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SNCF partners with tobacconists to launch new 'customer conquest' plan

Bertrand Guay / AFP | People wait for trains at Gare de Lyon in Paris on July 5, 2019, at the start of the busiest weekend of the French summer holidays.

After hours-long queues to buy tickets caused frustration for both customers and vendors in France, railway giant SNCF is enlisting dozens of tobacconists to test a new business strategy that they hope will win them thousands of new customers.

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The last way travellers want to spend precious minutes of their summer vacation is queuing inside a crowded train station, exchanging sweat drops and swear words.

But this past week, thousands of residents and visitors to France have been doing just that. Queues over three hours and nearly 100 metres long are the result of the termination of 5,000 ticket vendors over the past few years, coupled with the rise in train travel as voyagers try to cross the country as quickly and cheaply as possible. However, incredulity and frustration have been mounting as passengers realise that the queue could last longer than their trip will.

“It’s mind-blowing, this queue never ends. I told myself that some of these people must be waiting for their trains, but no,” said one traveller to RTL at Paris's Gare de Lyon train station.

In a first response to the chaos taking over train stations across the country, the National Society of French Railroads/Railways (SNCF) pledged to send reinforcements to their ticket window to help manage the crowds.

“We have already increased our ticket-vending teams and will continue doing so to accommodate the increase in customers during this vacation season,” assured Eric Steil, director of marketing for SNCF’s regional express transport, or TER, trains.

However, the SNCF announced a longer-term solution on Monday as part of their campaign to become more accessible to a wider-range of customers: their TER trains will begin using buralistes (tobacconists)to sell tickets.

Tobacco in one hand, ticket in the other

Buralistes are the ubiquitous French corner stores where residents can make a quick pit-stop to pick up anything from their morning paper to their nightly smoke. And starting this summer, five “test regions” across the country will be able to purchase train tickets there as well.

A statement from the SNCF and the Confederation of Buralistes reports that “a joint project is currently under way to identify the needs of each region and of interested buralistes in five test zones: Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Grand Est, Pays de la Loire, Normandy, and Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA)".

Eric Steil told FRANCE 24 that the first ticket sales would be unveiled at select buralistes at the end of the summer, and that sales would continue into the autumn months to accommodate the famous -- and famously busy -- back-to-school season, known in France as la rentrée.

“We’re planning to enlist 50-100 buralistes right now, and then if all goes well we’ll increase that number to create a full-fledged program by 2020,” Steil said, though he emphasised that, “it’s less about establishing as many vending locations as possible and more about partnering with each region to respond directly to their needs.” According to their statement, the SNCF is hopeful that their client-first strategy will earn the company over 200,000 more daily travellers by 2025.

Everybody’s favourite corner store

Buralistes embody easy-access commerce,” extolled SNCF in their statement. “They open early and close late every day of the week, and the average resident in France lives no more than 10 minutes away from the closest corner store.”

The statement went so far as to call the sale of train tickets at corner stores “a vector for linking distant or underprivileged communities”, but Steil sees the train-buraliste partnership as advantageous for a different reason.

Buralistes are a good option -- particularly for people who might not be as in touch with technology or have access to smartphones,” Steil said. ”For some people, face-to-face interaction is still very important, and the beauty of buralistes is that the people who work there are often community members who already have the trust of their customers.”

And, of course, buralistes present a welcome alternative for those who lack the ability -- or desire -- to wait in three-hour queues for a train ticket.

“It’s fine for me,” a man in the queue at Gare de Lyon told RTL, “but with the heat, for older or handicapped people it’s not ideal.”

Danger for ticket salesmen?

Some worry that if the SNCF’s new partnership with buralistes becomes too successful, it could put even more ticket salesmen out of work. The railway union SUD-Rail laments “permanent tension, conflict, and aggression” in train stations as a result of an inadequate number of employees.

“SNCF is firing employees and closing ticket counters… in certain regions, it’s no longer possible to buy train tickets in over 30% of train stations,” said the union in a statement.

SUD-Rail added that SNCF “refuses to hire ticket salesmen to reduce wait times, and prefers to send them to the boarding platform or the welcome desk. They are securing their bottom line while their employees suffer!”

However, Steil assures that the new changes are unlikely to cause any competition.

“The goal of this new partnership is not to squeeze ticket vendors out of their jobs,” he said. “Of course, in communities where corner stores are already an important part of the community, this new measure is likely to be quite successful, and so we do have to ask ourselves what the risk will be. But it shouldn’t be a problem in the majority of cases.”

And at any rate, the ticket vendors who do remain at the other end of the queue seem like they’ll be relieved to have help from buralistes, at least in the short-term.

“Every day I have to deal with a**holes,” one Gare de Lyon ticket vendor told RTL. “When it’s the tenth one in a row and it’s the end of the day, you start to lose your patience. And when people have been waiting three hours, it only makes everything worse.”

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