Are Grocers Focusing Enough on the Customer Experience?

My grandfather, a supermarket operator in New Jersey, knew the best customers in each of his stores. He would routinely engage them in the aisles, chatting about their lives, their families, and their needs. If one customer liked to make her own pickles, he’d have a bag of Kirby cucumbers waiting at a reduced price or free. If she misplaced a coupon, he’d arrange for the discount. And if she were making a cake for a child’s birthday, he’d give her the candles.

He wanted to make sure that they would never have a reason to shop anywhere else.

I’ve always thought that if a technology company could capture the essence of that sensibility, to be a merchant in every sense of the word, they would truly have something unique and totally worthwhile to offer food retailers. A genie in a retail bottle, so to speak.

At the FMI Midwinter conference in Orlando earlier this year, there were several sessions that focused on a retail challenge or opportunity that technology could help address, things like AI, shelf displays, and the digital transformation of everything from the weekly flyer to customer loyalty. And while there was also plenty of talk about retail media and supply chain issues, the real emphasis was on technologies that helped retailers enhance the customer experience.

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Even the more mechanical innovations like store automation have to be conducted under the lens of how they are going to help engage the shopper, the audience was told. As Charlie McWeeney, Vice President, Technology, Innovation, & Strategy at Wakefern Food Corporation, noted, retailers need to “move repetitive tasks off the associates’ plate and then enable them to enhance the customer experience.”

This focus on the customer has always existed in some form or fashion. It’s part of the “secret sauce” that many retailers promote as a competitive advantage. And for as long as the drive to know each customer and meet their individual needs has existed, technology vendors have tried to create solutions that enable retailers to scale the spirit of the one-to-one relationship between merchant and shopper. Inroads have been made, but we clearly haven’t reached that goal. 

Perhaps the industry is looking at this challenge the wrong way. Instead of replacing the merchant with technology, we should be augmenting store personnel with the right tools to properly engage the customer when, where, and how she will be most receptive.

Empower store clerks with details on what makes a customer tick and the ability to reward them with incentives likely to produce the desired outcomes of loyalty and increased share of wallet. Use the technology as a tool that creates a sense of awe when coupled with a smiling and knowledgeable staff member. Then, maybe, we can get to a place where shoppers are treated the way they want, and grocery retailers can profitably service them.

“We talk about positively astonishing the customer, so you it’s that first impression that moment that you get them in a retail setting that’s critical,” Randy Edeker, executive chairman of Hy-Vee, told me at the FMI event. He would have gotten along very well with my grandfather.