business news in context, analysis with attitude

So, we were in a chain supermarket over the weekend. (We won’t tell you which one, because the incident we’re about to describe may be an isolated case and it wouldn’t be fair. Suffice it to say that it is a major chain with stores throughout the Blue States of the northeastern US…)

There was a woman there shopping, and she was perusing the dairy case, clearly not able to find what she wanted. She noticed an employee nearby, and asked if the store still carried a specific brand of lemon yogurt that she’d bought there before. The employee shrugged, said she didn’t know, and suggested that the woman might want to try one of the company’s superstores that is located a couple of miles away.

The woman walked away annoyed, with no intention of going several miles. Instead, she confided in us when we were chatting in the checkout lane, she was thinking of going over to a nearby independent store, Palmer’s Market, to see if they carried or could get the lemon yogurt for her.

(She also mentioned that she’d spent most of her life in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and yearned for the days when she could go to Byerly’s to shop.)

About an hour later, we needed to pick a few things up at a nearby Trader Joe’s in Darien, Ct. (We’re happy to name the store in this case because experience tells us that this is not an isolated case.

We were waiting on the checkout line when the cashier, a nice woman named Rose, looked at the woman in front of us and asked if she’d tried the chocolate truffles that were being sampled. The woman said, no, they were probably loaded with calories.

Rose smiled. “No,” she said, “we have a special today – all the calories have been taken out!” The woman cracked up, went over and tasted one of the truffles – and ended up buying a box.

Obviously, we don’t have to spell out the differences in culture that made these two occurrences so different. The problem is clear, and the lack of engagement on the part of that chain employee is, we’re afraid, likely to be the rule, not the exception. And many will say that a big chain simply can’t have the same kind of employee attitude that a store like Trader Joe’s has.

But Trader Joe’s is no small company – it has well over 200 stores, spread across the country and mostly on both coasts. And yet we’ve never been in a Trader Joe’s that didn’t have friendly, enthusiastic associates who went out of their way to create a connection between themselves and shoppers.

Salesmanship is an enormously undervalued commodity in the supermarket industry. Too many people simply put the products on the shelves, collect their slotting allowances, and hope the customers buy them.

We can’t help think that one of the reasons that salesmanship is undervalued is that employees also are undervalued…and that too many big companies (to use a phrase that we have often mentioned in this space) think of them as costs and liabilities, not assets and salespeople who can contribute mightily to the bottom line.

Looking for a differential advantage? Hundreds of them may be working for you…if only you’ll think of them that way, train them, coach them, reward them, and nurture their talents and ambitions.

Rose, who works on the checkout lane at Trader Joe’s in Darien, is one of those people…and we suspect that she’ll be with the company for a long time.
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