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Content Guy’s Note: Each Monday, we are featuring an article previewing some aspect of the annual Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show, scheduled for May 4-6 in Chicago.

The retailer-consumer equation is oft discussed, but rarely understood in a way that can make stores more relevant to the needs and desires of the modern shopper. In an FMI Learning Lab presentation scheduled for Monday, May 5 from 8:15 to 11 a.m., Tom Styrkowicz, founding partner of OXYON Customer Strategy, will work with attendees to examine consumers’ lives and needs have changed. Then, working backwards from the customer to the store, audience members will examine and challenge how things have evolved in the industry. This eye-opening session will reveal the disconnects between customers and the store. Participants will gain insight into how both evolutionary and revolutionary changes can make their stores more relevant to the needs of customers today.

To get a preview of “Why Most Stores Aren’t Relevant For Today’s Customers,” we conducted the following exclusive e-interview with Tom Styrkowicz:

MNB: One of the things we loved about the premise for your Learning Lab is that it seems to address how historical evolution of the food industry hasn’t kept pace (or sometimes, even kept in touch!) with consumers’ lives. Why do you think that has happened?

Tom Styrkowicz: It’s something that’s epidemic within ANY industry-getting too “inside.” I remember a sheet buyer at Macy’s just out of his mind with excitement that a manufacturer put a double row of piping on an old, established sheet pattern. The buyer actually thought that customers would be stampeding into the stores for these “new” sheets. Get a life!

In the food industry, it was trying to migrate to higher margin stuff like fresh flowers. Then it was prepared foods. I was in a store (whose name escapes me at this late hour) that had a swell prepared foods area. I was staying in a hotel across the street and I wanted a bite to eat. Trouble was the prepared foods counter was also the deli counter so I was stuck behind a woman pondering, to the ounce, how much roast beef she needed. I left before she finally made up her mind.

The, of course, there’s the whole obsession with low price. When are they gonna learn that you just CAN’T be cheaper than Wal-Mart. (Here’s an interesting, intellectual, retail parlour game-conjecture what and how far into the future will be the downfall of Wal-Mart. It happens to EVERYBODY- Sears, Wards, K-mart , Bonwit Teller, B. Altman’s, Abraham & Strauss, etc, etc. so what will be Wal-Mart’s undoing?))

A lot of people are talking about the need for “branding” a store chain. I know what they’re meaning and it works for a Whole Foods or a Stew Leonard but what about the everyday grocery store within a mile’s drive from anybody? I don’t know if Kroger can brand themselves differently from Safeway. It’s like a joke I have with a photographer buddy that as you travel America the billboard photos of the local “Action News Team” are actually the same 5 stock photos used all over the country, because these news teams ALL LOOK THE SAME.

I think it will take a fundamental change in how they do business to change the shopping model and actually make a difference to the customer. A gentleman named Vittorio Radice runs Selfridge’s in England. He has taken a traditional department store and turned it upside down. He has eliminated departmental buyers (ie : blouse buyer, pant buyer, small electrics buyer) and arranged them into lifestyle groups. They are charged with getting to the floor a cohesive presentation that solves ALL of specific customer group’s needs.

THAT’S what grocery stores need to do. That’s what I’m hoping to get some m discussions going on in my workshop. What kinds of customers are there, what do they do in their day, in what ways can you serve them besides JUST food? One of the lines I use when I speak to companies is, “When was the last time you tried to be your customer?” (I’m amazed at how many executives have never tried to SHOP in their stores-not just visit, but actually try to find something, try to get someone to help them and then try to pay for it.)

MNB: It seems like such a strange disconnect, especially since food shoppers go into food stores more often than they go into any other kind of retailer...and yet supermarkets haven’t done a good job of taking advantage of that proximity.

Tom Styrkowicz: See last paragraph of previous answer. I saw a store design for some convenience store in Germany where they had a dry cleaners and a package delivery service. It was one of the first times that I believed that it was a convenience store. That goes back to putting banks in grocery stores. A good small step. But how many times have you been shopping in the food section when the bank section was closed? It also speaks to the “me too” attitude. The store down the block added a bank, we’ll add a bank...without REALLY thinking about what that MEANS to a customer (and WHAT ELSE they could provide like that.) How much business would a store get if they had a child care room (like IKEA does) that would watch a parent’s kids for an hour so they could shop interrupted. Instead, we get those Disney trolley-sized shopping carts that hold two kids as an answer.

MNB: What would you perceive as the two or three essential customer concerns that are going unrecognized by the food industry?

Tom Styrkowicz: I think it’s PRICE, QUALITY, TIME-you only get to pick two. Think about what the store would look like if picking (and living up to) TWO of those things was the goal. If it was TIME + QUALITY you’d get something more like the old-time market where all things were edited to be the best and you could go in and pick anything and know it was great , so you’d save time (but not money) and get great quality. I know these are broad generalizations for the purpose of this discussion, but you get the idea. Actually, Whole Foods would be a pretty good example of this option set.

I think this also refers back to the Wal-Mart obsession. What other parts of the equation can one use to beat them?

Going back to the way you phrased the question I think stores need to know what is going on in the minds of the different people shopping at different times. Obviously, the senior shopping in the middle of a Tuesday has different needs than the mother with 3 kids buying her week’s groceries. And the “after work” shopper comes in with a different mindset. How can a store cater to EACH of these customers. I was in a Wegman’s near Allentown, PA and I couldn’t help wondering what if they put that store in the middle of the parking lot and had entrances on three sides. One would be for “regular” grocery shopping, one side would have close-in, short-time parking and it would lead to the prepared foods. The other side would be like a convenience store where you could find all the “quick-pick” stuff near the doors so you wouldn’t have to park two blocks away and wait in the 5 deep “express lane” to get a gallon of milk.

THAT’S what I mean by thinking about the NEEDS of a customer.

MNB: To make the changes that should have been made on an evolutionary basis, does the food industry now have to go through revolutionary change to catch up? And is it capable of this?

Tom Styrkowicz: I honestly think it’s both. I think I could go into a typical grocery sore and rearrange what’s already there and make it more “customer friendly.” End caps are one example. In theory, they are meant to “attract” the customer with a “special.” But when there are 40 end caps in the store what’s special about them? I think they screw up the flow of a store and make it confusing to find things when they don’t have a “place” in the store.

I also think that the aisle-by-aisle layouts are confusing. You will hear “industry statistics” about why you should break up food with craft and office supplies but EVERY TIME things have been made simpler and clearer in a retail environment people respond favorably. The days when it was fun to “discover” new things in a store are long gone but almost no one is addressing that in how they arrange and present things in a store. (And I’m not talking about a manufacturer ‘buying” space, I’m talking about the overall arrangements and adjacencies, much like Radice did away with in a department store environment.)

So that’s how it’s both. A lot can be done with what’s there, but to start capturing more customers because you become a help to them because of all the things they can accomplish while in your store - THAT’s a revolutionary change...and I wouldn’t want to conjecture who will step up to the plate to do that.

I would chide stores into thinking more like the automotive industry. Try PROTOTYPES. Test a radical idea for a department within a store, or 5 stores. Try one whole new store and see what works, what doesn’t. Can manufacturers show prototypes at Auto Shows. Some are 10 years out, some 3. They are all there to gauge customer reaction. That’s the smartest thing they can do...ASK their potential customer whether they like an idea, whether an idea EXCITES THEM.
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