I was going to make from the bounty I'd bought when the store’s blaring anti-theft alarm pulled me out of my reverie. Apparently, something in my bag had set the bells off. I stood there like the proverbial deer in the headlights, not quite knowing whether to ignore it and keep walking or to stop and wait for a guard.

I was pretty sure I hadn’t stolen anything, so I stood there to face the music.

At Marks & Spencer, "Posh Dogs" go up against the lowly Czech párek (hot dog), and guess who wins? Photo by Mark Baker.
The prospect of "Sicilian blood" orange marmalade always makes me think of Mafia hits in Palermo for some reason. Photo by Mark Baker.

A few seconds later, I was surrounded by the security guards, who greeted me politely but sternly. They then proceeded to grope and extract nearly every item, one-by-one, in my bag. In my mind's eye, I can still see one of the guards pull out a chicken breast and pass it through the door to see if it set off the alarm (all clear!). A heads-up to any chicken thieves out there: They obviously chip the chickens.

Finally, after going through and testing everything, they located the problem. "Aha! The hovězí steak!" (a rib-eye actually). The cashier had apparently forgotten to remove an anti-theft chip stuck in the packaging (maybe she really did hate that Kaufland bag?).

One of the guards looked at me a little warily, “Now, let's see if it's on the receipt!” There were several items on that list and it took the guys a good fifteen minutes to go through it (again and again about 20 times in all). The main guard, probably somewhere in his late-50s or early-60s, kept having to adjust his glasses in order to read the small print. At this point, I started to feel a little bad for them. This can't be a fun job.

For some reason, the guards couldn’t find the steak on the list and I started to doubt too if it was actually there. (Maybe I really did steal a steak and just forgot?). It was probably the fact that it was marked on the receipt in English as "Ribeye Steak," but the actual item was labelled in Czech as "Hovězí Steak."

I wasn’t in any particular hurry and had no place to go, so I just stood there with an embarrassed, bemused look on my face. People coming in and leaving the store gave me the hard stare (Aha! A guilty shoplifter had gotten his just desserts!). Eyeball-shaming is an art form in this town -- like when you see someone get caught on the tram without a valid ticket. I'd have done exactly the same thing.

Finally, we all proceeded to the back room, where after another short wait the manager on duty could go through the receipt once again, item by item, with a fine-tooth comb. Ultimately, she found the steak on the list. “There it is! He paid for it!”

The guards quickly and efficiently returned the items, including the steak, to my bag (so this is what you have to do to get Marks & Spencer to pack your bags these days?) and wished me a pleasant day. After a delay of a little more than 30 minutes, I walked out of the store a free man.

One of the big changes brought in by Marks & Spencer was to highlight gluten-free products. A loaf of GF bread costs 120 crowns ($6), three times the normal price, but hey it's the thought that counts! Photo by Mark Baker.
"Chunky”? “Layered”? "Moroccan-Style"?? Whoever writes the labels at Marks & Spencer obviously has never met an adjective he or she didn't like. And that's fine with me! Photo by Mark Baker.

All of this would have been quickly forgotten and never would have made it into my blog if it wasn’t for the rather cold, unsympathetic reply I got from a Marks & Spencer service rep, in response to a complaint email I sent the next day.

I made a resolution this year that I’m going to give feedback regularly when I feel something isn’t right. I’ll never write a nasty or angry letter, but simply state the facts as I see them and suggest ways I think a situation could have been better handled. How can anyone expect anything to improve if they don’t bother to point out the shortcomings, right?

In my complaint, I pointed out I understood the need for security and the guards were professional and polite. I also pointed out, though, that I was a regular customer and had purchased over 2,500 crowns ($120 worth) of groceries on that particular trip. I wasn’t going to steal a piece of steak or a chicken breast.

