Service isn't what it used to be -- but that's a good thing, retailers tell SN.
Industry competition, labor shortages and changes in consumer shopping habits have all forced supermarket operators to re-assess their service strategies. In some cases, margin-sensitive retailers have opted to highlight convenience by implementing more self-service venues. Others have chosen to reinforce their traditional service departments with upgrades.
But several progressive retailers have acknowledged the hurdles and have simply decided it's time to rewrite the rules.
Hannaford Bros., at a new prototype store in West Falmouth Crossing, Maine, has unveiled a different approach to service in its bakery. Here, the chain has opted in favor of strategically placing two customer-oriented experts -- a full-time bread captain and a full-time cake coordinator -- out on the department floor. Their major responsibility is to interact with customers, and also to indirectly show other associates how to deal with customers, officials said.
"We've redefined 'service' for our purposes. It's not the traditional service counter where people have to take a number and wait to tell someone what they want. They do enough standing in line," said Dave Duley, bakery category manager for the Scarborough, Maine-based chain.
Instead, these associates specifically "encourage them to try things, to help them decide what to buy and to answer their questions."
At other supermarkets, meat departments are cranking up service levels even as the rows of case-ready, self-service cuts grow. That's to create difference and to add variety, retailers and industry experts said. Seafood directors are actively looking to implement all kinds of interaction to boost sales "because seafood just doesn't sell itself."
In produce, the need for service-oriented associates has grown along with the variety of items, retailers told SN.
"It's not just apples and oranges and potatoes anymore. The influx of new items coming into produce every year is immense, and people are doing recreational cooking. They're watching the Food Channel and downloading recipes from the Internet. They want to try new things, but they need help" in the supermarket, said Michael Lohinetz, produce manager, at a high-volume Acme store in Wilmington, Del.
While the deli has traditionally been characterized by a service counter, these other departments, in many cases, have become ground zero for new strategies developed by retailers facing staffing challenges and a tight field of price-driven competitors, according to Jim Riesenburger, managing partner, at Riesenburger Leenhouts & Associates, LLC, a Rochester, NY, consulting firm that works with supermarkets.
"Interaction between personnel and the consumer is paramount, especially in these days of consolidation and competition. Supermarkets need to build a point of differentiation and that can only be done by exceeding customers' expectations of customer service," Riesenburger said.
Any business textbook notes that interaction is proven to increase the ring and the frequency of transactions, he added. And what's more, it can help sell higher-margin products, thus boosting overall profitability.
"Customers need somebody to talk to. They want to know how to prepare things, and they want to know what pairs with what. They're looking for information, for solutions. If they don't get that attention in the supermarket, they'll go to a store that will provide it." Everybody knows the labor shortage makes it particularly difficult to offer exemplary customer service, but Lohinetz at Acme claims it's up to the leader -- the department manager and his full-time deputies -- to set the pace and keep it going.
"I have a lot of high school kids working for me part time and now in the summer I try to schedule some of them during the day while I'm here so I can can teach them something about the business. And I make sure that I have a full-time person on every night of the week," he said, pointing out that the full-timers coach the part-timers.
"I just tell them it's important they do that because down the road it'll make their own job easier."
Lohinetz also tells his associates on each shift to just keep their eyes open and if they see a customer who looks a bit stumped they should ask if they can help them find something or choose the right item. Lohinetz also is apt to tell an associate he's putting him or her in charge of a particular display for the afternoon -- to keep it stocked, looking nice, and maybe encourage customers to try the product.
He doesn't give his associates sales goals, but he said, "I tell them the more business we do in the department, the more hours I can use next week so they're happy if they can get a customer spend another dollar in our department."
Lohinetz has an upbeat attitude that undoubtedly makes associates feel comfortable. And he said he tries to make their job less intimidating by telling them if they don't know the answer to a customer's question they should ask him or another full-timer or go to the produce book for the answer. The encyclopedic guide is provided by an industry association, and is positioned in the department where both customers and associates have access to it.
"I tell them I didn't know lettuce from cabbage when I started in this business 30 years ago. It takes a little time," he said.
Another produce manager, Randy Stephens, at Terrel's Thriftway, Mount Pleasant, Utah, told SN demonstrating a product not only gives the customer a taste of something they might not have tried, but it also makes it easy for associates to interact with the customer. It acts as a sort of prop -- a conversation piece -- to break the ice. He's been choosing items more and more frequently to be demonstrated because it has a good effect all around, he said. The activity also adds life to a department that is vibrant in color and variety, but short on action, he added.
Stephens also said that just this year he's begun scheduling his associates so that there's always somebody on the floor.
"We always have someone available in the department to help customers. We used to have a two-hour gap when there was nobody there, but not anymore."
Having someone capable of initiating interaction with the customer could not be more important anywhere than in the seafood department, retailers and industry experts told SN.
"First and foremost, seafood doesn't sell itself. Those fish don't jump into the grocery cart. They have to be sold because people are just not confident about the product," said Michael Miller, director of seafood, at 19-unit Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa.
Miller said shoppers feel that seafood has a relatively expensive pricetag and the fact that they're unfamiliar with a lot of the items creates a strong sense of fear that they'll ruin the product by cooking it too much, too little or the wrong way.
"That's one of the reasons interaction [between associate and customer] is the key to success -- much more important than variety. Rather than have some unique items, I'd rather have one variety of fish and an excellent salesperson," Miller said.
