Marketing from the Grocery Aisles: Your Employees are Your Business

Last week, after a tiring spinning class, I noticed a Fortune magazine in the gym’s reading rack. Wanting an excuse to rest, I plopped down on a rowing machine, and flipped through the page of the magazine to Best Companies 2014. I was surprised to find Wegmans Food Markets 12th on the list, dropping from an astonishing 5th, the year before.

WLOGOLOCKUPBLK Topping this year’s list is Google, SAS, The Boston Consulting Group, Edward Jones, and Quicken Loans. It’s commendable for a grocery retailer, especially one with a large number of lower-skilled, part-time workers, to make the list. But, Wegman’s isn’t alone. Two other grocery stores made the list: Whole Foods, ranked 44th, and Publix Super Markets at 75th, ahead of Microsoft at 86th.

Opened in 1916 in Rochester, NY, Wegmans has grown to 43,564 employees, half of which are age 25 or younger. They’ve been on the Forbes Best Companies list, 17 years in a row. Their employee-friendly atmosphere includes compressed work weeks, job sharing, an employee scholarship program, and stretch assignment for employees who want to grow within the company. Around 66% of jobs are filled through internal promotions, and on average, hourly and salaried employees receive 65 hours of training per year.

When you think of companies who have the means to provide exceptional benefits, training, and career growth to the breadth of its employees, grocery stores probably don’t top the list. After all, their margins range from 10-20%, certainly not the level of gross income typically associated with high-technology companies, financial institutions, and insurance companies.

To be profitable, grocery stores need to be extremely customer-focused, attracting and retaining buyers by both presenting a desirable and fresh selection of foods, toiletries, and household goods, and responding to customer needs and issues with minutes, no matter how small.

“Clean-up on aisle 4,” isn’t the punchline, it is how successful grocery stores create memorable impressions. Think about it, if a customer spills or drops something in a grocery store, the management and store clerks don’t look for the responsible party. They efficiently clean it up, ensuring the safety and cleanliness of the store.

In the same vein, successful supermarkets recognize the importance of fast checkout lanes; accurately labeled and stocked shelves; availability of varying sizes of grocery carts and baskets, appealing displays of fresh foods with damaged or outdated items promptly discarded, happily waiting on customers at butcher, deli, and baked goods counters, and honoring sales items, by providing rain checks if they run out.

All of these activities are done by employees: temporary, full-time, first week on the job, or ready to retired after decades of dedicated service.

Marketing Basket logo Earlier this year, Market Basket, family-owned New England grocery chain, learned the value of treating employees as valued contributors and creating an employee-centric culture. When the beloved CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, was booted by the board of directors, the employees – thousands of them — united, walking off the job. Six weeks later, as the chain struggled to keep their shelves stocked, and customers walking through the doors, Arthur Demoulas was reinstated.

Joining the employees in their boycott were customers who flocked to rival grocery stores, afterwards taping their receipts to the windows of their local Market Basket stores. Joining the protests were suppliers who were reluctant to provide goods with warehouse workers on the picket lines, instead of unloading trucks and distributing food.

Market Basket lost millions in sales, before backpedaling and coming up with an agreement that enabled Arthur Demoulas to purchase share owned by his cousin, and thereby, resume as CEO. His return was greeted with cheers by employees, who also returned to work, stocking the shelves, sweeping the floors, ringing up and bagging groceries, and the myriad of other activities, which makes shopping a pleasant experience for Market Basket customers.

Wegman’s and Market Basket understand the value of investing in people, from creating meaningful part-time jobs to offering training and career advancement programs, providing scholarships to employees ($4.5 million per year), and supporting their local community food banks.

Most of all, they recognize their employees are their business, the means to expand into other markets, build customer loyalty, and strength their competitive advantages.

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