On Point: Now you see it…

The best service is sometimes invisible to the customer.

By Tom Weir

To the male half of the couple it was surprising, disappointing actually, that something as enjoyable as a drive to Brooklyn to visit an art gallery and explore a neighborhood on a beautiful afternoon could end with a shopping trip to a big box home center that just happened to be there. To the female half this was the very definition of serendipity.

So, with one liking it and one lumping it, there we were, pushing a shopping cart through canyons formed by shelving perhaps three times as tall as the average player in the National Basketball Association. This was yet another stop on a never-ending quest for a suitable medicine cabinet for the country house and there was no reason to expect to find it. Nor was there reason to expect a lesson in retailing. As it turned out, both were forthcoming.

Among the many cabinets on display, two were acceptable. To guide its self-service customers, the home center had posted beside each display item the location where others like it were stocked: Aisle X, Bin Y, Slot Z. But Slot Z turned out to be empty, as did the slot for the second-choice cabinet. Experience said this was going to be another disappointment and the search would continue for weeks or months.

However, the nice customer-service lady and her trusty computer came to the rescue. The cabinet was in stock, it would just have to be located. She summoned a cheerful young man who explored the medicine cabinet canyon until his sharp eyes spotted a box containing the right model high up on the top shelf.

This was obviously a job for the giant rolling platform ladder, which the young man fetched, along with a co-worker to assist him. He climbed into the stratosphere, retrieved a box with the cabinet, handed the box to his colleague, descended and carefully put the box into the shopping cart. He smiled and seemed genuinely glad to have been of service.

So the medicine cabinet issue was resolved. Then came the lesson in retailing. The young man moved the ladder back where it had come from and headed elsewhere in the store. Bin Z was still empty. About 20 feet overhead were three or four medicine cabinets that belonged in Bin Z. In less than two minutes the young man could have brought them down to their proper location. Although everyone was pleasant and helpful, the whole process of determining that the cabinet was in stock, locating it and bringing it down to floor level took more than 20 minutes. The next customer who wants that model can expect a similar wait.

Despite his commendable comfort with customers, the young man did not have a grasp of the bigger picture. A key customer-service issue in a self-service environment—as any supermarket executive who has ever read a study on out-of-stocks well knows—is having merchandise readily accessible to the shopper. This is not necessarily obvious to every employee. It is the type of lesson that store managers and department managers must constantly teach.

The objective is to develop a culture that encourages employees to think about both the customers and the business. Look around the industry and you will notice that the grocers that are perennial examples of how to succeed are the ones that have already done this.

Tom Weir can be reached at tom@taweir.cnc.net.

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