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Do You Have Eggs?
When the 'super' in supermarkets goes missing, they will do well to look at kirana stores for some lessons.
A few days ago on a Sunday I went to pick up my weekly quota of eggs and bread. Even eggs have evolved in today’s branded world and you can choose between protein-enriched and low-cholesterol to the good old white or brown eggs. With such a wide choice awaiting me, I walked into the neighbouring supermarket and looked around for eggs. After a few minutes of searching which yielded no results I approached a staff member to enquire where the eggs were. Imagine my surprise when I was told they did not have eggs. Forget the various exotic types of eggs; even the ordinary ones were not available. This was on a Sunday morning at around 11 a.m.
To give the readers a background, almost half of the weekly sales of any food store takes place over the weekend. Usually retailers plan for weekend sales in terms of adequate stocks, special promotions and so on, simply because a very large number of customers walk into these stores during that period. So, you can imagine my surprise on being told there were no eggs available. Upon further prodding I was told that they did not get supplies of eggs and that they should get it in a few days. Muttering about the deterioration in service and the fact that something as basic and simple as eggs was not there I drove to another supermarket nearby.
With the great rush for organised retail and scramble to open stores we are today treated to a wide choice of stores situated very close to one another. Such was the case and there are 5-6 such supermarkets within two kilometres or so.
As a consumer I was very disappointed and ready to shift my entire loyalty to another store, all because eggs were not available in my usual store. What an opportunity for another store!
So, I drive to the next store and once inside went searching for eggs again. Imagine my shock and surprise when the second store also did not have eggs and the staff did not have a clue of when they might get them, if at all they would.
Now, I was really upset. I then walked across to the third store which is a few doors away. Surprise, surprise; no eggs at this store too! Slowly my egg purchase plan has been replaced by a deep desire to uncover the mystery of egg shortage. Three different supermarkets cannot all have the same problem! So, I now drive to the other end of the road where the fourth supermarket was situated. Same story and then onwards to the fifth supermarket to find the situation was the same. Upon enquiring, the store in charge promptly blamed the truckers’ strike for this situation.
To validate this supposed impact of the trucker’s strike, I stopped at one of the kirana stores and yes, he had eggs. Having become accustomed to the modern supermarkets, I was suspicious of the quality. After all, how can this small store have eggs when all the modern, supermarkets with such sophisticated supply chain systems not have eggs? Especially with a trucker’s strike on?
I was sure that he was trying to sell old eggs. So after quizzing him about when the eggs came and how fresh they are and so on, I purchased the bare minimum required and went home.
None of the eggs were old or spoiled!
Nowadays, if something is not available in the supermarket I head to the kirana store instead of to other supermarkets. Maybe after some time, I will head straight to the kirana and not waste my time visiting supermarkets, especially for basic items.
Since then, most friends have related similar experiences. Essentially one cannot finish the shopping at any one supermarket. In a list of 10 items, usually one is forced to visit a second or even a third store for at least two items if not more. So, are customers constantly changing loyalties between supermarkets or moving away from supermarkets, itself? A disturbing question!
In fact, in many households they now place telephonic orders for most of the monthly essentials which are basic in nature, such as groceries, to the kirana store which delivers it when required. Supermarkets which thrive on the unplanned purchases of customers, driven by visual stimuli, better beware and awaken.
I wonder why? The ‘touch, feel & see" experience was the cornerstone for the growth of organised retail. In fact, many kirana stores renovated themselves to give the customers a similar experience. Customers had enthusiastically embraced the modern, self-service stores driven by the choice available and freedom to exercise the same.
What has led to this coming of a full circle for these customers?
It’s not just the store!
Organised retail is not only about the store. It is about aggregating volumes and managing the supply chain efficiently. The store is only the delivery point. However, one should deliver what is required or else the pipeline would be choked with unwanted products, while customers are starved of what is needed. With increasing number of products being launched everyday and supermarkets aspiring to provide a wider choice to the customers, maybe basics are being missed out. There is a concept of tracking the top selling products in value and volume to ensure that these are always available. Both value and volume are important. For example, eggs might not total up to a huge amount of sales for any stores. But the category would definitely be large in the number of units sold. By not having eggs, the store has not only lost out on that sale, but also on the sales of a variety of other products which a customer picks up when browsing. Last but not the least is the risk of shifting to another outlet, be it a supermarket or kirana store.
Retail in that sense is a high-risk business as there is no cost of change to the customer. Hence, sustaining loyalty and repeat visits is of paramount importance. The fact also remains that the customer essentially comes to a store to fulfill his purchase needs. In the absence of this core offering, their choice of products, there is no further rationale for the customer to frequent that store.
