Earlier this week, after coming to the realization there was no fresh food in our refrigerator, my husband and I pried ourselves from our computers and ventured to our local grocery store. Being late at night, there were few shoppers, the lights and music dimmed, butcher paper spread over the meat, trays of fish emptied, prepared foods removed from the cases, and most of the check stands closed.
It was a bit eerie. But, it also got me thinking about the differences in the atmosphere just hours earlier.
Some of the busiest areas of a grocery store are the deli, bakery, meat and seafood counters, floral, and pharmacy. These areas are generally staffed by service associates who offer personalized help from scrolling “Happy Anniversary” on a cake to fileting a fish, creating a bouquet, making a sandwich, scoping salads into containers, filling a prescription, or showing a customer where they can find Velveeta (it’s not always in the cheese aisle).
No doubt, the personalized help offered by these service associates boosts sales, but it also serves another purpose – human touch.
The original “grocery” stores were trading posts, which basically offered whatever goods they could stock, and later sell. Trade posts turned into general stores, staffed by clerks who carefully measure out flour, sugar and other staples, and cleverly wrapped them in butcher paper – predecessor to packaged goods. They gathered up canned goods for customers, sometimes climbing ladders to reach the cans on the top shelves.
Customers could place special orders, returning days or weeks later to retrieve them. Some general stores delivered goods, so people didn’t have to carry their groceries home.
The first modern-day grocery store – Piggly Wiggly – was founded in 1916 by Clarence Saunders in Memphis Tennessee. Shoppers walked through a turnstile and were given a wooden basket with handles, enabling them to walk through the store, selecting what they needed, and then paying at the front. The original store had four aisles and stocked 605 items.
Six years later, there were 1,200 stores in 29 states. By 1932, the chain had grown to 2,660 stores!
A dozen or more original Piggly Wiggly stores could probably fit into today’s super markets. While most grocery stores are still primarily self-service, there’s been a return to the personalized attention once offered at general stores. Along with delivery services, there’s an expansion and variety of service counters offering everything from pricey gourmet foods to special cuts of meats, exquisite pastries, freshly prepared sushi, soup and salad bars, and much more.
Half of me believes the growth of these services is tied to people’s need to remove complexity from their lives. It’s certainly easier − with the help of a butcher, baker or florist − to select from a display of choice meats, poultry, fish, baked goods, and bouquets than peruse multiple refrigerator cases, shelves, aisles, and displays.
The other half of me believes people like to feel special. It nice to be waited on, and have someone pay attention to your specific needs.
Retailers recognize the value of one-on-one consumer support, many using it as their competitive advantage.
Ace Hardware and McClendon, a very busy, small chain of hardware stores in Washington, tend to offer specialized products in smaller, neighborhood stores. Ace markets themselves as “The helpful place.”
McClendon claims to stock over 75,000 different items, some hanging from the ceiling, walls or other parts of the building. Indeed, negotiating through McClendon requires advanced shopping carts skills with narrow aisles, seasonal displays, and typically, swamps of people.
In addition, McClendon attracts shoppers by offering many services not available at large box stores, including propane tank exchange, lock rekeying, assembly of products they sell, screen and glass repair, chainsaw and mower sharpening, and cutting Plexiglas, fiberglass, steel chain, and other materials impervious to kitchen shears.
The advent of self-service shoe retailers like Payless and DSW have reinforced the need for niche stores like Naturalizer, Red Wing, and Clarks, which offer shoes in various widths from AA through EEE, along with sales people to help shoppers find perfectly fitted shoes.
Athletic footwear chains like Foot Locker and The Athlete’s Foot have long recognized the value of helping customers find shoe that not only conform to their feet, but complement the type of activities they do. The Athlete’s Foot even touts “Find the perfect fit with our exclusive FitPrint System.”
Perhaps an overlooked benefit of personalized help is speed. A few weekends ago, my husband and I had to find a refrigerator that could be slid into a narrow space in our 1970’s kitchen. We spent an hour and a half visiting Home Depot, Lowes, and Best Buy, getting more frustrated with each stop. Most of the refrigerators were too small or didn’t have the features we were seeking.
We finally opted to visit Sears. As we stroll towards the home appliance department, I spotted a sales associated we’d purchased a washing machine and dryer from several years earlier. She listened to our needs and then directed us towards several refrigerators. After selecting one, she looked up when it could be delivered. Late January.
Not good. We need one within days.
Seeing our disappointment, she thought for a moment then offered to sell us the floor model. The catch was we would have to haul it ourselves, using a truck or trailer. We had a trailer so the deal was done.
As we signed the sales slip, she commented that she wasn’t supposed to sell the floor model since she couldn’t get a replacement refrigerator for over a month. However, she wanted to help out “beautiful people” like my husband and me.
I’m not sure how “beautiful” we are, especially after wresting a refrigerator up two half-flights of stairs, but we certainly appreciated her service aptitude. And in the future, we’ll choose to go to Sears rather than a self-service box store when we need to purchase a large appliance.