Harvey Norman has scored the poorest customer service rating of Australia's major retailers, in a new survey by consumer advocate group Choice.
The group used shadow shoppers to rate the customer service performance of 10 of the biggest retailers, including Myer, David Jones, Target and JB Hi-Fi.
While Harvey Norman received the worst feedback, Choice said the majority of stores surveyed provided a ''frustrating'' shopping experience, with staff frequently ignoring customers and showing a lack of product knowledge.
Struggling department stores Myer and David Jones also received poor report cards. In particular, shoppers consistently complained of sales assistants engaging in conversation with each other while they waited for service.
Earlier this month, both retailers signalled an increase in staff costs to improve customer service after reporting declines in annual earnings, partly due to increased competition from online.
A Choice spokeswoman, Ingrid Just, said the results were surprising, given the challenges facing traditional retailers.
''The key advantage bricks and mortar stores have over online retailers is providing face-to-face customer service and product knowledge but, in many cases, this does not appear to be happening on a consistent basis.''
She said retailers who could previously ''get away with poor service'' now had to rethink their commitment to service given online and overseas competition.
''Retailers who are laying the blame at online shopping for poor sales without also reviewing things within their control, like improving customer service, are not helping themselves in this increasingly competitive environment,'' she said.
The outspoken chairman of Harvey Norman, Gerry Harvey - who has loudly but, so far, unsuccessfully campaigned for a reduction in the GST-free threshold on overseas online purchases - said the results of the Choice survey contradicted the feedback he received from customers.
''The level of feedback we're getting shows that our level of service is fantastic,'' he said yesterday. ''I admit that it's probably not fantastic in every store, all of the time, and I don't think any retailer could claim that. But we do devote a lot [of] time to service.''
Ms Just said it was not a lack of staff that was the problem at Harvey Norman, it was lack of contact with customers.
Big W, Target and Dick Smith received better feedback.
Bunnings was the stand-out performer, shoppers reporting ''friendly, helpful and knowledgeable'' staff.