Barry Berman of Long Island, N.Y., flips a coin with his wife to determine grocery shopping duties. The loser ends up at a conventional supermarket close to their home and the winner heads to Trader Joe's, a naturals retail chain with a store about three miles away. "At Trader Joe's, there's a sampling bar, the employees are knowledgeable, the people at the checkout will go to great lengths to help you—all of which really make a difference," Berman says. "The whole experience is so great that we look forward to shopping there."
Berman, a marketing professor at Hempstead, N.Y.-based Hofstra University, knows a thing or two about what keeps customers loyal to their favorite stores beyond his own shopping experiences. In the research he's done on how retail establishments can keep customers happy, key themes have emerged—and they're similar to the results of the consumer research The Natural Foods Merchandiser commissioned. "Essentially, it boils down to good products, good service and good prices," Berman says. Here's how you can capitalize on what your customers want more of—and avoid what might keep them from coming back to your store.
Delight them with a focus on details.
Not surprisingly, fresh, beautiful-looking produce ranked high when customers were asked what would encourage them to go back to a particular store. But almost as important was exceptional customer service. "I was looking for a particular herb that the local co-op did not carry," says Bill Mitchell, a survey respondent from Syracuse, N.Y. "Three days later, I got a phone call from someone at the store [who] said they could order it for me." Of course, special orders might not always be possible, but there are other ways you can encourage your employees to go out of their way to make your customers feel special, says Debbie Allen, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based retail industry consultant.
"Talking about extra touches should come up at every [staff] meeting," Allen says. "Maybe that extra touch is sending hand-written notes to customers who sign up for your mailing list, or hosting a class or event that'll help educate your shoppers," she says. And if you can't do a special order for customers looking for something in particular, Allen suggests sending them to a competitor you know who carries the product. "That really wows people, because you're going out of your way to help the customer—so far that you're sending them to a competitor," she says. "And you know what? They'd find your competitors on their own. So why not be the hero and send them there yourself? Instead of thinking of it as a risk that you might lose a customer, think of it as what kind of loyalty you'll likely gain from that person."
Impress them with capable staff.
Exceptional employees also play a big role in what'll inspire a shopper to return to your store, and the research shows customers want more than just friendliness. "At Trader Joe's, employees are trained to help shoppers find exactly what they're looking for," Berman says. "And if they don't have it, the employees will walk you over to something else that's similar. This helps [customers] have a good experience even when a store can't stock everything they want or need." To do this at your store, Berman suggests educating your employees about what you carry and what those products are used for. Hosting a weekly staff lunch that's prepared with the products you carry is a great way to do this, he says.
But employees with extensive product knowledge won't get you far if they don't have an engaging personality, Allen says. "You really have to hire people that are people people," she says.
"Conducting thorough employee interviews is the best way to determine this." Allen suggests that all retailers ask prospective employees in-depth questions—not just yes or no answers—and invite finalists back for a second interview as well. "It's also a smart idea to have another trusted employee join you for the last interview so you can get a second opinion."
Give them the best price possible.
While lower everyday prices and more frequent sales ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, when consumers were asked what inspires them to visit a store regularly, Berman says he believes shoppers overrate the importance of price. "People will pay top dollar if they feel what they're getting is quality," he says. "If I'm buying corn at noon that was picked at 9 a.m., I'm going to be happy to pay a premium for that corn."
And with more importance placed on local, organic and natural food than ever before—even at those big-box stores that have only recently entered the naturals category—it's more important than ever to focus your efforts on stocking the best products you can find. "You're never going to compete with Wal-mart on the basis of price, and a surefire way to bankruptcy is to try to do that," Berman says. "But you can compete with distinctive merchandise and super customer service."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 22, 25