All regular readers of this blog must know by now that I'm a big fan of Waitrose! I have been ever since I parted from M---. She liked Tesco; I didn't, and immediately voted with my feet. I have the Waitrose app on my phone (to locate branches while on holiday) and I have a 'My Waitrose' card in my purse. I shop at Waitrose twice a week, every three or four days, and have done so continuously since 2009. I'm a very loyal customer.
And indeed my face is known at my local store. A year and a half ago, when they were finishing the rebuild, any customer whose face was recognised was given extra discount vouchers to keep them content while the last of some rather aggravating finishing touches were made, and the shelves restocked. One chap saw me and said, 'Oh, you're one of our regulars! Have a couple of vouchers!' Thanks very much. I think they were worth £10 each. I ended up with several. That save me a bit, all because I had become well-known as a regular customer.
Just to round off my eulogy, I would summarise the things I particularly like about Waitrose as follows:
# It has an upmarket feel.
# I really like its atmosphere. I feel welcome there. It's my kind of store.
# The staff are generally very pleasant and helpful - and friendly. I usually have a very quick chat with them on the fish and deli counters, or at the checkout.
# And not infrequently with other customers too! It's almost a social occasion at times.
# It is always well-stocked with quality goods.
I completely agree that Waitrose isn't cheap. I find it's very easy to spend a bit more than I intended. But look: I can afford it, and for the extra spend I get excellent quality, and a satisfying shopping experience.
Except for one niggling thing...
Over the last two years, something has gone wrong with the semi-skimmed (green-top) milk sold at Waitrose at Burgess Hill. It happens nowhere else. Every now and then I open a two-pint plastic bottle of Waitrose fresh milk taken home from Burgess Hill and find that it has gone off - it's sour. Ugh! I have to pour the entire bottle away down the sink. What a waste! That's roughly £1 down the drain - not much, not enough to make it cost-effective to jump in the car and drive to Burgess Hill to complain. I usually discover this late at night, anyway. But it's annoying.
'Every now and then' can in fact mean 'every week'. I get through a lot of fresh milk. I will consume two bottles in three days, or three bottles in four days. Say ten pints of fresh milk every week, just for myself. Half of that is consumed cold from the fridge, in a glass, as a refreshing drink. I've been drinking fresh cold milk in quantity - a pint a day - ever since my teens. All that calcium! No wonder I've got robust bones! The rest mostly goes in cups of tea, or is poured onto cereal.
What I'm saying is that I never have 'old milk' in my fridge. It's consumed within two or three days of purchase, and always well before the sell-by date.
The taste of the milk I buy matters hugely to me. It's got to taste right. My palate is trained to perfection where fresh milk is concerned. I can detect even a subtle deviation from proper freshness. I pay great attention to the sell-by date, and always pick bottles from deep inside a cold cabinet, where its coldest, and not those at the front, where it might be not quite so cold. I'm über-particular, perhaps, but since cold, refreshing milk is one of my substitutes for booze at home, I want it to be perfect. Any suggestion of sourness spoils its drinkability.
Well, two nights ago I was halfway through an opened (but supposedly still very fresh) bottle of milk, and found it sour. With a sigh, I poured that one away. I opened another Waitrose bottle bought on the same day, with the same sell-by date. That was sour too. Damn. Fortunately I had just topped up with fresh milk supplies from the village supermarket. I opened one of those, and it was excellent, just as it should be.
But I'd now had enough of dodgy milk from Waitrose. No more of it. They were supposed to be so good. This was a basic failure that should not be.
Why was the milk from Waitrose at Burgess Hill (and only Burgess Hill) not always perfect?
It seemed telling that milk from Waitrose at Worthing and Lewes (and every other Waitrose I'd ever been to) was always fine. Something must be happening at Burgess Hill to spoil it. Not every time, but more often than I felt was in any way reasonable. I decided to get my milk elsewhere in future. And then I thought: Waitrose ought to be told about this failing. It might be a simple error in handling it when delivered, that had not been seen and corrected. Whatever it was, I'd speak to them, so that they could try to fix the problem, if they didn't already know about it.
So this afternoon I mentioned the matter at Customer Services. Not belligerently - very much on a friendly basis. I wasn't looking for refunds or compensation. Just some attention. And some action, to get things right for the future...
Oh no, it couldn't possibly be their in-store handling! It was explained to me that as soon as it was offloaded from the delivery lorry, the milk was always put straight into their cold store, and it stayed there until trundled out on a trolley into the retail area - and of course it was kept chilled while on display.
Possibly it had been contaminated further up the chain of supply - they'd gladly test it, if brought an offending sample back to the store.
In any case, no other customer had ever complained about sour milk. I must just have been terribly unlucky over the last two years.
In short: we cannot be at fault locally. Denial, without actually checking. What should be, must be. Despite ample evidence in the world at large that setting up 'foolproof' procedures and standards is not enough - they must be constantly policed, in case mistakes creep in.
I'm not saying that the odd batch of milk couldn't be contaminated, but it seems unlikely for two reasons: (a) I don't have this problem at other nearby Waitrose stores, who presumably use milk from the same supplier; and (b) milk production is in any case automated from cow to bottle, and therefore it's a strong assumption that the processing is consistently ultra-hygienic and contamination-free. To me, harm to the milk seems much more likely where human beings get involved, physically moving it from spot to spot. And occasionally - or even regularly, who knows - letting it queue up for a while where it might warm up a bit. The unloading bay at Burgess Hill faces south, and is a sunny place...
I left my name and full contact details for a manager to get back to me, but I doubt whether anything will happen.
And that would be a pity. It doesn't take much to get nudged into new shopping habits. I don't want to abandon Waitrose at Burgess Hill, but it'll be awkward getting most things there, but my milk elsewhere. Even a staunch customer would get fed up with that. How long before I want to buy everything, milk included, from another store entirely - not Tesco, but Sainsbury's, say? Or, if I don't want to drive so far, then Budgens, who also have some of that well-stocked 'delicatessen' feel that makes Waitrose so appealing?