To meet the rising demands of time-starved shoppers, supermarket consumer affairs directors nationwide are seeking to serve up more programs to boost shopping convenience and customer service.
For many supermarket operators, that has meant building on the success of established services involving meal-solution programs, health screenings and toll-free telephone hot lines, customer relations professionals told SN. Other retailers are widening the scope of their programs to include things like child-sitting services, home delivery and on-line computer access, they said.
"When looking at supermarkets, convenience is where to focus. These are extremely important areas to look at and are only going to grow," said Shari Steinbach, consumer affairs supervisor at Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich. "We are in a culture of convenience. We keep hearing about time poverty and that people are very busy."
Customers are looking to their local supermarkets to help them shorten their grocery trips, according to Joanne Gage, vice president of consumer services of Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y. "What I hear a lot is that time is very important," she said. "They want to get in and out of the checkouts. They say, 'Don't waste my time with out-of-stocks.' So we have to do whatever we can to save customers time."
Leading the clamor for convenience is the focus on prepared foods, several consumer affairs supervisors noted. To tie in with the growing demand for quick meals, chains are concentrating on improving step-saver programs, printing recipe cards and feeding a steady diet of nutritional information to customers.
"Supermarkets in general have expanded their bakeries, expanded their delis and expanded their produce sections to accommodate customers," said Sue Hosey, vice president of consumer and public affairs at P&C Food Markets, Syracuse, N.Y. "Now we are moving into the prepared foods area. That will be a bigger effort than adding to other service areas."
Although P&C and most other operators have been offering rotisserie chicken, ready-to-grill kabobs, frozen pizzas, stuffed peppers and the like for quite some time, chains also must appeal to customers who don't mind fixing parts of the meal at home, Spartan's Steinbach said.
"Most of the statistics are telling us now, especially in the food preparation area, that people do like to eat at home, but they don't always want to do all of the cooking," she explained. "The statistics tell us that total cook time will probably drop to 15 minutes. They are wanting to do some of the preparations at home. They don't always want to eat out, but they don't want to do all the cooking themselves either."
To that end, Spartan a couple of years ago launched its "Make Meals Easy" program -- now widely received -- that features 18 recipe cards a month highlighting quick and easy meal suggestions, Steinbach said.
"Often, customers walk through the store with blinders on and are not sure what types of new dishes to prepare. We have to educate consumers on what we have in the stores," she said. "We have all these things in the stores, but sometimes consumers don't know how to put those things together. They say, 'How do I use those shredded carrots. Give me two ways to use them.' We need to look at meal replacement programs, not just for meal solutions but for quick and easy meal tips."
Customer relations directors said they also are finding that demands for convenience stretch beyond their stores and into shoppers' homes. Many retailers have set up toll-free hot lines, and others have even brought back an old tradition -- home delivery -- to enhance their service orientation.
At Kroger Co., Cincinnati, the 800 number that serves its 11 national marketing areas has been a huge success since its inception several years ago, according to Judy Holland, manager of customer relations. She said her office receives about 1,000 calls a week -- a number that is expected to double next year -- from consumers asking questions about all sorts of food-related topics.
Besides being right at customers' fingertips, the 800 number has gained popularity because consumers are not embarrassed to call, she said. "When you serve your customer, you think of ideal service as somebody standing there and helping you and answering your questions," Holland explained. "But a lot of people like the 800 number because they like to be anonymous. They feel like some of their questions are things that most people expect them to know, particularly women. Women still have this feeling of guilt because they may not be the world's best cook. So they like the idea that they can call up and ask."
Home delivery is another vehicle consumer affairs specialists are pitching to lure customers. Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass., recently began offering home delivery at select stores, and shoppers already have asked for it to be expanded to other sites, said Margaret McEwan, vice president of consumer services and quality assurance. The chain may bring the service to other locations if test programs prove successful, she added.
"It's one of those services people can use at different times," McEwan said. "Some people use [home delivery] all the time. Some people use it intermittently. But the people who use it like it very much."
Sometimes customers don't even want the most elaborate or modern services but only, for instance, a quick health screening or someplace to leave their children while they shop.
At Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, health screenings have been offered for more than eight years in conjunction with local hospitals and have gained so much popularity that they now include flu shots and osteoporosis screenings, said Pat Nowak, director of consumer affairs and public relations.
"About three years ago, when the we knew the flu was going to be very bad, we decided to offer it at the stores. It was time to take it to the next level," Nowak said. "In three years, we have done 42,000 flu shots. People have a limited amount of time, so these types of services are a big deal."
Kroger recently implemented a child-sitting service so parents could shop without worrying about their children -- part of an effort to make the shopping experience as enjoyable as possible, Holland said.
"If you watch a parent trying to shop with kids, it could be a real challenge," she explained. "When consumers make decisions about shopping, you end up making decisions about the family as well. That was in response to knowing that a trip to the store has to be as comfortable, as easy, as convenient and as enjoyable as possible. Having a screaming child with you sometimes doesn't make it a pleasant experience for them or other shoppers."
Although gauging shoppers' immediate needs is a big part of their jobs, customer relations directors noted that they also must consider food safety and technology issues that surface as consumers grow more sophisticated in those areas.
"While today's consumer affairs professionals are just as concerned with matters of quality, service, efficiency, variety, product availability and courtesy, it has become increasingly important to stay abreast of issues, technology and research so we can help our customers put new information and innovation into a useful and responsible context," said Joanie Taylor, director of consumer affairs for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis.
"Food is such a basic human need that it is quite natural for our customers to take an interest in the latest developments. Where matters of food storage were once the common consumer questions, today's consumers want to know where their food was produced, what processes have been used and who takes responsibility for safety, nutrition and product integrity."
Shaw's McEwan handles such food safety tasks as explaining product rotation in the stores and warehouses, informing store managers about existing company policies and recommending new food safety programs and guidelines to other executives. Yet a growing demand, she noted, is food safety in the prepared foods arena.
"Meal replacement is probably the biggest challenge we see because it is such a change in the way supermarkets operate. We are no longer just an ingredient source. We have come from selling a head of lettuce to selling salads. There is a big difference, and the products have to be handled differently and more carefully," McEwan told SN.
In handling food, she noted, retailers must be extra careful and show shoppers that employees are employing safe practices, which requires training, enforcing hairnet and glove policies and consumer education (such as through brochures and Shaw's customer magazine). "We do a good job of educating consumers on what their responsibilities are when it comes to food safety as well as training our own people on what our responsibilities are in delivering safe food," she said.
Consumers often lack even basic knowledge of how to store and handle certain foods, and that's where supermarkets must step in to help, said Odonna Mathews, vice president of consumer affairs at Giant Food, Landover, Md.
"There is a great lack of consumer awareness about some of the basic food safety rules, like time and temperature," Mathews explained. "It's just constant education and training to do the basics like don't keep your food out for hours, wash your hands to prevent cross-contamination."
Giant uses in-store publications, fliers and TV commercials to funnel information to consumers, she said, adding her department works closely with quality assurance managers to answer shopper questions and develop the best ways to educate customers.
Because of its convenience, on-line computer services are probably today's hottest medium in reaching customers, who can shop and access price, new product, recipe and other supermarket-related information right from their homes. The technology, though, raises new questions in terms of regulating the flow of information, consumer affairs directors told SN.
"The technology advances have created a situation where the customer knows about things almost as fast as we do," P&C's Hosey said. "There is no time gap for us to gather our thoughts and get the information we need to get. It's instantaneous, and that presents some problems on the communications side.