Whose line is it anyway?

Image by Associated Press

Here’s some food for thought for you today. While moving through the “Fast Checkout – 10 items or less” line to pay for my two items I looked over at the other queues of shoppers, mostly exhausted-looking mothers, who had shopping carts filled to overflowing with food. I thought to myself that it must have taken them hours to select those many items, backed by a handful of item-specific coupons.

These are the store’s best customers, the men and women who come in to shop for an army, yet the store does nothing to make it easier for those elite clients to do business with them. They make them stand in the longest lines in the store, subjecting them to the longest waits of any of their customer base (particularly those good for nothing two item purchasers like me) without apology, compensation or even the slightest hint of care.

Sure they have loyalty programs that provide savings but those savings are available to all, regardless of purchase volume. I have to wonder why no store in all the years I’ve been food shopping has ever recognized and acknowledged the fact that their best shoppers are being treated like second class citizens.

I know that Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have adopted the banking and airline industry’s use of the single line managed by a line director in some locations with a degree of success, but surely there must be more creative ways to improve the experience of the top customers!?!

Why not tie total dollar purchase volume over time to some type of “elite” or “gold” status like the airlines do? Give those clients a special line, a featured beverage at the front door, personal shoppers or even a lounge where they can sit, rest or socialize? It rarely takes much to give credit where credit is due and I hope that someday, somewhere, a bright marketing person in a forward-thinking, customer-centric grocery store will see the light.

My company is in the midst of reengineering the way we do business to this very end. We want to identify ways in which we can make it easier for our clients to do business with us. I have no doubt that we, like the grocery stores across the nation, have developed processes and systems that are ineffective if not diametrically opposed to this goal and my hope is that over the next three months we can free ourselves from as many of those bad practices as possible.

I am open to ideas – as always! – and appreciate the opportunity to flesh out this line of thought that has been tapping at my chamber door.

Have a great day!

16 thoughts on “Whose line is it anyway?

  1. James


    thanks for another very insightful blog, you bring up and importatant question. I can report from NYC that Whole Foods seems to be innovating pretty well, the first time we went there, we got a free rickshaw ride home (with $150 purchase)

    As business owners it is our priority to see places we can add value and provide! Thanks for another great post.



  2. Juan

    I’m glad I had an extra minute this morning to check your blog Gregg! While researching for a class assignment I came across a great HBR article that relates directly to this post.

    “Stop trying to delight your customers” deals with all the common loyalty-eroding problems that customers encounter on a daily basis, and how companies can tear down these obstacles to gain true customer loyalty.

    Check it out!!!



  3. I think the most important consideration for a supermarket is not the number of items in the cart, but the total value of the items and the profit margin on them. That’s not necessarily the same thing.

    A single person with high disposable income, buying a few expensive items several times a week, may represent the close to the same profit to the shop as a housewife with strained purse-strings buying a cart full of cheap bulk-buy type goods once a week. Encouraging the singles to shop, with things like the express checkout, thus generates more revenue than helping the housewife with her large volume, low-profit items.

    Obviously this isn’t always the case, but I bet there are enough cases like this to significantly depress the overall value of large volume consumers relative to low volume consumers, at least more than might otherwise be expected.

    Supermarkets already use some pretty advanced demographic analysis software to identify high-value consumers of whatever volume, and reward and retain them. In some ways, the UK market is more advanced in this regard that the USA. Shoppers have been found to have higher store loyalty here, and tend to “single-shop” where possible rather than divide their shopping across multiple stores. Partly that’s down to careful marketing with extremely targeted/personally-tailored rewards and voucher programmes to customers.


    1. Great analysis, thank you! I can see where that would be valuable. I’ll take a look at the data from my day spa from that perspective. I also think that the key performance indicators would be different from business to business, even within the same industry.


  4. Greg,

    I have been saying this for years. It’s nice to see that it also occurred to someone else. Why can’t Wegman’s and other forward-leaning grocery chains treat valuable customers better? In military commissaries, there is a single line approach, and specially-designated cashiers for those in uniform. Why not in “the real world?”


    1. You beat me to it! I owe you a nickel. I imagine the real-world analysts have a particular lens they see everything through which precludes innovative ideas like the ones we’re discussing. Change the lens and everything can be seen in a different light.


  5. Kolya

    There are so many other examples of this as well, where company’s just don’t show their clients how valuable they are. Even in the airlines, although they have perks for frequent travellers, they also hurt their largest client base with baggage fees, refusing to refund those even if a bag is lost, etc.

    I think the art of true customer service is rare and I’d love to see that come back in fashion. It is a perfect time to stand out from the crowd.

    Good luck in reengineering your company. I’ll send along any ideas I have.


  6. DeeDee

    You are voicing something really important, Gregg. In today’s economy (or any economy, ever) the fact that I have chosen to spend my time and my money in a given store on given products is worth a lot more than I am often ever made to feel it is. I appreciate your attitude with your own business. Value added experiences don’t necessary mean the cheaper prices. Customer appreciation can take a variety of forms and in my book goes a long way towards building my loyalty.


  7. Colin

    Good idea. There is always a way to do business better, or even just differently. Sometimes I wonder how businesses get by being mediocre to poor. I think that either the customer has no options and every company in that industry is bad, or the business is subsidized by the government and doesn’t have to worry about silly things like profitability. Anyway, good on you for making your company better. I’m sure your customers notice and appreciate it!


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