Friday, September 25, 2009

Stop&Shop: A Failure of Customer Service

One of the larger grocery stores in my area is a Super Stop&Shop. I'm uncertain as to the ownership of the chain. It's based in the Boston/Rhode Island area, but I cannot find it as a publicly-listed company.

(Author's note: I have since verified that Stop&Shop is a division of Royal Ahold, the Dutch-based food retailer.)

In recent years, the chain has upgraded stores, adding departments and various services. Recently, it took a giant step to distinguish itself by adding hand-held scanners. This product allows a customer to scan bar codes while shopping, including using custom-printed produce bar codes generated by electronic scales. The result is potentially the quickest possible checkout experience, bar none.

Not only does a customer not have to re-scan each item, but, due to having nothing to scan, s/he may use the express lane. The only significant activity at checkout is paying for the merchandise.

Due to this technology, I had shifted nearly my entire food purchasing activity to Stop&Shop, from a local, smaller chain, Kings. That chain had been owned by British-based Marks&Spencer for years. I'm not sure of its ownership status now, but I believe M&S at least reduced their stake, if they did not succeed in divesting themselves of their entire interest.

The Stop&Shop hand-held scanner is apparently a third-party provided solution, as I learned this summer.

One evening, having successfully sped around the store scanning away, I was checking out in the express lane, when the monitor announced that I "needed help," and suspended checkout. I was the victim of a cart audit.

Understandably, the hand-held scanner system generates "random" audits of shoppers, at which a S&S employee comes over to randomly scan items from the customer's purchases, confirming that each re-scanned item matches an originally-scanned item.

However, this became a problem when I was subjected to this so-called "random" event at least 4 times this summer.

Since the entire purpose of the combination of self-checkout lanes and a hand-held scanner is to deliver a speedy shopping experience to the customer, being stopped for an interaction with a low-paid, low-skilled clerk defeats the entire purpose. A well-designed audit program would balance stopping theft through unscanned items with truly random, or, better, system learning, so that customers who are audited, and not found to be stealing, are rated a lower risk, and subject to fewer random checks over time.

After the third audit this summer, I demanded to see the manager on duty at the time. In a long conversation, I explained that I did effectively all my grocery shopping at that store, because of the self-checkout and hand-held scanners. And that it was difficult for me to believe that I was "randomly" audited 3 times in, at most, as many months. That each audit was, to me, as a customer, a pending accusation of theft.

I told the employee, actually the store's assistant manager, that if I was subjected to one more audit within the next three months, I would stop patronizing his store. I didn't care how he would arrange it, but this was my promise.

Last week, I was stopped again for a cart audit. This time, as I loudly asked if the audit did not mean the store management suspected me of theft, and, when I passed the audit, was I not innocent of said assumption, I demanded to see the on-shift manager. This time, it was the store's manager, and he was standing only a few feet away. With him was the man I recognized, from my earlier conversation, as the store's assistant manager.

That's when the real fun began.

By now, a short line of people were queued up behind me in the express lane. I had a heated conversation with the manager, who tried to excuse the situation by claiming that the system was not under his control. That a third party was managing it.

I retorted that, as a customer, that made no difference to me. I was in a Stop&Shop store, so I had a reasonable expectation that the store's manager was responsible for my treatment. We went on like this for some minutes, with the manager incredibly contending that if I were to contact his corporate management, it would have more impact than his own complaint.

I replied that I had better things to do with my time, and that, if his statement were true, his firm is in more trouble than they probably realize. And that, as promised to the assistant manager, who had not recognized me, I was now returning to Kings to do all of my grocery shopping.

When I tried to check out, after the employee had done the required cart audit, the monitor froze, then came back up blank. The manager was horrified. Because my purchase used the scanner, the hand-held unit was needed to restart the checkout process.

But the audit employee had taken it. She, and it, were nowhere in sight.

I then had the pleasure of an event of which many of us have probably dreamt, but few have done.

I announced loudly that the store's system and management were totally inept, and could not even check out my purchases.

And then, I began to unload my very full canvas shopping bag onto the floor.

Again, clearly and loudly, to the manager, explaining that I did not even want the merchandise I had just selected and tried to buy, I placed various produce items and packaged goods in and around a small hand-basket, then left the store. Again, announcing my next stop- the rival grocery chain store down the street.

This is a store manager's worst nightmare. The cost of reshelving items is pretty high. Basically, with 1% sales margins in grocery stores, it effectively wipes out profit on those items, and then some. Not to mention the produce, which might have to be discarded.

Then there is the visual of a customer dumping items back onto a floor in full view of other customers. It's the ultimate repudiation of a retailer.

Honestly, I'm surprised the manager let me do this, and didn't offer almost anything to prevent it.

Ironically, as I processed what had just happened, with this post in mind, I realized that Stop&Shop's failure in this case was not its use of technology. Or the technology's failure.

No, the real culprit was the store's manager, assistant manager, and staff.

The assistant manager had never taken my name or contact information during our initial conversation in July. I clearly warned of the consequence of my experiencing another cart audit within the next few months.

Had the assistant manager been alert and competent, he would have taken my contact information, and at least begun a communications process that would lead me to believe, and, more importantly, feel that the store's management sympathized with my plight, and was doing something about it.

Even during my second conversation, with the store manager, he, too neglected to take any identification or contact information whatsoever.

Here, he had a disappointed, angry soon-to-be-ex-customer loudly denouncing his store in front of several lines of other customers at the checkout lanes. You'd think he would take the opportunity to exhibit maximal empathy and a show of action calculated to defuse my frustration and demonstrate real concern for his customer.

Instead, he appealed to me to contact his own senior management, though offering no advice as to how to do that, or whom to contact.

If that store manager had taken my contact information, apologized for the occurrence, and promised to 'do something,' he would have kept my business for at least a week or so, and have put on a wonderful show of positive, caring customer service in front of several dozen other customers.

This is, I think, a rather important lesson. Blaming the technology that a firm chooses to provide in its stores for its customers, for a bad shopping experience, is hardly productive or effective.

But almost any bad customer experience can be, at least temporarily, assuaged by genuine attention, collection of the customer's name and contact information, and a promise of imminent contact and communication to remedy the situation.

As I have mulled over this experience for the past week, I become more and more amazed at the lack of training, sophistication and innate instinct for good customer service that was displayed by the store manager of the Stop&Shop. What's sad, of course, is that if this constitutes "leadership" at the store, imagine how inept and ineffective customer service must be among the lower-level employees.

Isn't it ironic that Stop&Shop has invested substantial sums of money to become a leader in allowing very fast shopping trips, with no interaction with the store's staff, only to blunt this potentially important competitive advantage through poor control and oversight, and integration, of the technology with the store's management. And, then, compounding this error with poor customer service.

Customer service really is the first- and last- line of defense for a retailer. It can at least temporarily blunt and offset a poor customer experience with the store. But if this line of defense fails, the retailer is lost.

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