As Focus DIY implodes as gracelessly as a cowpat laid in slow-motion on a landmine, its second attempt at a CVA (or is it the third?) rejected by creditors sufficiently impatient that they might be mistaken for Focus customers, it’s worth reflecting on what a miserable experience shopping there has always been. In this way we can prevent attention from being deflected from Focus’ basic failure as a capitalist enterprise. Commentators might talk about airier, more excusable concepts like cash flow and credit; but from where I’m looking it seemed Focus failed while others succeeded, not because of lack of consumer confidence in the industry as a whole, but because everyone specifically hated going to Focus.
Focus has always been shit. Years ago it bought Do It All, a chain with such a reputation for being incapable of keeping enough stock in that my in-laws used to call it Bugger All. The Bugger All shops thus became Focus, and managed to belie such arbitrary nomenclature to the extent that we’ve always called the local one Out Of Focus. This is a shop which celebrated being selected as preferred supplier on vouchers by the local council for half price loft insulation, by being out of stock of the insulation rolls on offer for the entire duration of the deal.
The last time I ever visited Focus was an archetypally grim experience. I had already been out to their desultory “nursery” to look at pot plants that, taken together, exhibited all of the warning signs I’d recently read about in a Gardener’s World book about buying second-rate plants. It was almost as though Focus had thought to provide an object lesson on a DVD accompanying the book. After giving up, I headed back into the store to get a replacement plastic edging seal for a shower screen, but couldn’t find anything in the handful of places dotted round the store that it might have been; not even among the shower screens and rubber bath sealant.
I went over to the customer information desk. Three or four members of staff were stood around chatting and leaning as if every day were Permanent Lunch Break Day. When I dared to ask them where I might get a shower seal, they clearly resented the interruption. One chap flatly refused to even meet my eye, looking across me as he spoke to a colleague, as if she had asked the question and not me. With his floury, doughy rolls of flesh and oily spiked hair, he looked like someone had put a bacon roll in a Focus branded T-shirt.
He gave his colleague – probably an underling, who looked less like a bacon roll and more like some sort of stacked pudding topped with hair – an oily leer as he told her very pointedly that shower seals were over in bathrooms. Then he continued to ignore my presence, lest I ask him personally to stir his stumps and waddle over to show me. Reluctantly, Hairy Pudding shuffled out from her colleague’s continued gaze, round the information desk, and shambled away. She also wouldn’t meet my eye, but spoke to the air around her, repeating that it was on the bathroom aisle. I mentioned that I’d already been there, but nobody was holding a séance for the ghost of custom past that day, so it went unheard.
I followed her in the hope that she was actually showing me the way and not merely going off on her break. She eventually shuffled some way along to the bathroom aisle and pointed to the tubes of rubber sealant, like someone showing a local newspaper where something traumatic had occurred and needed photographing. She said “all right then?” at the shelves and started to rotate back towards the direction she had come from. I don’t know how the shelves felt about it, but I just despaired. When two different types of DIY-related pastry product have agreed between them that you’re some silly timewasting fool of a customer and basically are desperate for some of their wheaten help, it’s useless to argue. Apart from anything else, when I turned to look directly at her, Hairy Pudding was already making her way back to the desk and her sweatily flirtatious chat with Bacon Roll.
I had found two of the five things I’d gone to Focus for. Of the remaining three, I demonstrably couldn’t get the staff to show me any bathroom seals they might or might not have; I didn’t trust the shabby plants to do anything but die; and I knew that if I asked for the plastic edging that everyone involved in this sorry pretence at a commercial enterprise had avoided putting out where it was meant to go in order to be actually purchased, then I would just be prolonging my agony. I abandoned my trolley and whatever was in it, and left the store empty-handed.
Trying to shop in Focus was always like having your teeth pulled, in the most patronising manner, and by someone who given enough persistent prompting would finally roll their eyes towards a screen and then explain that they were all out of anaesthetic but they might have a delivery in on Thursday. When I first heard that they might be closing down, I briefly imagined it might be good to go there for bargains, but quickly regained my senses. The normally awful experience of going to Focus would be rendered far worse by the staff having a good reason to be so lackadaisical, the shelves having good reason to not be stocked with anything you might want, and the customers having good reason for feeling desperate and glum. We stayed in.