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Theatres of food

Some supermarkets are a joy to shop at. A new report explains why.

According to U.S. supermarket expert Phil Lempert, more than half the population dislikes grocery shopping. Fourteen per cent, he adds, flat-out hate it. So what do you make of a grocer with the slogan “Where shopping is a pleasure”?

That grocer is Publix and the slogan is all true, according to Nunwood, a U.K.-based consulting company. Every year, Nunwood ranks the 100 American companies whose customer experience is truly magical. This year, as one might expect, Disney Parks was No. 1. But four supermarkets cracked the Top 10: Wegmans (4th spot), Publix (5th), Trader Joe’s (6th) and HEB (10th).

What makes these stores so ebullient? Simple, says Barbara Weisfeld, senior insight director at Nunwood in New York City: They make shopping an unforgettable experience. “Grocery competition used to just be about convenience and selection. Now it is about branding,” says Weisfeld. “Wegmans and Trader Joe’s in particular work hard to create an event out of otherwise boring shopping trips. People who shop there have a story to tell, and people go out of their way to shop at them as a result.”

New York’s Wegmans carries twice the number of items as an average supermarket, organizing them into cuisine groupings. The result: consumers meander through the store rather than zip up and down aisles. Meanwhile, friendly chefs host cooking classes in high-traffic areas and several of Wegmans’ in-store restaurants are rated by the prestigious Michelin guide, cementing Wegmans’ foodie credentials.

Trader Joe’s of California excels by providing customers with a unique experience. Its constantly changing array of new and exciting foods, highlighted with eclectic signage and promoted by helpful “crew members” (employees) donned in casual Hawaiian shirts, all housed within cedar-planked walls, creates a memorable shopping adventure.

At one Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles, staff placed real neighbourhood street signs in the aisles and had wall murals painted to depict the local environment. “When I was in the checkout line,” says Nunwood’s principal consultant, Matthew Hawk, “I overheard the customer behind me saying to the clerk, ‘I love this song. If you played it all day I would shop here all day.’ While every grocery store plays music, it struck me how much deeper an emotional connection this store had made with the customer.”

HEB in Texas seems able to mix consistent service with the unexpected. Cashiers kibitz easily with customers, Nunwood found. They also sometimes dance with them, as seen one Saturday this past February when employees busted out their best moves in the aisles and got some 27,000 customers across Texas dancing, too, as part of an American Heart Month promotion.

Nunwood found that creating a sense of theatre and entertainment hinges on several pillars, one of the most important being empathy. “By empathy, we mean creating an emotional connection with the customer,” says Craig Ryder, consulting director of retail at Nunwood in London. The key to this is nding the right people and training them to deliver this story in an authentic way.

A good example is Florida’s Publix. Sta seem especially thrilled to come to work each day, and their eager attitude rubs off. “I have never had a bad experience there,” one shopper told Nunwood, explaining that she has a “problem standing for long periods [and] the staff always notice and help me through.”

At Wegmans, when shoppers need help for a dinner party, an employee won’t just ask a scripted list of questions; he makes an honest attempt to know the customer and offer personalized advice. It shows the importance of hiring sta for attitude first, and teaching skills second, Hawk says.

Either way, the secret sauce that turns a supermarket from ho-hum to superb is best summed up by Danny Wegman. Once asked to distill that special somethingness of his stores, the Wegmans’ CEO came up with this: “theatres of food supported by telepathic levels of customer service.”

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