I could have also added “BTW, I’m your greatest fan ever in Prague!” but I figured they’d find that out once they looked at my customer-loyalty card and saw the pathetically long string of purchases I'd made the past year. Well, anyway, I was disappointed by the response, part of which I include here:

“It's a shame the till didn't deactivate the security tag on your steak and I'm pleased to hear the staff in store were able to identify which item it was and remove the tag. I've spoken with the management team in store so they can look into the matter further and I'd like to assure you, they'll take appropriate action if they feel the highest level of service isn't being provided.”

Despite their assurances, that email left me under-assured. It was a modern, corporate take (30 years after the Velvet Revolution) on the classic, communist "bohužel" -- an all-too familiar Czech word that translates literally as "unfortunately," but often strikes the ears more like: "hey dude not our problem." At M&S, they obviously put more effort into those baby beetroots than they do customer emails.

No harm, no foul, right? I'd love to have gotten a little gift voucher and a cheerful "we value your business!" response, but the guards were just doing their job and didn't know me from Adam, as they say. And let's be real. Until the guys over at Kaufland step up their game, the good people at Marks & Spencer know very well I’ll be back for more of that Moroccan-style houmous -- and probably very soon!

Comments

  1. Dear readers,

    A real-time update: Shortly after posting a link to this blog post on Twitter, I received the following message from “Nikki,” who apparently works in customer service at Marks & Spencer. She wrote:

    “I’m concerned to read about your experience Mark and we’d like to look into this further. Please can you DM me your contact details (email address and phone number) so I can arrange for our team to contact you? Thanks – Nikki”

    I was happy and surprise, and responded by telling her I didn’t consider it a big deal and was merely trying to write a humorous blog past. Nevertheless, as she asked, I have now sent a DM with my contact details. I’m awaiting their response. We strive to be transparent here at markbakerprague.com, and I will paste any responses I get from M&S management here in the comments field.

    Mark Baker

  2. I bought a rather expensive overcoat at Selfridge’s at Christmas and they failed to remove the security pin in the fabric. I had to go back to have it removed and received a verbal apology but I went further and wrote an email to them saying for the price it shouldn’t have happened. I got back another apology which appeared to be cut and pasted. Customer service, whether here in the UK or in Prague, has many varying levels of quality, it seems. Well written!

    • Thanks Doug! That first response I got from customer service did seem like pasted out of some handbook for dealing with customer issues. I am really curious what the response will be, after the store saw my story on Twitter. I will post their response here in the comments page.

  3. Great write-up Mark. Sorry for your unfortunate experience. I would not have been so patient with them! 30 minutes is a long time to go through this unnecessary ordeal.

    • :))) I actually started to feel sorry for the guards. They took some pleasure in busting me, but it can’t be a very satisfying job

  4. Dear readers,

    This morning (January 22), I received the following email from Lindsay Poole, with the Executive Team at Marks & Spencer. Although it wasn’t really the point of my story to wring any type of concession from M&S, it looks as if they are doing their best to respond responsibly (and I applaud them for that). I promised transparency in this post and here below is their email in full:

    “Dear Mr Baker,

    I work in our Executive team and wanted to contact you about your recent visit to our store on Wenceslas Square. I am so very sorry to read about the way in which your visit to our store ended unpleasantly, and I understand you are feeling let down again by the way in which my colleagues at Retail Customer Services have handled the matter. As this matter relates to one of our International stores, this should have been forwarded to our specialist team. I have therefore reported the details to them and requested that they contact you. I also want to assure you that my colleagues in Retail Customer Services have been reminded of this process and we will monitor this closely going forward. I hope this won’t deter you from continuing to shop in our Wenceslas Square store and thank you for bringing it to our attention.”

    Lindsay Poole

  5. Dear readers,

    I promised to keep you all up to date on Marks & Spencer’s response to this post, especially following from my correspondence with the M&S Executive Team and Ms Lindsay Poole. As I mentioned to her and in previous comments here, it wasn’t the intention of my post to wring any concessions from M&S; my point was simply to tell a ridiculous story of modern life in which the biggest M&S fan in Prague is shaken down and detained for allegedly ripping off a rib-eye. Since the company offered, however, to somehow “make it up to me,” I’ve decided to take them at their word and see what happens.

