Published on: August 18, 2021
Yesterday we took note of a Wall Street Journal piece about Satish Malhotra, CEO of The Container Store, in which the self-confessed former hoarder (who previously was chief retail officer and COO at Sephora) talks about how his new company changed his life - and hopes to change those of its customers.
One of the points he made was about how "quite a significant amount of staffing was doing operational tasks, stocking, replenishment. That’s important, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of being able to be there for customers. So we optimized the way that we were doing replenishment, doing time studies, finding operational efficiencies.
"We took that labor we saved and put it all back on the selling floor.
"Now we can take the time to have a conversation, understand your lifestyle. Maybe you come in for storage-lid organization, but I’m actually having a conversation with you about baking. Our basket [the average value of a customer’s shopping cart] saw a double-digit increase."
To me, this represents what is missing from many food stores. Too few retailers put an emphasis on empowering employees to have a conversation with customers, addressing the issue of massive choice in a way that creates both simplicity and opportunities.
And, like at The Container Store, this can be an investment that builds sales and profits. It isn't just a cost.
One MNB reader responded:
I read with interest your blurb about The Container Store. Way back when I was a college student, I attended a lecture by their then CEO. I was thoroughly impressed with how they treat their employees, and how they view their customers. This mindset you describe in your article doesn't surprise me one bit. You also said that supermarkets need to do the same thing, allow, even encourage employees to interact with customers and to help with buying decisions. My counter to that is, first the supermarkets need to hire people who are capable of doing that.
My brother is now a retired college professor, before that he was a Meat Market manager for a major grocery chain. He was a certified master meat cutter. At that time there were three levels of meat cutters, trainee, journeyman and master. Most didn't get past journeyman, he wanted the extra money for being a master meat cutter so he went through that program. Seriously, to this day he can go through a meat counter and pick out the store's mistakes, he can look at the rib eyes and tell what rib each one came from. The problem is that fewer and fewer stores actually cut meat in store. He went through training when they still bought sides and quarters, then broke them down. He knows the two predominant meat grading systems we use in this country. As a result, he and others like him were able to help customers make good choices in their meat purchases, he was also able to give them new ideas about preparation, how to grill, broil or otherwise cook what they bought. I don't see much of that anymore, in any of the specialty departments. Back in the day, I knew product managers with the same kind of knowledge, now they are glorified stockers.
Another area the food manufacturers and processor may be missing the boat a bit. Our population is getting older, at least I know I am. Many of us older people still enjoy cooking. Many of us live alone or maybe with a spouse. The package sizes of many products are meant for larger families, not families of 1 or 2. Plus, as we get older, our hands may not be as strong as they once were.making it more difficult to open cans and packages.
What I personally would like to see is products, ingredients in sizes meant for single servings for one or two people, that are easy for older arthritic hands to open. I'm thinking that regardless of what nationality one is, there will be a market for such products.
But, first I think supermarkets could use a lot of people who know something about the products they are selling. In our haste to learn shopping trends, and compile data about our shoppers, we've forgotten that each shopper is an individual with individual needs. Our demographics are changing, until last year, fewer people cooked anymore, last year forced some to learn. It was the first time I ever saw stores run out of yeast and baking soda, ever. But then, I saw lots of things for the first time last year. Who knows, I may write a book about being on the front lines in a pandemic.
From another reader:
Bottom line, customer service in retail stores is disappearing. How many times have you asked a simple question like where is the salsa and gotten a blank stare? The knowledge or training about the stores is incredibly lacking. That is if you an even find someone.
Regarding the new Taco Bell format designed to ben faster and frictionless, one MNB reader observed:
Chick-Fil-A seriously has the best and fastest pick up system. Plus, they still maintain the personal touch. My question to Taco Bell would be, what if what you get the wrong order or missing pieces of an order? How would that get remedied? We’ll see how well this concept goes.
MNB reader Henry Stein weighed in on another story:
In reading your comment about the closing of Russo’s, I wanted to also note the announced closing of a true institution, Kowloon in Saugus MA.
Following 70 years of consistent successful ownership by the Wong family, Kowloon became more than a restaurant; a virtual entertainment palace with names through the years like Phyllis Diller, Frankie Avalon and Jerry Seinfeld and popular musicians performing as well. Sports heroes (and professional wrestlers) were regulars.
Boston locals are already lamenting the upcoming loss of this famed establishment that knew what customer service was. Tough loss in this north Boston neighborhood.
And finally, regarding my FaceTime video yesterday about Apt, the Cape Cod restaurant where the owner actually closed down for a period of time because the staff, in her judgement, needed time off to recover from abusive customers, one MNB reader wrote:
Thank you for sharing your experience and hats off to the owner for protecting her staff. “Be Kind” is my new mantra and I share it with anyone and everyone. It takes so much more effort and energy to be angry and say hateful things than to just smile. And all that negativity just breeds more negativity. I go back to a lesson I learned many years ago – “shadow of a leader”. And while movements can start from the ground up, until our leaders start acting like adults and treating each other with kindness, it’s going to be a long, hard battle upwards.
I totally agree.
MNB reader Joe Axford wrote:
Absolutely fantastic FaceTime KC, you were spot on about some customers - and the owner of Apt did absolutely the right thing. I'd be proud to work for someone like her!
And, finally, this email from MNB reader Deb Faragher:
In reading today’s MNB, I was struck by the juxtaposition of a few of the stories. First, It was great that you visited Apt to experience it firsthand. It is so disappointing to see the deterioration of social interaction and, as you said, sad that you’re not sure we’re living in a world where shame matters. What a sorry state that this has to be a topic for discussion. I agree that we need to treat each other with a level of decency.
On that subject of customer interaction, the story of Taco Bell’s new concept being “frictionless” and “contactless”, even with the 2-way audio and video technology that allows customers to interact with team members, seems to be in contrast with the Container Store recognizing that stocking the store comes at the expense of customer interaction. As the CEO stated, changing the replenishment function allowed them to put more people on the floor. That allows them the time to have a conversation, understand the lifestyle of the customer and help identify what the customer is looking for. Oh, and that interaction produced a double-digit increase in the average transaction. That says a lot right there about how valuable that front line associate is.
These are two very different businesses, I understand, but it’s interesting to see efforts to move toward contactless experiences in some, and finding ways to increase customer interaction in others. As you continually point out, companies need to be looking at all aspects but, as always, it has to be geared to making the customer experience one that will keep them returning. Maybe some of the unruly and unappreciative customers of today will appreciate those contactless options.