Little things--and big things--matter to customers

October 15, 1990|By David Conn

Nancy Hostetler knows the prices are higher at Giant than at the Valu Food closer to her home in Ellicott City. And as a mother of four, she doesn't have a lot of time to drive out of her way for grocery shopping. But it's the little things that keep her coming to Store 203 in Dorsey's Search, Columbia.

Such as when she opened a can of peaches at home to find it half-empty, made an off-hand commentto a clerk weeks later and left the store with a free replacement can. Or the time a staffer dug up some plastic cup lids in the employees' lounge to rescue a messy birthday party. "They gave them to me for free and got a customer for life," Ms. Hostetler says.

It's the little things.

Giant executives have a million of them: Store manager changes tire in the rain while customer waits inside store. Top official responds to minor complaint about lettuce, visiting the store to investigate the produce section with the customer. Chairman of the company personally wrestles with coffee machine that ripped off a consumer and gives her a cup on the house.

According to Ms. Hostetler, and to Giant officials, it's also the big things that keep people coming back: clean stores, wide variety, consistent quality and courteous employees.

"My father always referred to the consumer as Mrs. Murphy, and that she should be able to come into our stores and shop blind," says Chairman Israel Cohen, speaking of his father, Giant co-founder Nehemiah "N. M." Cohen. "If she went to tomatoes, she shouldn't be able to find a bad tomato."

That devotion to the customers, to treating them well and filling the stores with what they want, and to creating a positive public image, has helped make Giant Food Inc. the most popular and profitable supermarket company in the Baltimore-Washington market, with about 40 percent of the market. Even though some of Giant's most loyal customers say the prices are higher than average, they keep coming back.

The company's consumer orientation is grounded in economics as much as common sense. Tony Gochal, a 46-year-old Columbia resident, shops Store 203 two or three times a week, and buys his lunch most days from a Giant in Laurel near his office.

Mr. Gochal is an expert shopper: On a recent Saturday afternoon he whipped through the store in 10 minutes, buying $18 worth of food. He figures he spends $50 a week with Giant. At that rate, he could spend $75,000 with the company for the rest of his life. Assuming Ms. Hostetler's children leave the nest at a reasonable age, she may spend more than $100,000 at Giant for the rest of her life.

"We want the customer when she leaves the store to turn around and say, 'My, what a wonderful shopping experience,' " Mr. Cohen says. "It's a very simple business: Treat the customer like you want to be treated."

To be sure, Giant is not the leader in customer satisfaction. The legendary Stew Leonard of Norwalk, Conn., sold about $100 million of groceries in his one store last year (Store 203 does about $35 million in annual sales). Mr. Leonard's secret is a fanatical devotion to his shoppers: The store features a petting zoo, variety shows for the kids and employees who have been known to bake up a fresh batch of an out-of-stock goodie on request.

As friendly as Giant's employees are, even local stores, such as some of the Eddie's supermarkets, are known for providing personalized customer service far beyond what a large chain like Giant can provide.

In fact, much of the company's $30 million-plus annual advertising budget is aimed at softening its big corporate image, and most shoppers seem to find Giant friendlier -- at least more so than the other big supermarkets.

Giant says that's because its top officials set the standard: Store managers are allowed to satisfy one customer by ordering a single case of an item the company doesn't carry, a practice called "spoon-feeding," says M. Davis Herriman Jr., vice president for grocery operations. Senior Vice President Alvin Dobbin personally answers every customer compliment and complaint.

But when employee enthusiasm and friendliness lag, management systems are there as a safety net.

Bill Marriott, manager of Store 203, is reviewing the record of a cashier accused of treating a customer impolitely. Giant has a "mystery shopper" program that sends undercover shoppers through checkout lanes on the lookout for poor etiquette. "Abrupt manner," the cashier's record says. "Gave no eye contact and no smile, stared straight ahead and appeared very bored."

"The quickest way out the door, other than losing money, is to p--- off the customer," Mr. Marriott says.

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