Welcome to 2012 and another year of the 24/7, caffeinated world of food retailing and wholesaling.
The industry is still buzzing about blockbuster news that closed out last year, especially the deal to merge Winn-Dixie Stores with Bi-Lo. Executives are also reviewing holiday results for lessons on how to retool and preparing for accelerated use of mobile devices and possibly home shopping.
However, let’s pause from the breakneck pace for just a moment to focus on something more fundamental, before it’s lost in events.
On the front lines of the customer experience this year, in-store interactions between shoppers and associates will really matter. People are still crucial to the business.
After Big Y announced in September it was eliminating self-checkouts, some observers happily proclaimed a reversal of the decades-long trend of technology pushing aside people in workplaces. The headline of one blog post trumpeted, “Supermarket Self-Checkouts Being Replaced With People.”
There’s even a feeling in some quarters that customer-associate interactions will matter more than before. Peter Merholz, president of consulting firm Adaptive Path, wrote in the Harvard Business Review recently, “In our increasingly connected world, people crave authentic human interaction. The future of retail is going to look a lot more like it did in the more distant past and a lot less like the bureaucratically driven mass consumerism we grew to expect in the 20th century.”
That’s not to say consumers are willing to forgo speed, efficiency and convenience, which should be built into the in-store experience. But let’s face it, those attributes are also a primary reason for home shopping. All the more reason for in-store to embrace something different for those who want it: the ability to interact with associates to ask questions, learn about products and even sample items.
A case in point is service counters indepartments. SN recently reported on how some savvy supermarkets are positioning these counters as differentiators to build sales despite higher prices. In many cases retailers are preparing meat cutters for increased engagement with customers.
“We believe service in the meat departments gives us a competitive edge,” Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets, told SN recently. Enough said about people and service. Now back to the 2012 industry roller coaster, but don’t forget that people can help make the ride smoother.