Last week I was in the US attending the FMI Connect conference, where I was presenting on the challenges and opportunities arising from the growth of online grocery shopping (http://www.progressivegrocer.com/industry-news-trends/trade-associations/live-fmi-physical-retail-digital-world?cc=10). I also took the opportunity to visit several stores in the Boston and Chicago area, including Aldi, Stop & Shop, Demoulas/Market Basket, and Wegmans. What struck me was that, with the clear exception of Wegmans, I got better service from other customers than from store employees. From offering product suggestions and cooking tips, to discounts using their loyalty card, other customers were far more forthcoming, helpful and knowledgeable than the staff I saw in the stores.
Now, one can't expect much in the way of service from a limited-assortment operator such as Aldi, whose prices for comparable quality products are 20-30% below regular full-range and "service" supermarkets. However, at the Stop & Shop I visited there were virtually no staff visible, or customers for that matter. This might be due to its location right next to a Market Basket store, where there were plenty of both. However, the staff I encountered at that store, including those wearing "Here to help" badges, ranged from poorly informed to plain rude. This might have just been a bad day or bad store within the Demoulas chain, but it is not so dissimilar to my experience at the average Tesco store, the UK "leader" as measured by market share. The experience I had at Stop & Shop and Market Basket made me appreciate the Wegmans experience even more, especially the guy I met in the produce area who let me try some rambutans on the spot, took me over to the prepared foods area to show me his favourite dishes, and talked proudly of the training he gets, which includes tasting lots of what is sold in Wegmans.
The point here is simple: treat your staff as robots and they will act like robots. However, given pure online retailers such as Amazon and Ocado are now using robots to crack the logistical challenges of fulfilling online orders, and that it is easier to build mechanical robots than change people and culture, brick and mortar grocers need to start redefining the meaning of customer service, as a matter of urgency.