I would suggest that all of us need a role model or mentor. The food business is one of the greatest, albeit most complicated businesses — and being able to watch and learn from others is invaluable.
One's professional needs constantly evolve, and as such, during our careers we will (and should) have mentors who come and go, each sharing the knowledge and skills we need at that moment in time.
Mentors do not have to be older, have more experience or be fabulously successful. What they do have to be is skillful at what they do.
Supermarket front-end and service associates typically receive short-term on-the-job training when they start their jobs — depending on the store and the job complexity, 20 to 40 hours at most. The limited amount of training is the result of the high turnover rate and therefore the store cannot afford to offer more.
Most of the training that does take place is about the technical aspects of their position: How to operate the checkstand, how to use the deli slicer and how to pick and display produce properly — the tactical tools. Very little training on what is probably the most important skill they can have both for the store and to prepare them for life: How to listen, communicate and make their customers feel good.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cashiers make up a little over a third of supermarket employees — and is the largest single occupation in grocery stores. These people are the ones who not only have the most face time with customers but also have the responsibility for making the shopper feel good about their experience. Which can often be difficult, balancing the need for speed and the grim responsibility of asking for the customer's money.
So how do we find the mentors and role models to watch and learn these skills? At the risk of offending some readers, I say not in supermarkets, but rather at a neighborhood bar (which hopefully will not offend even more readers!).
Much like Sam Malone in Cheers or Sascha in Casablanca, bartenders are often forced into learning valuable skills: being friendly, listening (and remembering) the personal tidbits, working swiftly and under pressure, being a jazz band leader giving everyone their fair turn, offering a respite from everyday life and even being a bit fun and “putting on a show.” An enviable skill set that I only wish many retail associates could learn.
I am not suggesting that every cashier and store associate start juggling cans and bottles or telling jokes; simply adding some personality and enjoyment would go a long way. Watch the shoppers' expressions the next time you are at Trader Joe's and the bell is rung or when a troupe of singers bursts into song in a supermarket in Queens — smiles everywhere.
As retail prices rise and the inevitable advertising wars between supermarkets once again commence, it's time to reinforce that people shop in stores that offer them “value” — a combination of service, quality, relationship AND price — not just price alone. People like to go to stores where they feel comfortable and welcomed.
Phil Lempert is contributing editor of Supermarket News and CEO of The Lempert Report and SupermarketGuru.com.