Allow me to set the scene:
I’m in the Wegmans at the new location nearby my home. I’m amazed by how little I care about what things cost here as I’m relishing a walk through the store with my family on a Sunday afternoon. Instead of comparing prices between this and that, I’m simply enjoying the wide aisles, the cleanliness, and the very nice lunch we just ate. To be honest, if I were thinking about it logically, I probably paid more for the lunch than it’s worth, but I’m only thinking of that in retrospect. In the moment, I’m taking it in – the smiles, the atmosphere, the experience.
Nearby this Wegmans location in Pennsylvania, there’s a Costco. I’ve been a customer there as well – and although I might say I’ve enjoyed moments shopping at Costco, the atmosphere is more frenetic. Yes, I can buy cereal by the truckload and save a lot of money on a month’s worth of lunches, but I’m self-aware that Costco is an environment designed for lower prices, not for experience.
Here we have different strokes for different folks – but I am compelled in the way each store arranges their value propositions. It reminds me that your value proposition – that is, the essential “it” of what your company offers – can be re-thought and reinvigorated, even in categories that have been around for decades or generations (like the grocery store).
Living in the city (New York, of course), I used to think that Stew Leonard’s was the be-all and end-all in these kinds of grocery-store experiences. Certainly, chain stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have appealed to the desire for a bit more variety and health in the diet, but for a true, thorough experience, Stew Leonard’s always held the top spot in my mind.
Wegmans challenged that notion for me. Granted, they are different stores – Wegmans being much larger, and Stew Leonard’s being a bit more whimsical. Yet there are definite similarities that make these two grocery stores stand out – not merely as grocery stores, but as businesses.
1. A Genuine Foundational Philosophy
At the very core of both of these stores is a very value-centric grounded philosophy, centered on the customer as well as the employee. Both chains have come to the (smart) conclusion that happy employees = happy customers.
- Stew Leonard’s website proudly displays their mantra:
Rule #1 – The Customer is Always Right;
Rule #2 – If the Customer is Ever Wrong, Re-Read Rule #1.
Indeed, their stores proudly display it too – quite literally. The website says, “This principle is so essential to the foundation of the company that it is etched in a three-ton granite rock.” I don’t think they’re kidding around here, folks! It’s literally engraved in stone!
- If you take a quick look at the website for Wegmans, you’ll see their core values:
“To our customers and our people we pledge continuous improvement, and we make the commitment: ‘Every day you get our best.’” Wegmans founder Robert B. Wegman was also known for saying and believing that “it is essential to treat customers and employees right.”
Both companies have been on Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” lists, as many times as 10 years in a row consecutively, and their employee turnover rates are well below the national average. Suffice it to say, the employees are pretty happy there (and if you go into either store, it shows!).
And what about for the customer? Besides satisfied employees helping you with a smile around every corner, both stores extend their customer service outside of the store. One blogger documented his first experience at a Wegmans on Twitter (on his own blog) and he had the following to report:
Over the course of the day, I tweeted about going there five times, including a Foursquare checkin when I first arrived. Three of those times, the @Wegmans Twitter handle responded to me, and did so within minutes. One time I simply retweeted what they said to me, and added that I was impressed with the customer service, and they responded to that. That’s good stuff. The quick-on-their-feet Twitter response, even (especially!) on a Saturday, shows just how much Wegmans prioritizes a good customer experience. (I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comments on this blog post too.) That’s the “above and beyond” that I was hoping I would find in the store itself.
Sure enough, a day after the post went up online, Wegmans responded in the comments section!
2. Keeping It Local
When I say the stores are keeping it local, I mean both literally – by expanding slowly and strategically – and a little less literally – by keeping it in the family.
- Stew Leonard’s was started by none other than Stew Leonard, but it all began with his father’s dairy farm in Norwalk, Connecticut. Stew is the one who officially opened the grocery store (starting with only eight items in the store!) and it has grown into what it is today. Currently, Stew Leonard Jr. (Stew’s son) is the President and CEO of the company. (But wait! There’s more!) Stew Jr.’s sister Beth is the founder of Beth’s Bakery, sister Jill is the VP of Culture and Communication, and the rest of the family has a hand in keeping the business successful.
- Wegmans was originally called the Rochester Fruit and Vegetable Company and started out in the Wegman family’s house in Rochester (circa 1916). After six years, brothers Walter and John Wegman started their grocery store, and the rest is history. Today, Walter’s grandson Danny Wegman is CEO, Danny’s daughter Colleen is President, and his other daughter Nicole is VP of restaurant operations.
When business is good, it’s really tempting to try to get too big too fast, and that can sometimes be your downfall. You know what they say – “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it!” Sometimes it’s important to pace yourself, and it’s always important to surround yourself with those you trust.
Giving the customer the best experience starts with knowing who they are.
3. Focusing on Experience
What makes these two grocery stores stand out is, ultimately, the customer experience. Their core values and business practices certainly aid to create great experiences, but they have been very careful in crafting something I’ll call “interactive storytelling.” Anyone who’s anyone in the marketing business knows that the best way to share your message is through stories, and I’ve personally opined on how niche markets (like these experience-based grocery stores) go hand-in-hand with storytelling. Both Stew Leonard’s and Wegmans have masterfully designed their stores and trained their employees to ensure that every customer will have an experience in the store that goes beyond everyday grocery shopping.
- The New York Times named Stew Leonard’s the “Disneyland of Dairy Stores,” and if you’ve ever been to one, you’ll understand why. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, the store has “its own milk processing plant, costumed characters, scheduled entertainment, petting zoo and animatronics throughout the stores.” How’s that for a grocery store (interactive storytelling) experience?
- Although Wegmans doesn’t have the characters or musical productions, it has set itself apart in a unique way. CEO Danny Wegman says, “How do we differentiate ourselves? If we can sell products that require knowledge in terms of how you use them, that’s our strategy.” Fast Company wrote about how Wegmans goes (again) above-and-beyond to make sure their employees are as knowledgeable as possible. Employees in certain departments (meat and fish in particular) have to attend and pass a 30- to 55-hour “university” of sorts in order to make it on the floor to help customers. They even sent Carol Kent, manager of a cheese department, to Italy to study how Parmesan is made (and that’s not rare – managers are often sent overseas to study).
It’s pretty remarkable what these stores are doing, especially considering the type of market they’re in. Seth Godin wrote a little while back about how to be the purple cow among all the brown cows – how to stand out amidst the boring every day – and he said (among other great things), “Find things that are “just not done” in your industry, and then go ahead and do them.” That’s what both Stew Leonard’s and Wegmans have been doing from day one, and that’s what makes shopping at their stores such a remarkable experience.
- What are you doing to ensure that BOTH your customers AND employees are completely satisfied with your company?
- How are you “keeping it local” in your business?
- What are you doing to be a purple cow?
- What isn’t done in your industry that would make you stand out from the rest?
- What are you doing about the customer experience in your business?