Natural Foods Merchandiser

It's in the bag when it comes to happy customers

The checkout experience is an often-overlooked aspect of a retail operation, but a hugely important one. Long lines can inspire people to walk right out without buying a thing. Snippy cashiers can put a serious damper on an otherwise pleasant shopping trip. And worst, perhaps, is a bagging job that crushes or even ruins newly purchased items. From soap packed with meat to a hot rotisserie chicken placed next to milk, the choices your employees make when bagging purchases can have a big impact on customers' satisfaction—and future buying habits at your store.

To help, we talked to Patrick Mills, front-of-the-house manager at Zingerman's Delicatessen, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based retailer known for its customer service. "The key is keeping the customer's perspective in mind," Mills says. "Finding out what the guest wants and needs, like double bags because she's walking home, or utensils because she's going straight to a picnic, makes a real difference." Here are Mills' no-fail bagging tips:

Step 1: Prepare the bag. Open it all the way, and make sure it's on a flat surface before you start loading groceries.

Step 2: Choose the first two items wisely. Place two heavier items (but not more than two), like jars of sauce, soup cans or bottles of olive oil, at the bottom. If you're placing two glass containers next to each other, wrap one in newspaper to prevent clinking.

Step 3: Separate groceries in a way that'll make it easier for shoppers to unpack their bags. For instance, bag frozen, fridge and pantry items in separate bags. If there's space on the countertop, set up three bags so you can load as you ring up the products.

Step 4: Ask customers if they'd prefer their prepared foods, like sandwiches or salads, in a smaller bag separate from their other groceries. "It's a nice touch, because a customer shouldn't have to dig through all of her purchases to find something she wants to eat before she gets home," Mills says.

Step 5: Engage customers in a brief conversation about their purchases as you're bagging—especially when it comes to out-of-the-ordinary products. "I've found this really helps customers make sure they get what they came for," says Mills, who has mentioned the ingredients in a sandwich or the name of an unusual jam and had customers say, "Wait! I didn't mean to pick that up!"

Step 6: Gauge how heavy the bag is getting and bring it to the customer's attention. "Say something like, 'This is seeming heavy to me, should I start a new bag?' " Mills says. "Some guests will say, 'Nah, keep piling it in, I don't have far to go to get it into my house,' and others will want to keep the bags light."

While these steps are likely to keep customers happy, it's crucial to remember that your employees' interest in good customer service starts with the management, Mills says. "You can never expect employees to give better service to guests than they're getting from the managers at the store," he says. "Show your employees your version of customer service so they're on board, and talk about it often to reinforce your ideals."

Shoppers shout out

"I hate when bags are packed so full that you can't carry them more than a few steps without them starting to stretch and rip. Sometimes, with cereal boxes, if they cram too much in, they will poke through and rip the bag."

—Christy Ritter, Fort Collins, Colo.

"I get annoyed when the cashier doesn't ask me whether or not I want my groceries double-bagged. I know a lot of people like it, but I think it's a waste."

—Ryan Dawson, Seattle

"It seems like such a no-brainer to me, but I'm amazed at how many times my bread or pizza crust gets crushed because it's stacked next to something heavy. All soft, crushable items should always go at the very top, and if there's a few of them, they should get their own bag."

—Jill Roth, Boulder, Colo.

"When you put produce on top of beef or chicken, there's a good chance the juice from the meat will leak onto the veggies or fruit, which doesn't seem too sanitary to me."

—Mary Anne Nally, Southold, N.Y.

"One of my local natural foods grocery stores puts rubber bands or tape around items that might open up in the bag, like a tub of freshly-ground peanut butter or a carton of raspberries. Now, when I go to a different store and they don't do that, it bothers me. It's a nice touch that ensures my purchases won't spill open in the bag."

—Marcy Luhrs, Richmond, Va.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 7/p.16,19

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