He tells his people that if a customer even slows down in front of the seafood case, they should engage them in conversation. It can be something as simple as, "Hi. Have you ever tried tilapia?" Miller said.
"It doesn't work to just ask if you can help the person. They'll say they're just looking. But I tell my people that if anyone's looking into the case, they want something and they want to be helped."
As the department's chief, Miller's first priority is to get the right people working for him. Recruitment takes different forms: He keeps an eye out for associates elsewhere in the store who interact pleasantly with customers. And he has a standing request with the chain's human resources department to alert him to applicants with outgoing personalities. He makes it clear that seafood is a product that has to be sold, he said.
"There's no doubt that we need the cream of the crop and we have to make sure that we make customer service the focal point. We let the associate know that's the priority. Letting them know that, I think, is the most important thing, and second is giving them product information. Their shyness [with customers] goes away when they know what they're talking about."
Much of the needed focus is derived from separating the department from meat or deli so the manager's attention can be on seafood alone, Miller said. He said it's important, too, that the associates be dedicated to the seafood department.
Miller, a veteran of Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, came to Clemens a year and a half ago when the company split the seafood department off from the meat department and committed itself to significantly improving seafood sales.
The tendency in the industry until recently has been to lump seafood under the meat department banner and sometimes staff it -- if it's staffed at all -- by meat people, said Patricia Kendall, a Springfield, Ill.-based seafood consultant who works with supermarkets.
"I've seen people manning seafood departments who knew nothing at all about the product and said so to customers. I've also seen the meat manager come over and take away someone from behind the seafood counter and set them to wrapping meat," Kendall said.
Customers like to see a familiar face behind the counter or at least one that makes eye contact with them, Kendall said.
"And there is so much to say about the different types of fish. People buy orange roughy and flounder, but there are many varieties they don't know about. When I'm working a seafood counter, I'll cut off a little slice of tilapia or a lesser known variety and say 'Here, cook this with your orange roughy. See how you like it.' That's one way to get them to try something even if you don't have the time to set up a demo."
Kendall writes a seafood column for the local consumer press and has published a cookbook, "The Fishlady's Cookbook - The World's Easiest Seafood Cookbook," that describes seafood varieties and offers basic cooking instructions and simple recipes, all with a touch of humor.
Kendall said some supermarkets, including Cub Foods, Bloomington, Ill., are selling her book in their seafood departments. The light-hearted book is published by Templegate Publishers, Springfield, Ill.
While retailers have been rethinking their seafood departments, they have also tweaked their meat operations, where customer service in supermarkets was first defined. Service meat, especially in the midst of of the case-ready boom, still presents a golden opportunity, according to Don Rellstab, store manager, at Pennington Quality Market, a single-unit, upscale independent in Pennington, N.J.
Rellstab said the service meat department Pennington launched five years ago is one of the best things that has happened to the store.
"It's a destination and it differentiates us. Now, it's making up 20% of our total meat sales even though we have a huge self-service display. And the ring is quite a bit higher," Rellstab said.
And what's more, the service case can bring a higher margin, said Bill Pizzico, president, Prizm Marketing, Blue Bell, Pa., a consulting and marketing firm that helped Pennington set up its service department and advises the retailer on an ongoing basis.
Asked if it's worth the labor expended in the department, Rellstab answered with a definite yes.
"It gives us the profitability we need from it," said Rellstab. And that's even with a service meat staff of nine that includes several meatcutters.
Rellstab said he thinks a key to building sales in the service department has been letting the staff have free reign to try new things and then see what sells.
Consultant Pizzico theorizes that the service meat counter amid the pervasive sameness of self-service departments can pull customers into the store with its variety and expertise, and increase the amount of money they spend, since associates have the chance to upsell products.
"As the [self-service] meat departments core themselves out, they certainly become more efficient, but variety goes away. If that continues, how far away is the corner butcher shop? Why let that happen when you have a potential corner butcher shop right in your supermarket?" Pizzico asked.
In advising supermarkets, however, he explains that profits can be nourished in the service meat department only with strategic marketing and merchandising that will build the needed volume.
Rellstab pointed out that Pennington Market's meatcutter is right out on the floor at a worktable between cases so he can talk to customers, and the department is staffed all hours the store is open.
Another department that industry experts say is a natural for making a unique statement is the in-store bakery. That's precisely why Hannaford Bros. chose that department for a new kind of service that's provided by its bread captain and its cake coordinator who are dedicated to pleasing customers.
With these newly created positions, the 142-unit chain is aiming to offer service that is executable and sustainable, because the bread captain and cake coordinator are also charged with coaching new employees. Such a set-up theoretically could be established in each store, officials said.
"Even now, just by example, they're showing [other associates] how to interact with customers. We think this is the way to do it because when you have more than 100 stores, it's daunting to think of bringing every bakery associate, individually, up to the level you want," Duley, the bakery category manager, said.
Product variety and retail price, just as they are in meat and seafood and produce, are driving this higher level of service in bakery, industry experts said. Hannaford Bros. has greatly increased its selection of breads and has taken on some upscale brands like Ecce Panis and Rudi's, for example. With the intense consumer interest in breads today, the retailer saw more service as a necessary ingredient.
"When you're asking customers to pay $3 to $5 for a loaf of multi-grain bread, you'd better tell them a little bit about the product and let them try it. That also creates a good opportunity to cross merchandise verbally. You can tell them what wine or what cheese goes well with a particular bread, and even mention something that's on sale in the meat department," Duley said, adding that it's a way to help customers put a meal together.