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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Good holiday service can create customers for life

Make your store an exception to the holiday frenzy.

You know the feeling, or then again, maybe you don't.

You're looking for parking at your favorite store. After endless circling, someone whips into the spot you'd been waiting for and heads for the store without so much as a "how do you do." When you finally get into the store, the frenzied feeling of shopping greets you. You aren't welcomed, as clerks rush around at the same frantic pace as the customers. The aisles are crowded, and the first item on your list is out of stock. Your partner's parents aren't going to understand if everything's not perfect for the holiday feast. Basically, it's hard to imagine the thanks or the giving at this point.

So who has the power to change it? We do. If we know this is what customers have to put up with at most stores, then let's make ours the exception.

Start with a plan

Before the frenzy starts, call a crew meeting to set up your holiday strategy. Talk about what's worked in the past and what hasn't.

Remind the department veterans and the new produce pups that this is an opportunity to not only take care of the valuable customers who choose to shop at the store, but also impress the new folks who are giving you a try. It's going to be busy, so make sure your staff is mentally ready to rise to the challenge.

Out of stock, out of luck
Review the past year's shopping patterns if you haven't already. Start by keeping a record of what you bought enough of and what you didn't.

Pay attention to the weather; an unseasonably warm trend might have customers looking for something tropical to do with their yams. Read what the cooking magazines are raving about this year. Perhaps even watch Martha Stewart and find out what she's telling your customers to prepare.

What do they want? What do they need?
Listen to what the customers want, but give them what they need.

Once I had a customer show me a magazine picture of red orange slices surrounding a turkey platter. I knew that organic blood oranges weren't in season and the color and effect was what to look for, so I suggested she cut a pomegranate and squeeze the juice onto slices of Valencia oranges. Voilà, a customer's holiday is saved.

Needless to say, she became a regular weekly shopper after that day. If a customer asks for something out of the ordinary, will your clerks just say no without going the extra mile? Change that negative response into a fact-finding mission and find a satisfied customer.

Quality and quantity
Don't let your most experienced staff take too much vacation time, and schedule their shifts around peak hours so they'll be there to answer those questions that the part-time night clerk isn't going to know. 

This can go a long way toward increasing your customers' decision about where they want to shop. Customers have very little time these days to shop, cook or even understand the little nuances of the food they want. For us, that is opportunity knocking.

Right place, right time
Offer curbside service by letting shoppers go get their car and then load their groceries for them. Be flexible with your closing time for that customer who needs to work on his time-management skills or is late because of other people who do. Or let them in the store a few minutes early because they can only shop before work.

You may even consider advertising in the store that you are changing your hours just for the holiday season to an hour earlier or later to accommodate their needs.

Make fun the rule of the season

Your employees know what's ahead of them, so encourage a sense of humor and fun. Dress up! Believe me, it is infectious. And it can change a customer's perspective to the thanks that's being given.

Have food available for employees so they don't have to join in the madness on the streets. Hand out roses just because you can.

Watch for those less-than-happy kids who have been toted around from store to store all day and pay special attention to helping out mom or dad. You'll be surprised at how this will actually make your holiday season a time that you'll look forward to every year.

Thanks for all your hard work providing organic produce to your communities this year! The world really is a better place because of what you do!

Mark Mulcahy runs Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm in Glen Ellen, Calif.

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