business news in context, analysis with attitude

By Kevin Coupe

These days, people-focused retailing can seem like it is from some sort of alternative reality. But it can work - effectively - when employed in a consistent and strategic way.

In addition to MorningNewsBeat, we also contribute longer pieces to a number of magazines; it gives us the opportunity to ponder big issues in an environment less pressured than the everyday deadlines of our usual venue.

Through the gracious assent of the editors and publishers of these various periodicals, our contributions now also will be available on an occasional basis here on MorningNewsBeat. This isn’t meant to be a replacement for the magazines; quite frankly, you can read them there first. But by allowing us to reprint them, it is hoped that these articles will have a new and expanded audience.

Reprinted with permission, FMI Advantage, Food Marketing Institute, 655 15th Street, NW, Washington DC 20005

Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott recently described the vision of "small shops with lots of trees out front and little parking spaces and individual owners" as being "a nice dream." The most efficient form of retailing, he said, remains "the supercenter, where the cost is driven out of the process."

Well, that's one vision of retailing, and a perfectly legitimate one.

But it is one, it seems to me, which is so focused on efficiency that it ignores the human connection that should exist between retailer and consumer. It's easy to ignore or diminish the importance of this; after all, "retailer" and "consumer" are sort of clinical words. I prefer "shopper" and ":shopkeeper," because they stress what they have in common: the "shop." And in this case, think of "shop" both as a noun and a verb, because it functions as both. It is a place, and it is a living, breathing, ever-evolving activity.

While the efficiency-driven model is one that more and more retailers choose to pursue, this relentless focus on efficiency as both means and end can create problems if you are not a retailer on the scale of Wal-Mart. You can see this happen in certain chains when they embrace self-checkout as a strategy that they believe will make them more efficient. Unfortunately, they use self-checkout only as a tool to cut labor costs, rather than using it as a way to redirect human resources into the aisles where they can connect with the shopper.

(Some experts think that people don't want to interact with supermarket employees, that they only want to get through the store fast and with as little human contact as possible. I think that's bull. I like to wear Hawaiian shirts, but have found that I have to be careful about wearing them Trader Joe's, where shirts in this style serve to identify the employees. I wear a Hawaiian shirt there, and people are always coming up and chatting me up, asking me for help, for recipes, for the locations of certain items. Of course, since I know the store almost as well as the employees, I just help. Why not?)

There's more than one vision of the future. I had the opportunity to see what you might call an alternative reality recently when I took a drive to upstate Connecticut to visit with Tim Devanney, owner of four Highland Park Markets that operate in Manchester, Glastonbury, Farmington, and Suffield.

The real difference between supercenter retailing and independent retailing could be seen when we stopped for lunch at a little restaurant overlooking a stream, and Devanney spied an elderly woman having lunch with some friends across the room. "She's been a shopper of ours for years," he confided, and walked across the dining room to say hello. He stood and chatted for a few moments, then came back to our table. But before picking up on our conversation, he pulled a waiter aside and handed him a credit card. "When they're finished their lunch, I want to pay for it," he said in almost a whisper. 'The only thing is, don't let them know until we're out of here."

While Devanney probably didn’t think of it this way, it occurred to me that not only did he reward a customer of long standing, but he certainly created terrific word of mouth with the other women at the table.

Devanney seems to specialize in what might be termed the understated differences that heighten the human connection between shopkeeper and shopper, doing the little things that separate his stores from the pack. For example, the company has for several years used to offer online shopping services to customers, though Devanney concedes that it hardly has achieved mainstream acceptance to this point. That's okay, though, since his father-in-law does all the deliveries…and often can be found repairing a door or window, or performing some other maintenance job for one of the elderly customers who has taken advantage of the service.

The environment at Highland Park Markets is designed around the concept of interaction - the meat, deli and bakery departments are all service counters. Self-service, you see, wouldn't allow for the human connection.

The store offers carryout service, and even has checkout personnel who are able and willing to carry on a conversation with shoppers. Not that this is easy in 2003. "These days, when we hire people, we have to give them more formal training than we used to," Devanney said. "These days, we sometimes have to teach people the basics, like how to say 'hello' and 'thank you.' They don't seem to get that at home anymore."

Of course, they still get that in the Devanney household. Which is why during my visit to the stores, I encountered two of his grown children working there, each of them as engaging and engaged in the business as their dad. (For his son, it was just a summer gig before heading off to the Culinary Institute of America; Highland Park is in the food business, and he's going to learn as much about the subject as he possibly can.)

Being in the food business, Devanney has long focused on creating an environment in which consumers expect great products, whether in perishables or in grocery. The company has long sold Certified Angus Beef, having made the decision to carry it just "because it was the best," Devanney said. But it didn't even advertise the fact that it carried this beef "for seven years, until customers started asking us how come we didn’t carry it." So now, Highland Park advertises Certified Angus Beef…but sort of reluctantly.

"We didn’t advertise it because we do our own branding," Devanney said, noting that he's more concerned that consumers know that they get great beef at Highland Park, not that it happens to be Certified Angus. That aura of excellence can then permeate everything the company does. "We have faith in what we do," Devanney said. More importantly, it is critical that customers have faith in Highland Park Markets - which means emphasizing the things that make his stores unique.

In the bakery of one of his stores, Devanney hired a pair of brothers who had worked since childhood in the Italian bakeries of nearby Hartford, and they deliver a line of pastries and cakes that are almost beyond description. (They are not, however, beyond consumption. Trust me on this one…)

And in the grocery aisles, Highland Park uses endcaps as often to promote new and interesting products - an unusual line of salad dressings here, an intriguing line of barbecue sauces there - as it will to promote sale items.

"Our customers rely on us to bring them the best products that are available," Devanney said. And that means throughout the store, at every turn.

It would be foolish to suggest that Highland Park Markets exist in some rarefied universe where competition is meaningless. It doesn't. the fact is, when a new Super Stop & Shop opened not far from its Suffield store, it hurt. But Devanney is a patient man, and very focused - he kept to his strategy, didn’t panic, and now sales are coming back, as consumers rediscover Highland Park, a store that is, in Devanney's words, "not as expensive as they thought, and every bit as good" as its reputation would suggest.

They also discover, in all likelihood, that when they enter a Highland Park Market, they are more than just stats in a category management or loyalty marketing report.

There's a human connection. And that can be a compelling difference.

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