Johnson's World: Shopping for Customer Service

What can you learn about customer service from the checkout line at an upscale grocery? Maybe how to keep your best customers coming back.

April 1, 2012

Are you familiar with grocery store chains Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s? If you don’t live in the right location, you might not have heard of either. Both serve niche markets. Both are selective about where they locate their stores. Neither stocks the breadth of inventory that big national chains do; in fact, neither stocks nationally famous brands.

Whole Foods Market has an enviable niche. Selling groceries branded as “natural”, they serve only upscale markets and command premium prices for their products. It is possible to walk out of Whole Foods with a bill that is twice what you would pay for equivalent products from a national chain. Although it has had some growth pains, obviously Whole Foods is succeeding in fostering the perception of added value among its clientele.

Whole Foods cultivates a hip image by hiring young employees with a preponderance of tattoos and piercings. The client base is much older than the worker base, but the counterculture image works to attract shoppers eager to believe that their age hasn’t diminished their style.

Trader Joe’s is a California institution that has cautiously moved into the national market. For locations, it chooses old grocery store spaces vacated by national chains that have moved to bigger box locations.

Trader Joe’s business plan is to offer upscale groceries at reasonable prices; mostly labeled as its own house brands. You will find five flavors of mayonnaise at Trader Joe’s, but no liverwurst or laundry detergent.

Trader Joe’s strives mightily to create a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Employees wear Hawaiian-style shirts and go out of their way to be helpful. One gimmick is a ship’s bell in every store. If shoppers feel checkout lines are too long they need only ring the bell, and an additional checker opens up another cash register.

Check This Out!

Both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have examined the challenge of checkout line delays caused by customers writing checks. Each has arrived at its own unconventional answer to this problem.

Neither of our two examples wants their customers to end the shopping experience on a low note caused by a long wait in a checkout line. Both chains pay close attention to this, and independently realized that when a client writes a paper check it takes longer than the same transaction by cash, credit, or debit card.

Here was an opportunity for some creative thinking. Trader Joe’s was equal to the task. I don’t know the technical terms for what they did, but I do know that when I shop, I hand a blank check to the cashier, who runs it through a small printer that fills out my check completely. All I have to do is sign. The process actually seems faster than using a debit card.

Whole Foods took an even simpler approach. They now refuse to accept checks. Problem solved…unless, of course, you are a customer and want to write a check.

I still write checks. I often shop at Trader Joe’s, but no longer visit Whole Foods. The check ban drove me away and, once gone, I discovered that food products of equal quality were available elsewhere for significant savings. Even if they reverse the no-check policy, I won’t return. Why would I spend more than I need to?

There is a lesson here for us. In Johnson’s World, there is always a lesson.

Do you have any policies that make your life easier, but create hardship for some clients? Might not these policies have unintended consequences? You can’t please everyone, true, but are you certain you aren’t driving away customers you would really prefer to keep?

Perhaps you are confident that you do not have any such problems. You don’t even need to think about it. Perhaps, but I wouldn’t bet my grocery money on it.

Steve Johnson is president of Copresco in Carol Stream, IL, a pioneer in digital printing technology and print on demand. Contact him at [email protected].