Heroes of the supermarket

Store managers don't have the power they once did.

For a few years when I was around 12, my grandfather used to pick me up at my house, one Saturday a month, to go to my horseback-riding lessons. He’d always have to leave my lesson at noon, even if we were having a great time (which was most of the time, I’m happy to say). I finally asked him why he always left at noon, and he said that next month he would take me along to show me.

The next month, after my lesson, we went to visit one of our family’s supermarkets: the ShopRite in Rockaway, N.J. When we got there, he went right to the produce department and grabbed a big bag of Kirby cucumbers the manager had waiting for him.

He then scouted the store and found a short woman in her mid-40s pulling one shopping cart and pushing another. Both were loaded with groceries.

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“How are you, Mrs. Smith?” he asked in his slight Russian accent. “Here are your pickles. We selected them just the way you like them, and they’re on sale.”

“That’s it?” I asked my grandfather after the woman thanked him profusely. “You broke up our fun and had to come all this way just to give a woman a bag of cucumbers?”

“That’s our best customer at this store,” my grandfather responded matter-of-factly. “And I want to make sure she stays our best customer!”

I THINK OF THIS STORY EVERY TIME I WRITE ABOUT IN-STORE customer service. It’s the litmus test I use every time a vendor contacts me to write about the latest technology to help retailers connect better with their shoppers: will this solution come even close to instilling that level of passion in the manager so they can predict the exact demands of customers at the right time to keep them coming back to buy more?

In the more than 25 years I’ve been writing about grocery, I haven’t seen anything that comes close to the real thing: the almost obsessive, but totally empathetic, supermarket manager.

The responsibilities of today’s supermarket manager are pretty straightforward. They start with setting goals for performance, hiring people, scheduling daily job assignments of store workers and then managing employees’ actions to those goals.

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Maintaining optimum stock levels for all products and general inventory management comes next. There is periodic accounting and auditing of each department, and ensuring perfect cleanliness and sanitation across the store. Also, there is interaction with headquarters, suppliers, brokers and such. And, lastly and arguably most importantly, there is interaction with the customer.

There are several positive traits that all great supermarket managers embody. One is exceptional conversational skills.

Since a main component of a supermarket manager’s daily duties is to interact with customers and employees, it is vital that they know how to converse in a courteous, yet effective manner. Past experience in all departments or as an assistant manager is another important trait all supermarket managers should have.

Although past employment may not be the only contributing factor to obtaining the best possible candidate for the job, it is still a highly desirable one. Another trait for supermarket managers is professionalism. A professional manager not only benefits customers, but is also a good morale booster for employees.

“The first key to building an effective store manager begins a bit further down the organizational ladder. The supermarket industry attracts a large number of talented, energetic young people with great attitudes, work ethics and all the other clichéd characteristics of success,” explains Ryan Matthews, a retail industry consultant at Black Monk Consulting in Eastpointe, Mich.

Supermarkets want to recruit the best available labour, but sadly, increasingly that labour is chasing better paying, more interesting jobs, Matthews points out.

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“So, the trick is to be as careful as possible in recruitment and then to identify those employees who have management potential, and do everything you can to grow both that potential and their loyalty toward your company.”

Even with the heavy load of responsibilities given to store managers and the skills they have, many supermarket groups have relegated managers to automatons who simply perform a function that connects headquarters to the store, limiting their control over even basic customer outreach.

This move toward cookie-cutter stores and managers who have to operate strictly to a plan reached its zenith during the 1990s with several big chains in Canada and the U.S. limiting the manager’s control over things like buying, assortment, promotions, displays and special sales.

“It was the old ‘push the product and promotions down to the store level and the customer will buy them’ attitude, when what’s really appropriate is to pull the demand info from the shopper and execute to that,” remarks Matthews.

The emergence of Internet retailing as a real form of competition for bricks-and-mortar supermarkets and other market factors are forcing companies of all sizes to re-examine the role of the store manager.

And many are now moving to change the role of the manager.

A RECENT CANADIAN GROCER ONLINE POLL ASKED, “Should store managers have more control of their operations?” The results yielded a clear vote in favour of giving managers more power.

Two-thirds of readers said that the head offices must allow store managers to run their stores as if they were entrepreneurs; or at the very least, store managers should get more buying authority.

Another16% said that store managers already have a lot of freedom to run their stores as they see fit. Only 17% said chain head offices need control over all aspects of their business to succeed.

Some grocers support the idea of giving store managers more authority over what happens within the four walls of the supermarket, with headquarters yielding many assortment and promotion decisions.

The link between the manager and the community is also proving critical for sourcing new products and meeting specific shopper demand.

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“Our managers will have input into the assortment for their stores based on the community they serve. We also give them a lot of autonomy on the personnel so they can build their teams to best serve their customer,” confirms Joey Longo, chief development officer of Toronto-area Longo Brothers.

As an example, Longo points to one of Longo’s stores in the Toronto suburb of Vaughan that’s situated in a heavily Jewish neighbourhood. The store manager has asked the company’s category managers to source dozens of additional kosher specialties.

Another Longo’s store in Vaughan is in an Italian neighbourhood, so store managers work with Longo’s category managers to source the special pastas and other products that community wants.

Not only are these store managers ensuring constant connectivity with the communities they serve, they are providing insight up to headquarters that can directly improve the overall marketing strategy. For instance, if several store managers serving communities with differing demographics start requesting to carry the same new product line, it’s a good guess that a trend is emerging and the other stores in the chain can benefit from stocking those items, too.

A few years ago, British supermarket operator Morrisons gave its store managers much more autonomy over both the store layout and the assortment.

And customers seem to appreciate the move. The U.K. market has turned dramatically toward discounting, but Morrisons has reported a series of benefits ranging from greater customer loyalty to bigger basket size.

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In April, Morrisons made another interesting move: it altered its employee-bonus program by taking into account customer service at the store level. Previously, bonuses were based solely on profitability.

Morrisons will judge customer service levels through online surveys and shopper comments at in-store customer service counters.

Even Walmart U.S. CEO, Greg Foran, less than a year into the top job, is giving managers more authority to address issues such as out-of-stocks and product assortment. Foran, perhaps channeling the ghost of Walmart founder, Sam Walton, is directing headquarters personnel to put more power into the hands of the store manager in an effort to better serve customers. Walmart will also tie store manager compensation more closely to customer satisfaction.

Another reason for more autonomy on the part of individual stores has to do with one of the hottest trends in grocery right now: local food.

A recent report from U.S. consulting firm AT Kearney suggests that supermarket retailers need to “test local autonomy over merchandising and sourcing. The local food leaders we identified in our research have given local managers more autonomy to make local food buying decisions.” For example, H-E-B in Texas and Wegmans on the U.S. East Coast allow local managers to build their own sourcing relationships with local farmers and merchandise these offerings as they see fit.

Kearney goes on to say that the local autonomy model optimizes quality, freshness and availability–three critical elements for success in local that Kearney identified in its consumer research.

These factors, combined with customers’ increasing willingness to pay for local offerings, can offset the potentially higher costs from the loss of efficiencies such as standardized processes and centralized buying.

Local market knowledge demands a strong store manager.

To paraphrase one of my grandfather’s favourite sayings, “The job of a store manager is to make it as easy as possible for my customers to buy from me and as hard as possible to buy from anyone else.”

This mantra holds especially true for today’s supermarket managers.

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