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Shopping For Great Service in Grocery Stores

When it comes to shopping for groceries, it has become about much more than just putting food in a cart and driving home.

There are a wide array of great experiences out there now in the grocery marketplace, and there is likely a little something that each retailer can learn from another.  I think most of us establish a “favorite” grocery store and remain fairly loyal to that store for the most part.  As someone who has lived all over the country, I have had many “favorite” stores over the years as I’ve moved around.

I have had most of my experience with Kroger, Wal-Mart, Target, Meijer, Whole Foods, and Publix as my go-to stores for grocery shopping.  Each brings some fantastic best practices that can’t be denied in terms of impact.  For example, Kroger is a brand I grew up with being from the mid-west and their current model not only takes into account America’s new love affair with take and make products, but they have also added a wine and craft beer bar right in the middle of some of their stores.  I have literally shopped for groceries while enjoying a local ale – talk about stress free shopping.  I also can tell you that Publix not only features some of the highest quality grocery items, but they win my loyalty as the store with the friendliest overall service.

So what does this all mean for the grocery industry?  Well, there are some interesting trends out there that deliver service and experiences that can differentiate stores in the marketplace.

Before we go any further, in case you missed the previous week’s industry articles, you can get caught up here:

Let’s dive in and talk about what grocery stores need to have in their cart to deliver great service:

THE MISSION As we discussed with restaurants, food is a very personal thing.  We end up loyal to brands and products many times not because of taste or quality, but because of a memory they invoke.  We may love the spaghetti sauce that our moms bought growing up or the gherkins our grandmothers put on the holiday relish tray.  Suffice it to say, we all have food baggage and retailers can use that to create emotional connections.  Remembering that the samplings that people poke fun at create smells, sounds, and tastes that really can help folks connect stores with nourishment and safety.  That is a powerful way to grow Guest loyalty.

Also, there is a resurgence in home cooking, but sadly also a perceived lack of time from most folks today.  That is a dichotomy that is resolving itself by meals that are almost ready to serve.  We’ll dive into that a little later in the article.

To find true success, embrace the spirit of the Grocer.

Historically, the grocer or general store was a place that the town could buy staples and even some perishable items.  The core of this analogy is that it was also seen as a gather place, a source of community, and a place that brought people together.  Embrace that spirit by having wine tastings, samplings, and cooking demonstrations – and you’ll find that you are seen as a part of the family, not just a retailer.

THE GUEST PERSPECTIVE Today’s Customer is definitely looking for ease of use.  As you embrace this spirit of the community grocer, remember that the tenants of great service will make you successful here, too.  There is a local grocery store chain in Perrysburg, OH called Walt Churchills that really nails this idea of putting the Customer at the center of everything.  They always have enough cashiers open, still bag orders quickly and with a smile, and have folks ready to help you to your car.  The best part about that last piece, is that you don’t have to ask them – they offer every time.  What a great little piece of service that goes a long way toward them being one of my all time favorite grocery stores.

Another service piece that will inspire your Customers to come back again and again is the spirit of helpfulness.  When Associates are roaming the aisles and asking Guests if they need help finding something, that really goes a long way – but then they actually have to know wheres stuff is located.  Marshmallow fluff?  Aisle 6 by the baking items.  Fish sticks? Aisle 12 next to the frozen dinners.  Being able to help a frustrated shopper find what they need when they are in a hurry is something they won’t soon forget.  Although skip the fish sticks, please.

The keys to delighting your Guests are product knowledge, fantastic courtesy, and a desire to make their shopping experience as effortless as possible.

THE PITFALLS There are a few potential pitfalls that grocery stores have to crack to be successful – and these issues aren’t necessarily exclusive to this industry.

The first is lines.  There is no doubt that when you shop for groceries, the most frustrating part can be checking out.  The hassle of checking out can be something that folks dread, and its a code that grocers must solve to be successful.  First, the check out process has to be fast – which means labeling, systems, and cashiers who crush it when it comes to through put.  Second, the ratio of self service vs traditional check out lanes has to be right.  Folks like me will happily opt for self service for small shopping trips or uncomplicated items, but will often want a human cashier for larger excursions or when there are lots of “look up” items such as produce, deli, or butcher shop.

Second is organization.  Typically there is a method to the way grocery stores are laid out.  The thing to remember here is that you have to crawl inside of shopper’s heads and really think like a harried parent trying to get the food in the cart when you set up your stores.  Too often I spent time looking for an item that ends up being someplace that makes zero sense to me as a Customer.  Certainly the person who sets the store thought it was appropriate, but that is where understanding your Guest comes in handy.  Do they think the maple syrup should be near the pancake mix or the corn syrup?

HOW TO WIN: Remember that there is a new found love for folks to cook at home.  Providing a way for folks to easily put a meal on the table that they created themselves is a powerful gift to parents and spouses.  I can tell you that for me, a way I show I care is to feed people.  There is something special about creating a meal for someone and then sharing it with them over smiles and conversations.  That is key – to help people fit that rewarding feeling into their day.  As companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh gain market share by shipping items ready to cook, there is a powerful opportunity for stores to be in this lane, too.  It could take the form of the beef stew kit at the meat counter that has the vegetables, seasoning, and vegetables all in one pack ready to go in the slow cooker.  That is a meal perfect to simmer all day while someone is at work and to be ready when everyone gets home in the evening.  It could also be a very hands-on dish like risotto or noodle bowls that can be a shared family cooking experience.  Finally there are the home meal replacement items that have popularity on nights when cooking isn’t an option and take out doesn’t sound good – this is the pizza ready to bake, the whole rotisserie chickens, or the slab of ribs – all ready to take home and serve with minimal preparation.  I have even seen locations that have small food courts where you can pack up Chinese food, burrito bowls, and subs ready to serve as well – again blurring the gap between take out and grocery shopping.  The magic here is that, for consumers, it doesn’t feel like “eating out” when you buy even a pre-made item in a grocery store.  So that is a definite way to win loyalty with perception.

Thank you to all the grocers out there – from the multi chain juggernauts to the local stores – for serving us diligently and often, even on holidays, so that we can cook for our families and feed them well.

So while your Guests are filling up their carts and rushing to get home to their families, remember to treat them like cherished friends.

Next week we will dive into the world of home improvement stores.  As someone who recently finished up an extensive home renovation, I can tell you that I have some very personal market research on this topic.


Tony Johnson is a Customer Experience Expert, Keynote Speaker, and Author with a wide background including decades in retail and restaurants.  He regularly speaks and coaches organizations to IGNITE THEIR SERVICE PASSION using his common sense approach to Customer engagement.  Tony has spoken to government agencies and Fortune 500 companies to unlock their amazing capacity for excellence.

Check out Tony’s FREE Resources and Training Tools: Web: YouTube: Twitter:

Check out Tony’s book: RECIPE FOR SERVICE Now Available on

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