Learning from life: what I learnt from supermarket shopping

Blue background with small tiles on with arrows. One is an X and breaks the progress of the line. Symbolising barriers in work.

This month Michelle Parry-Slater reflects on a poor experience and reveals the lessons learnt from the situation

Recently I went to a very popular supermarket, and it was awful. The shelves were largely empty. The stock was messy and hard to find. Some areas were really cramped with hardly enough space to turn a trolley around, while other spaces were vast with little filling the shelves.

It is an occupational hazard that whenever I receive bad service I am constantly thinking about their L&D team!

The staff were unhelpful, not rude, but simply not considerate of the customer – having conversations over customers, helping but not engaging, present but not present. I’m sure many of you recognise the potential here for some great learning. It is an occupational hazard that whenever I receive bad service I am constantly thinking about their L&D team!

My first hurdle was I needed a trolley coin, they aren’t needed in my local branch, so I didn’t have one. I asked to buy/borrow one, but they didn’t sell them. What was I to do? It is a familiar story, often we leave people to learn how to solve their challenges, and in the void of support, people find their own way. It can feel frustrating, slow, and doesn’t always end in the right result.

It was suggested I go outside to find the trolley guy for an unlocked cart. Despite five minutes of searching I didn’t come across him – more frustration. It reminds me of when we leave learners to search for content. Five minutes easily turns into fifty, and still no results.

Not-so-great expectations

I returned to the store where I asked a supervisor for help. They instantly took me to unlock a trolley. Why hadn’t this direct help been the first option? How often are we annoying learners by not meeting their expectations first time?

The supervisor didn’t ask what trolley size I wanted, as she continued talking to a colleague over me! So my preferred large one became the small one I was given. By this point I was already deep into frustrated amazement, so I simply took the trolley and considered a smaller shop a bonus to me and their loss. When we don’t meet our learner’s expectations, we are leaving them disengaged. The chances of our learning sticking are negligible as people are too annoyed or frustrated to learn.

I proceeded around the store to experience the lack of choice in the jarring layouts which pushed my habitual shopping habits away and made me think way too hard for an evening after a long day at work. It simply wasn’t easy to get the job done. Like logging into an LMS portal without single sign on. Or reading an instruction manual which is not well written. When there are barriers to learning, it becomes cognitive overload.

Can’t see the problem for the trolleys

This poorly run store clearly had issues. I could see them – disengaged staff, lack of customer focus and experience, poor stock control, poorly informed staff, lack of care. Yet they could not see these problems. As I meandered around, I thought of digital learning platforms, something often associated with the assumptions of a bad experience – the barriers to entry, too many clicks, hard to find what you want. Why can’t these be seen by the platform creators? These all detract from the habit of learning, and making learning habitual is vital for ongoing continued professional development. We need to balance ease and usefulness. Make things easy for people – they have enough on their plate! We need to think about how useful it is to access learning, engage with it and make sense of it in our context.

I regularly encourage people to stop being shopkeepers in L&D – to move away from selling courses. To serve our customers what they really need through data gathering, strategic understanding, and consultative questioning. How easy is it to ‘shop’ in your L&D shop? If people are facing barriers before they have started their engagement will be as low as a grocery shopper without a trolley coin.


Michelle Parry-Slater

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