Sounding Board: More than lip service

The good news is that grocers are giving the “customer experience” some serious attention. But what’s the best approach?

By Lew Lewis

If you’re very, very quiet and listen very, very closely, you can almost hear the sounds of knees jerking.

This is the feeling I get watching executives listening to someone talk about the “customer experience.” It’s that “yeah-we-gotta-do-something-quick” reaction. After all, anything that gets it’s own three-letter acronym (CEM for Customer Experience Management) deserves immediate action—or at least ad nauseam discussion.

The good news is that improving the customer experience to gain sales and market share is getting more than lip service. The question is how to go about it? First, let’s be clear that there is no perfect customer experience since there is no such thing as a perfect customer.

In last month’s Sounding Board, I talked about entrepreneur Fred Harvey, who brought a unique customer experience to his Harvey House restaurants in the West more than a century ago. A deceptively simple lesson we could probably learn from today. And after walking the product-laden aisles of the FMI show, the lessons need to continue.

This is no longer simply a product or commodity business. That’s like telling someone they can get what they want anywhere. Nor is it just about technology or customer service, logistics, or wooden beams over the produce department. The old idea that “two out of three ain’t bad”—ain’t enough. Creating an experience is not about doing some things right. It’s the sum of everything you do—a holistic practice that starts before customers come in the store until they leave the parking lot.

This is why I sometimes travel an hour and pay two tolls to get to the Wegmans in Bridgewater, N.J. and nearly the same to get to Stew Leonard’s in Yonkers or to a produce market on the East End of Long Island in what looks like an old metal airplane hanger. It’s not about gimmicks to get people in a store once. It’s getting them back over and over again to garner long-term loyalty that is not solely a function of this week’s price.

Furthermore, creating a great experience means engaging customers at different touch points throughout the trip. As Roy Barnes of Blue Space Consulting told me, it begins with a sense of arrival. “As people approach do they see concrete barriers instead of plants or worn out mulch with cigarette butts and litter everywhere?” Venues such as Disney or hotels such as the Bellagio are accomplished practitioners. They create something that tells people this is the place they need to be. They know that every minute customers spend in their environments means more money to the bottom line, said Barnes.

Both are, of course, in the business of selling product. But they are keenly aware that the way to lure patrons into buying is what you surround the product with—whether it’s dancing fountains, opulent furnishings, Cinderella’s castle or scents vented into the check-in and gambling areas. These places have also learned that your most vocal critic can be your best friend. I read recently how Disney—through its “guestology studies”—reacted when parents complained that the ears on the Mickey Mouse caps broke too easily. The feedback was taken so seriously that suppliers immediately reinforced stitching and added wider plastic ears.

Reinforcing that customer experience was also behind the development of the Character Hotline, which can tell parents where their kids’ favorite costumed characters will be at any given time. Protecting that customer experience is also why Disney will unleash the dogs of war—in this case lawyers—on anyone who messes with “The Mouse.”

For supermarkets, the answer is less litigious but no less urgent and can include everything from shelving, signage and the configuration of the aisles to better utilization of endcaps, which many in the industry believe to be among the most valuable and underutilized real estate in the store. Do we scrap the model that has worked for 80 years? Do we completely redesign the supermarket as we have come to know it?

While you’re thinking about it, I hear that next year in Vegas you’ll be able to visit the Mob Experience, a Mafia-themed museum based on the city’s organized crime origins. There will be an exhibit called Final Fate in which a visitor can “get made or get whacked.” Sounds like retailing to me!

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at or at

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