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Running a grocery store can be simple

There is a magazine on newsstands you may have come across called Real Simple. It’s a thick, slick magazine filled with tips on how to declutter your life. Your home life, your work life, your kid’s life, your dog’s life. A recent article was headlined “New uses for a bar of soap.” Seems Irish Spring isn’t just for showering. It can also be a pincushion, a car air freshener and, in a pinch, underarm deodorant.

But “simple” isn’t what it used to be. A generation ago, when we measured progress by speed (faster planes, faster cars, faster rockets), “simple” was a
slur. Someone who was simple was at best unsophisticated; at worst, dumb. Today, our planes, cars and rockets are faster. And we have fast food and fast phones to go with them. Life is so speedy, we yearn to slow down. We want more simple, not less. And we admire friends, family, co-workers, anyone who is leading a simple life.

But wait! If simple is such a great thing at home, shouldn’t the same philosophy help run your store a lot better? The answer is yes. And let me show you two retailers who’ve done it. The first is Stew Leonard Jr., whose four-store grocery chain in Connecticut, Stew Leonard’s, is profiled in this issue. As writer Ronald Margulis explains, on page 49, Leonard’s supermarkets sometimes appear straight out of a circus. But he has a few simple rules to keep them running smoothly.

For instance, Leonard loves having his family involved in the business. But to make it work, he’s mapped out a straightforward process family members must go through to get a full-time job. It starts with working in all departments of the store as they’re growing up; then it’s off to university. Upon graduation, family must work at another company for three years. The idea, Leonard says, is they’ll bring back valuable experience from other fields, such as finance or advertising.

If you came across a man who had been walking, without food or water, in the desert for days, what would you do?

Another of Leonard’s simple rules has to do with his stores’ SKU count. Stew Leonard’s carries only 2,000 products. And it won’t go higher. When staff find a new item that sells well, another product must be taken off the shelves. How many stores are that disciplined? Not many.

The other retailer who gets “simple” is Kip Tindell, co-founder of The Container Store. This Texas-based company sells storage solutions products all over the United States. It basically invented the category. When Tindell started his chain in 1978, he understood one thing better than anyone. In retail, customers rarely have the same question or need. Tindell saw this as a big problem: How could he train staff to give consistently great service if each scenario was going to be unique?

Intuitively, he knew a fat policy manual wasn’t the answer. “I don’t think I’m smart enough to tell somebody how to behave in any given situation,” Tindell once said. Instead, he jotted down a set of principles, seven in all, to guide each decision a Container Store employee would have to make.

The genius of these principles (which The Container Store still follows to this day, from the CEO down to the cashier level) is they can be applied to any situation. For example, principle No. 3 is called “Man in the desert selling.” What does it mean? Easy. If you ran across a man who had been walking in the desert for days, without food or water, what would you do? How would you help him? At The Container Store, the customer is that man in the desert. So for staff , this principle becomes a question: How far will you go to help customers get what they need?

By the way, Stew Leonard’s is in the Guinness World Records for having the highest sales per square foot in the grocery industry. The Container Store does well enough to pay among the highest wages in retail. And both have spent the last decade on Fortune’s “100 best companies to work for” list. Simple, huh?

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