Localisation needs to be implemented in every facet of retail be it assortment planning or having a special range of products or most importantly, localised management. The store staff needs to be aware of what is crucial for their store and should not rest till it is available. The staff are the face of the organisation who interact with customers regularly. They receive the bouquets or brickbats, as the case may be. However, are they empowered to act on behalf of the customer? The store staff nowadays appear to be totally disconnected and most of the time unaware of the backend.
How can they deliver value and delight the customers if they are not informed or have no role in ensuring that the fulfilment of customer requirements?
The kirana store has a distinct edge in this area. Not only is the shopkeeper aligned to customer needs, he is empowered to act on that knowledge. The best example of such empowerment leading to business growth is the neighbourhood medical shops. Most such shops are offering a larger range and slowly morphing into a convenience store. With the value-add of free door delivery, their range finds a ready-to-consume catchment. I would not be surprised if some enterprising medical stores starts selling fresh produce as many of them have already started selling bread!
The disconnect between customer interface and the ability to act on that is resulting in a certain sense of indifference and lack of ownership, in most organised retail stores. The obvious answer would be to call upon the HR department and roll out training programmes. However, in retail that alone is not enough.
Ownership of customers
Ownership of customers is a value system and this needs to be lived by everyone and taught by example. This would become one of the most crucial differentiators going forward. And this is something that needs to be instilled through leadership in action. No amount of training programmes or processes can inculcate this orientation if people see and experience a different reality being practiced by leaders in an organisation.
During the opening of a store there was a glitch in the billing system because of which offers and promotions were not working on the first day. The head of the organisation sent a very clear message: "We will live by our promise and not give excuses to customers." The store in-charge and a few senior staff were walking around throughout the day handing back money for all the billing mistakes and signing on the bill.
In another instance, a store in-charge walked up four floors to deliver a 20 kg rice bag because it was promised to the customer and there was a power cut in that building.
Would anyone in these stores dare to be indifferent to a customer?
Where is that ownership? Why can’t that be instilled? Is it a function of size and scale? Is that the Achilles heel of large chains?
No. This can be instilled and in fact be leveraged as one of the key competitive advantages for the stores.
Size and scale have their challenges and the least focused on in most cases is culture building and creating a strong value system aimed at delivering superior service. In the Indian context, the speed and pace at which stores were opened till recently also led to a shortage of trained people and very little time to train the new comers. In most cases youngsters with bare minimum training inputs would be deployed to the store to interact with customers. The reality is that we as a race are very poor customers: rude, intolerant and impatient. So, imagine the plight of such youngsters who literally went through baptism by fire.
Coupled with the physical demands of working in a retail store, it is no wonder that most store staff today look too tired to even smile, forget wishing the customers. Many youngsters leave this industry and those who stay back are burdened by increasing workloads in today’s context of cost-cutting and improving efficiency.
When commenting on this topic of inspiring passion and ownership, someone once remarked to me that "You can’t make an elephant dance". During an international internship with a leading retailer in UK, I personally witnessed an elephant dance and was deeply impressed by that. The core to that was everyone in the organisation had a single-minded focus - how do we delight the customer?
What impressed me most was an internal rating for departments that was given by the stores. The departments rated as being best and worst were listed in a large board, next to the entrance of their head office. Apart from the employees every visitor would see which department is helping or hindering the store that week! Obviously, no one wanted to be on that list. Perhaps something like that would ensure that eggs are available!
In this context, it would be apt to quote the famous book Moments of Truth by Jan Carlzon, who is credited with turning around Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS). This concept focuses on enabling every employee who has customer contact to be able to deliver customer delight and convert each ‘moment of truth’ to the organisation’s advantage. However, this is easier said than done. It has to be backed by business processes and systems where the front line is empowered. Therein lies the contradiction. In most organisations, the front line is the most monitored and regulated group of people. However, they need to be set free to be able to deliver customer delight. Training plays a huge role only when backed with supportive business processes. However, what makes the difference is creating and sustaining a sense of ownership.
Retail strategy can come alive only when it is owned and implemented well at the stores. And for that to happen, the store staff need to take complete ownership of the stores. I am not suggesting a simplistic solution to managing the complex animal called organised retail. What I am hoping is that the store staff are recognised and empowered to be proactive and act in the best interests of the customers, which would automatically be for the betterment of the store.
And of course, incidentally, eggs might be always available!
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