    In my last correspondence a week ago, M&S said they were referring the matter to their “International Team” and would be contacting me shortly. They told me if I hadn’t heard anything in a few days, I should send a note to remind them. Today, I sent a reminder email to let them know that all I’m getting from their side is radio silence. In response, I received this comical email signed by none other than the Chairman of Marks & Spencer himself, Mr Archibald (Archie) John Norman. I reprint it here for your amusement:

    “Dear Mr Baker,

    Thank you very much for contacting me. We are very keen to hear from all our customers and shareholders and appreciate you making the effort to write to me. I am sure you will understand that we receive a huge amount of feedback so cannot respond to every contact straight away. However, we do read every single one and a member of our team will be in touch shortly.

    Thank you again.

    Archie Norman
    Chairman”

  6. Dear readers,

    The saga continues. Late last night I received this email from Mr. Mitchell Long, another member of the M&S Executive Team, who is “very sorry” that I have not heard anything from the International Team. It’s starting to resemble an episode of Monty Python.

    “Dear Mr Baker

    Thank you for your email, I am sorry to hear that you have not yet heard from our international team. I have again contacted them and asked that they get back to you with urgency. If we can do anything else to help, please let us know. Thanks again, I wish you a pleasant evening.

    Kind regards

    Mitchell Long
    Executive Team
    Your M&S Customer Service”

  7. Dear readers,

    It had been almost a week since I received the message above from Mr Mitchell Long telling me that Marks and Spencer’s International Team would get back to me “with urgency”. I was curious as to what was taking them so long, so I wrote them this afternoon (Tuesday February 5) and asked what was up. A couple of hours later, I received this response from Mr. Gary Bragg of the Executive Team:

    “Good Afternoon Mr Baker

    I’m so sorry to hear you’ve not yet received a response from our International team, please accept my sincere apologies. My colleague Mitchell isn’t in the office until this evening, so I’ll let him know you’ve been back in touch, and he’ll get back to you very soon.

    Kind regards

    Gary Bragg
    Executive Team
    Your M&S Customer Service”

  8. Dear readers,

    I originally published this in January. It caught the eye that same day of a member of the Marks & Spencer “Executive Team,” “Nikki.” Over Twitter, she expressed concern about the incident and asked me to provide contact details, with the implied assertion that the Executive Team would take a closer look (and maybe even give me a free bon-bon for my troubles.) I was reluctant to do this, at first, because as I tried to make clear in the post, the whole affair was more amusing and ironic than it was angering or troubling.

    I was curious, though, to see how the M&S Executive Team would respond, so I sent her my email contacts.

    In the month or so since then, it’s been a total clown-car episode of customer service. Each couple of days, I would receive an email from a different member of the Executive Team (there must be hundreds of team members). Each email would thank me for my patronage, apologize for the delay, and promise to relay my concern to the “International Team” — yet another team — to take action very soon.

    Yesterday, I received the following final email. It seems the International Team has assessed my grievance and found it to be baseless. This is Mr Mitchell Long, one of new buddies on the M&S Executive Team, writing to give me the bad news. (Guys, wouldn’t it have been easier just to send me a bon-bon??) 🙂

    “Dear Mr Baker,

    Thank you for your patience and understanding whilst we have been speaking with our international team.
    Unfortunately, they have reviewed your original email and whilst they are sorry to hear of your experience, they can only re-iterate the response sent to you on the 9th January. I have copied this email below. I am sorry that we cannot advise any further on this occasion. I hope that you enjoy your weekend.

    Kind regards,
    Mitchell Long
    Executive Team
    Your M&S Customer Service

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Photo of Mark Baker
About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker