Category Archives: Customer Service

Old Kroger Outlives Signage, Thrives

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Store facia updates may not be worth what they cost.

I stopped recently at a Kroger’s in the ‘fancy’ end of Lynchburg VA. The street-side sign is probably 1960’s era – hardly enticing to a new-to-Kroger’s shopper. But the store entrance itself is right up to date: wide automatic doors, large cart lobby… then you step inside, and you’re in a totally modern Kroger’s somewhere else.

Well, maybe not totally modern: The produce section offers the usual blow-you-away variety and presentation; the wine section right behind it is vast – thankfully so in an area where wine-buying options are slim, at best.

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Efforts have been made to update elsewhere, but let’s face it, they’re working with an older model, small footprint store. Still, this store stands head and shoulders above its nearest (physical) competitor, a Food Lion, half a mile along the same road. Next nearest is a Fresh Market, aka Whole Foods Jr. (The former is owner by the latter.)

This Kroger has an above-average range of products, in its market area, and does an outstanding job of presenting its range where aisles are, in some instances, nearly as narrow as those in big-city stores – but the trade-off, a reduced facia-count for many items, results in a wide range of offerings, including a reasoned range of well-beyond-food items.

Top-Of-Line Meat Offerings

Space limitations across the back wall mean deli foods are in a relatively confined back strip, followed by an eight-foot-wide seafood/best meat case. The choice, in the limited space, is highly impressive, and the presentative is top-of-the-line Kroger’s.

(That local shoppers don’t balk at higher-than-market-average prices for meat was obvious when the man preceding me at that seafood/best meats counter casually ordered a pair of steaks that set him back close to $50 – a sizable single-meal meat expenditure in this part of Virginia!)

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The entrance to the Lynchburg VA store on Boonsboro Road  (photo: D Harris)

Immediately after entering the store, I scanned the that meat/seafood area to ensure they had what I wanted. The patrolling ‘butcher’ (or was he a seafood specialist?) gave me a ‘can I help you look,’ and I said I’d be back in a few for a pair of lobster tails. It was a good ten minutes before I did return, and when he finished serving the steak buyer, he looked at me and said, “Two lobster tails, right?”

Got Gulf Shrimp, Too!

I agreed, pleased he’d remembered me, and I added half a pound of Texas Gulf shrimp to my order.

For someone who’s reported on supermarket matters for the better part of the last 40 years, I’m still not always a good shopper: I failed to notice I was charged $17.98 for the lobster tails when a case sign showed them to be selling at two for $12.00 – an excellent price. I caught the error when I got home, phoned the store, and was assured that, even if it was a while before I got back there, my receipt would earn me a refund. Duly noted, I saved both the receipt and the printed label from the butcher’s package.

As it happened, I happened to be back in that neighborhood about 10 days later. The customer service clerk, promptly processing my refund, asked if I wanted cash back or to have the refund applied to the gift card: Cash back, no questions, plus a bonus $5.00 Kroger gift card. Service with a ‘you’ll remember us’ touch!

My visit to this store for lobster tails was in mid-afternoon, on a Wednesday. If I were the manager, I’d say the store was “comfortably busy” for that time of day and week. (I encountered, at the end and back sections I visited, a total of some 20 customers. They clearly weren’t overrunning the place, but they were, with quickly filling carts, piling profits into Kroger’s coffers.)

Meanwhile, traffic at the Food Lion down the road, which I visited for comparison purposes, was – to put it mildly – slow… creepily slow.

Both stores are in mini-shopping centers, with an abundance and variety of stores. Plenty of shopper draws. A reasonable amount of parking. Similar street access (via two access/exit points). They effectively serve the same neighborhood, near a middling-size city’s second hospital in an area that attracts lots of medical specialists’ offices.

There are some rental housing units in this neighborhood, but the majority of residents own.

Because of the hospital, the area, this road, in particular, tends to see a lot of non-local potential shoppers. Some them may be put off by the decades-old Kroger sign. But like most supermarkets, this one relies on locals far more than passers-by. And a single visit will make a ‘regular’ of the occasion area visitor.

Kroger isn’t ordinarily a stick-with-your-signage company, keeping its principal exterior logo for decades. The company’s exterior signs have undergone several sometimes subtle changes over the past forty or so years. That makes this store an outlier, an exception to the rule. As noted, the current street-side sign advertising this store probably dates from earlier than the 1970s.

Still: The store itself sells itself on Kroger’s overall reputation and the quality of the store’s offerings.

Another ‘Cash Cow’ Store

It reminds me, in a way, of an A&P store in New Orleans. Long gone now, that store was on a corner in the French Quarter. It was prime real estate, bought by A&P when that company was in its prime – many decades earlier. It must have cost a mere fraction of what the company eventually got for it.

While offering up several alternative formats over the years, A&P maintained its traditional logo on eponymous branded stores as long as the chain survived – into the mid-1970s. The sign on this particular New Orleans store was old, and small, and almost unnecessary: For many years, this was the nearest thing to a supermarket within walking distance of most French Market-area residents and hotel stayers.

And it was a great lure for tourists: It stocked a lot of things visitors want, including small packets of this or that health & beauty aid-type product, snack foods, and liquor.

That A&P was, for many years, what’s known in the trade as a ‘cash cow’: The store was paid for, many years (and many times) over; Profit margins were high; overheads were relatively low – until the real need for upgrades outweighed the advantages of keeping it open.

But all the while, the old-fashioned, physically old logo out front did its job: It drew shoppers in in droves! The old wood floors and wood cases didn’t hurt, but it was the convenience and the product range that drew them in.

Just as is the case with the Lynchburg store with the old street-side signage. The Kroger name, like the A&P name in New Orleans, drew the shoppers in.

 

Kroger’s New Mobile Market A Joint Effort with Food Bank

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Kroger’s 44-foot long mobile market   (The Courier-Journal)

Not content to offer plenty to attract shoppers into its stores, Kroger has launched a mobile store – to take food and more to where their neighbors live. Called the Zero Hunger Mobile Market format, the single-aisle store-on-wheels was introduced by the Louisville Division to serve neighborhoods with limited or no access to fresh foods and vegetables, And Know U Know reported August 15.

“There Are Other Ways”

Quoting Erin Grant, Corporate Affairs Manaager and Media Spokesperson for the division, ANUK said Krroger believes “It does not have to be a brick-and-mortar store for us to provide access to healthy food for people. That might not always be the solution. There really are other ways.”

This way, serving up 20+ meat items and close to 60 produce selections curbside around the city, is an envelope-stretcher. In reaching out to actual or near ‘food deserts’ – areas supermarkets shy away from – is an anything-but-inexpensive way for the nation’s Number 2 (after Walmart) food retailer to grow its customer base.

And while that’s certainly an objective, Kroger officials are, in expanding their coverage in this way, acting on a long-time company objective: To serve, in the best and most effective ways possible, the communities it serves. Thus this partnership with the “Dare To Care”13.4 foodbank.

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Inside Kroger’s 44-foot long mobile market   (The Courier-Journal)

Due to visit 29 locations this month (August), the colorfully-outfitted, 44-foot long (13.4 m) trailer offers close to 200 different items. It’s been a huge hit with shoppers, The Louisville Courier-Journal reported on Aug 15.

Two Fridge Cases Onboard

The paper noted that the mobile market’s product range includes two refrigerated cases holding meat, milk, eggs and cheese, among other items; A row of shelves contains baking ingredients, pasta, cereal and other pantry staples. A wall displays fruits and vegetables, from mustard greens to clementines. The market does not sell chips, soda or alcohol,” the article added.

And why should it? Those (chips, soda, alcohol, etc.) are what local ‘markets’ in food deserts specialize in.

Good job, Kroger!

Pennies (Not Quite) From Heaven: Flyers Abandon Nearly $1m At Airport Security

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Talk about unintended consequences: The ‘take-off-your-shoes-empty-your-pockets’ routine at American airports – all in the name of security – accidentally netted the government nearly $1 million in left-behind change and bills last year. That, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) said, was the total in coins, loose bills and way more of the latter left in wallets and purses – plus an unknown number of belts, mobile phone, and other personal items – left in the plastic bins at security check points. (As you’d imagine, many of the phones and laptops eventually made it home. The cash, USA Today reported, has been given authority by Congress to spend the money however it sees fit to improve security. In past years, the TSA’s ‘tips’ have gone toward upgrading security signs and Precheck travel-expediting systems.

TSA reported the five airports ‘contributing’ the most the year’s unintended bounty broke down which airports ‘contributed’ what amount: NYC’s JFK Airport, came in at No. 1 with more than $72,300, followed by LAX at nearly $71,800, and then Miami, Chicago’s O’Hare, and New Jersey’s Newark airport. The airport where travelers hold tight to their legal tender? Nevada’s Reno airport, which only yielded $19.85 in 2018. And chances are the Reno passengers left little more – if that much – in the change slots at the slot machines!

I don’t know if anyone’s tracking it, but chances are that as supermarkets increase self-service checkouts, customers requesting ‘cash back’ from credit or debit cards are forgetting to grab it from the machine. (I’ve done it at least twice!)

An important reason that happens is because the cash-return slot tends to be below one’s usual eye-sight range. That, and the fact that customers, at that point in the shopping experience, want it behind them.

I once was chased into a Walmart parking lot by an associate waving my $20 bill in the air.  Some others probably haven’t been so fortunate.

Details — such as where cash-return slots are placed on checkout machines — can be costly to supermarket operators, because even when you aren’t paying attention, you can bet shoppers are!

‘Customer Complaints? Here’s How To Deal With Them’: Advice From USDA

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The following is a press release from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

WASHINGTON, March 8, 2019 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued today a best practices guideline to help the meat and poultry industry respond to customer complaints that are determined to be associated with adulterated or misbranded meat and poultry products.

“FSIS has placed renewed emphasis on industry responding to customer complaints of foreign materials in meat and poultry and, as required, reporting those incidents to the agency within 24 hours once the determination has been made that the product is adulterated,” said FSIS Administrator Carmen Rottenberg. “We will continue to work with industry and offer guidance to assist them in complying with agency regulations.”

Update of 2012 Regulation

In 2012, FSIS announced a regulation requiring all establishments to report to the agency within 24 hours when they have shipped or received an adulterated product and that product is in commerce. While this requirement has been in effect for several years, recalls associated with foreign materials in product increased in recent years. FSIS intensified efforts and made presentations in 2018 to industry explaining that product containing foreign materials is adulterated even when a physical food safety hazard is not present. Additionally, the agency hosted two industry meetings to discuss an industry-drafted document of best practices for responding to foreign material customer complaints, which was published in August 2018.

FSIS began working on the guideline announced today in mid-2018 to provide reference material on best practices and recommendations on how to receive, investigate and process customer complaints.   While FSIS specifically developed this document to address foreign material customer complaints, establishments can apply the information to other customer complaints of adulterated or misbranded products in commerce. When an establishment needs to recall adulterated product from commerce, the establishment must identify the cause of the product adulteration and take steps to prevent recurrence in its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan, which federal inspectors review.

Agency’s Current Position

The guideline reflects the agency’s current position, and FSIS encourages the industry to begin using it now.  FSIS welcomes public comments on the guideline. The agency will accept comments for 60 days and will then update the document in response to suggestions, if necessary. Comments may be submitted via the federal eRulemaking portal at: http://www.regulations.gov; by mail including CD-ROMs sent to Docket Clerk, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, 1400 Independence Avenue S.W., Mailstop 3758, Room 6065, Washington, D.C., 20250-3700 or by hand-or courier-delivery to 1400 Independence Avenue S.W., Room 6065, Washington, D.C., 20250-3700. All items submitted by mail or electronic mail must include the agency name and docket number FSIS-2018-0034

A downloadable version of the draft guideline is available to view and print at: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/regulatory-compliance/compliance-guides-index/retail-guidance.

Cheesy Promo Tops The Bill(board) in Toronto

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News of an unusual promotion by Taco Bell in Toronto has prompted comments in The Toronto Sun expressing various levels of interest and disgust as well as one pun that milks the promo for all it’s worth… or less.

The purveyor of pseudo Mexican fast food this Saturday (January 19) will have a billboard next to the company’s main Toronto location dispensing “warm, gooey nacho cheese” onto TB snack items offered up by consumers.

A press announcement declared early this month that the three-hour cheese puffery will promote the launch of the Nacho Cheese Naked Chicken Chalupa, a more cheesy rendition of Taco Bell’s Naked Chalupa – which features a crispy marinated chicken shell stuffed with nacho cheese.

“Can’t wait,” Jason Brearly enthused.

“Somehow I have visions of a billboard beside the highway dripping with cheese [with] seagulls, flies and rats all enjoying the bounty,” David Shortling commented. (He doesn’t note where flies will come from in mid-January.)

How long, wondered Mark Black, “do you reckon before the first botulism case shows up and how long before people find bugs in their nacho cheese?”

Julie Mitchell spread a different message: “What a friend we have in cheeses.”

The weather forecast anticipated light snow and temperatures in the area of -10C (14F) for Saturday.

Marketing Dive noted that the “Cheesiest Billboard” is the latest in a long line of stunts from Taco Bell, which is vying to attract Gen Z consumers, who are showing slightly more interest in fast food than older generations.

Taco Bell in November “hijacked” the Big Ben clock tower in London to celebrate new restaurant locations opening in the city. The famous tower has been under construction and silent for more than a year. Taco Bell worked with a sound engineer to compose the chimes using parametric speakers in the surrounding area to recreate the famous Taco Bell bell toll. The chain also unveiled CrunchWrapping Paper for holiday gift wrap and the Baja Blast Hair Salon offering blue dye jobs in previous marketing stunts last year.

Walmart Boosting E-Commerce Potential

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Walmart’s determination to well-serve its stores’  and customers’ needs in the e-commerce area was boosted a few days ago when the company announced it is adding 2,000 technologists to its existing staff of 6,000 in that area by year’s end.

‘Technologists’ are the Walmart employees who work on the technology powering Walmart stores and the company’s e-commerce businesses, a VentureBeat report noted on June 20.

The new-hire technologists will join Walmart Labs’ offices in San Bruno and Sunnyvale, CA; Bentonville, AR, where Walmart is headquartered; Reston, VA; and Bangalore, India. This role includes data scientists, engineers, and product managers, And NowUKnow explained.

Walmart Labs CTO Jeremy King spoke exclusively with VentureBeat about the division’s hiring plans for the coming year, citing the company’s growing online grocery effort in particular as the reason for Walmart Labs’ expansion. Walmart currently offers customers the ability to order groceries online and pick them up in-store in more than 1,500 of its stores. That count is due to expand to about 2,100 stores by the end of the year, VentureBeat noted.

“Oftentimes we have 50 to 100 items in an order, and we don’t send one picker out to the floor to pick one order and send it back — we’re really optimizing the pickup, and they’re picking somewhere between 5 and 15 orders at a time,” King told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “They’re actually [dealing with] fascinating machine learning problems.”

Walmart’s most formidable competitor in the online grocery pickup space — also known as “click and collect” — is and likely will remain Amazon. That company introduced free, two-hour delivery from Whole Foods stores to Amazon Prime members in certain cities in February. (Amazon acquired Whole Foods in mid-2017.

And while it doesn’t yet offer a click-and-collect option, job listings for pickers in certain cities indicate that it may soon do so.

Danny Silverman, the chief marketing officer at e-commerce analytics firm Clavis, told VentureBeat in a phone interview that the algorithms data scientists at Walmart and Amazon develop to make grocery pickups more efficient will be critical in determining which one gains a better foothold in the space — most click-and-collect services are “are unprofitable to neutral for the retailer, and it’s more about the long-term value of the customer than making money on the [individual] sale.”

“A lot of retailers don’t have real-time inventory management, so it’s very difficult for them to take an online order and then fulfill it successfully — so a big piece of customer satisfaction and winning is going to be on how much they manage their inventory and deliver on [the order],” Silverman added.

Attracting talent to Middle America and the coasts

King also spoke with VentureBeat about the different hiring challenges and advantages Walmart Labs faces with its different offices. Walmart created the Walmart Labs division in 2005, following its acquisition of SiliconValley-based social media analytics company Kosmix, reportedly for more than $300 million.

In Silicon Valley, King acknowledged that tech workers don’t always readily think of Walmart as a technology company. That’s part of the reason why the technology arm is branded as “Walmart Labs.” King said that Walmart Labs often pitches workers on Walmart’s scale.

“Around 140 million people [in the U.S.] walk into a [Walmart] store each week, and getting access to play with that kind of data is intriguing to most people [in the field],” King told VentureBeat.

In Bentonville — where many members of the tech team work on merchandising, supply chain, and point of sale challenges — Walmart Labs faces less challenges from other tech companies for talent. But outside talent is less familiar with what Bentonville — a city of just 48,000 people — is like. The Walmart Family Foundation in recent years has invested in a number of projects to improve cultural and outdoors offerings in Bentonville, such as spending $74 million in developing mountain biking trails around Northwest Arkansas. Walmart is also the sponsor of the Bentonville Film Festival, launched in 2015.

One Family Moved from Philadelphia to Pentonville

Linda Lomelino, currently a senior researcher with Walmart Labs, told VentureBeat that she visited Bentonville twice — once for an on-site interview, and once with her husband and two children — before accepting the job with Walmart Labs and relocating to the area from Philadelphia.

“My husband and I did a lot of research about restaurants and schools and museums and cultural events — and any sort of surrounding experiences that we could have as a family. We also did a lot of research into the demographic profile of Bentonville,” Lomelino told VentureBeat. As of 2017, the city of Bentonville was about 75 percent white, 10.2 percent Asian, 9.2 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 2.7 percent Black, according to Census Bureau data.

King said that Walmart has also tried to create more opportunities for the tech community in Bentonville, hosting Tech Tuesday meet-ups at its office and working with engineering groups and other tech organizations for students at the nearby University of Arkansas.

“I think you’ll see more to come — J.B. Hunt (a major trucking company) and the other [companies] around there are all trying to attract technical talent to the area,” King said.

 

 

 

Walmart, Amazon Go Head-to-Head on Delivery Services

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Walmart has been working hard, in recent months, to outpace and outdo Amazon as much as the latter has been disrupting many competitors in moving products  — including edible ones – to consumer’ doorsteps.

More and more, Walmart commercials and print ads tout its ‘no membership’ plan for no- or low-cost delivery service to consumers’ doors. The company also is growing its car-side delivery service – where a phoned- or emailed-in order is ready to be picked up at a designated store-side place. A  phone call from one’s car at that place to the store’s delivery department gets the order heading out the door.

Somewhat surprisingly, the delivery folks reportedly don’t mind performing their duties even in ‘off’ weather, according to a couple of them at a Lynchburg VA Walmart. Perhaps they are, justifiably, incentivized by tips.

Both of those services work remarkably well. The to-your-door service works better, perhaps, than Walmart imagined. But then, this is a smart company, and it may have realized a clever opportunity for customers living closest to Neighborhood Markets, the company’s scaled-down store model focused on food and little else: With the company’s entire product catalog available, much beyond what the Neighborhood Markets offer can be home-delivered, at no cost to the consumer. How? By delivering from the nearest full-service Walmart!

That is speculation on our part, but conceptually, it makes sense as a solution to a potentially serious challenge to Walmart.

This program also enables stores to cut inventory (in, say, pet supplies) and still offer a ‘full range’ of, products via the delivery option. In practice, this means that, for example, my local Walmart has been able – possibly coincidentally, possibly because of delivery issues – to leave shelves without some popular cat litters while still offering them through home delivery.

On another front – new patents – Walmart scored some seriously interesting ones recently. And Now U Know, the produce industry newsletter, reported on May 31 that recently approved patents included one for a navigation device for shopping cards, a wearable, tracking device designed to improve    employee productivity (think shelf stockers). And instore inventory trackers that can track when stock needs to be reordered – or shelves need to be restocked. A bit more esoteric is a patent that could  provide instore drone assistance for price verification and in-store navigation.

One or several of these concepts could be implemented in a store near you in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Amazon is boosting membership fees for Prime service – which most users value most for its free delivery feature. The company also recently expanded Prime to Whole Foods customers in select areas. More recently still, according to International Business Times, the company expanded Prime offerings to twelve states beyond the original test area around Ft. Lauderdale FL. A company news release said the expansion affects 121 Whole Foods stores in Colorado, Idaho, Arkansas, Louisiana, northern Nevada, northern California, Texas, Utah, and Kansas – as well as the Missouri side of Kansas City.

The company says Prime discounts also are now in place at Whole Foods’ Market 365 stores around the country. That Whole Foods sub-brand was launched in 2015, IBT noted.