The Great Recession programmed lasting value-consciousness into the minds of consumers. How might COVID-19 rewire us again?
The fourth annual dunnhumby Retailer Preference Index for U.S. Grocery (RPI) sheds light on what makes a retail winner, and how the pandemic has impacted consumer shopping behaviors. Known as retail's equivalent of the Gartner Magic Quadrant, the RPI surveyed about 10,000 consumers to understand what's driving customer preference and rank the top 57 grocery retailers in the United States.
Join dunnhumby CEO Guillaume Bacuvier as he dives into the latest study, revealing the levers for success, and which retailers are winning the hearts, and wallets, of shoppers today.
Retail leaders must objectively understand how their business currently considers Customers before trying to set a more Customer-centric direction and focus. There are some formal assessment methodologies, like dunnhumby's Retail Preference Index (RPI) and Customer Centricity Assessment (CCA), which offer detailed evaluations of a business' capabilities, strengths and weaknesses based on Customer perceptions (RPI) or global best practices (CCA).
The approach outlined below is not intended to replace these formal tools; rather, these observations are intended as a kind of 'toe in the water' to help retail leaders form early hypotheses and points of views. These are rules of thumb, heuristics culled from global experience. Later, leaders might use these observations to informally check progress from time to time as a way of assessing whether the "program in the stores matches the program in our heads".
Hence, the context and laboratory for these suggestions is the retail store, where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.
1. Who really runs the store?
Walking around a store (or better, walking around several), can give many clues toward understanding a retailer's attitude about its Customers, as well as revealing some of the challenges ahead for installing Customer First. As Customers ourselves, we are qualified to assess an organization's 'readiness' for Customer First, simply starting by walking around.
How a Customer experiences the store shapes their perception of the brand, and there are dozens (even hundreds) of 'moments of truth' for Customers in each shopping trip – opportunities for the retailer to win more loyalty, or indeed to lose it. And it only takes one 'bad' experience to erase all the good.
Leaders can form an opinion about the Customers' true shopping experience by observing 'Who really runs the store?' – a way to put on a Customer lens to assess if the Customer, the retailer, the supplier, or no one is driving shopping experience decisions, like range and presentation. For example:
- Choose three sections across the store (telling categories include yogurt, pasta sauces, milk, and packaged lunch meats). Look to see how the product is organized and presented (remember to try to see through the eyes of a Customer).
- Is the section organized by brand (e.g. all Danone yogurt is merchandised together in a recognizable Danone brand block)?
- By Customer benefit or usage (e.g. all brands of probiotic yogurt are merchandised together, as are all Greek style yogurts, all kid's yogurts, etc)?
- Or, by some hybrid but logical planogram rather random plan, with little recognizable logic at all?
- Would you conclude that the product display / layout logic is influenced more by supply chain, by brands, or by the Customer need states or trip missions?
- How broad is the range (e.g., number of varieties or sizes)? How deep (e.g., number of brands of the same flavor or variety)? Does the breadth and depth feel Customer friendly, or confusing?
Of course, analysing any available loyalty data will later tell us how Customers shop the category and that might well be by brand (or flavour or size, etc., and will certainly vary by section). But this first assessment helps us begin to form our perspective on how tuned-in the business is around its Customers, and about where within the business leaders might need to begin to install insights and the Customer language.
2. What messages are Customers receiving?
Store signage not only delivers a written message, but also a type of 'body language' that Customers tune in to, albeit not always consciously. Look around the store to see both the written and hidden messages, and hear the tone being communicated: ask, do messages speak respectfully to Customers? For example:
- Signage at the entrance rudely telling Customers what the rules are, even though 99.999% of Customers will never even think of shopping without shirts or shoes, or wearing roller blades
- Narrow limits on the quantities of promoted products or services.
- Rules and restrictions, terms and conditions.
- Aggressive security barriers and gates at entrances – although sometimes operationally necessary, these also tell honest Customers that they, the shoppers, are not to be trusted.
- Phony expiration dates for promoted prices – Customers learn that the deal will be repeated soon, if not immediately. Best example is the many carbonated soft drink promotions below shelf price that are repeated frequently, and the innumerable 'roller' prices practiced by many retailers.
- Stupid pricing signs (any stupid sign, really).
3. What messages are Employees receiving?
While walking the store, traveling through stock rooms and the employee break room, note the signage and messaging aimed at staff. What seems to be valued more – numbers or people?
What policies and rules guide employee behaviour?
How are they expected to interact with Customers?
Are the messages respectful of staff? Of Customers?
What do signs say about the culture around Customers?
4. Who has the power to satisfy Customers?
dunnhumby's Loyalty Drivers analysis suggests that Customers exhibit four 'mindsets' in their shopping journey – Discover, Shop, Buy, and Reflect. One element of the 'Reflect' mind-set includes the decision to return, exchange, or to request a refund when the product or service does not quite suit.
On your store walk, observe who has the power to satisfy Customers making a return or wanting a refund: is the front-line employee empowered to satisfy the Customer, or must the Manager be called? Is there one 'service' desk where Customers must queue to get their money back, or can the helpful cashier make it good on the spot?
Examine the return policy to assess its sensibility and ease from a Customer viewpoint. For example, must a Customer act within 7 or 30 days, and is a receipt required and signature under penalty of perjury? Is the taking of an oath necessary, or perhaps a drop of blood? The store's practice says volumes about who deserves trust in the eyes of the business. Requiring levels of approvals and higher management involvement (or some other form of hoop-jumping) is neither trusting of employees nor Customers.
The return / refund policies and practices are strong indicators of a company's readiness for, or progress along the Customer-centric journey. Customer First organizations give front-line employees broader authority to resolve Customer needs, and extend the power to satisfy Customers to most members of staff, in some form. For best practices in this area, please see the policies from Nordstrom in the U.S. and Ritz-Carlton globally.
5. Do the words of your leaders matter?
Senior leaders set the tone for how Customers are regarded and treated in the business both by their words and their actions, of course. And the C.E.O.S – Customers, Employees, Owners, and Suppliers – all take notice. It's widely documented that leaders who walk the walk are more effective than those who only talk the talk.
One simple yet powerful way to assess readiness and progress is seeing how leadership's walk and talk align. A word cloud, like the one illustrated below, makes the point very clear. In this example, recent shareholder statements (same quarter) were compared for two companies on a Customer-centric journey. We can see different progress in a form of 'walking the walk' at Retailer X and Retailer Y. The C.E.O.S are hearing what really matters to the leaders, and are forming the Customer culture accordingly, all the way down to store level.
Implications for retail leaders
The store shapes Customers' perception of the brand; there are hundreds of opportunities for the retailer to win or lose loyalty in each shopping trip. Customers take clues, consciously and unconsciously, throughout their entire shopping experience, and draw conclusions about retailer warmth and attitude toward shoppers. And it only takes one disappointing experience to erase all the good.
Retail leaders must take an objective assessment of the shopping experience using a Customer lens to understand their current state and readiness for customer centricity. Pay close attention to the body language and tone of your policies. Store signage, employee empowerment and communications, and practices around assortment and presentation are clear indicators of the organization's attitude about the Customer.
Who actually runs your store?
This is the first in a series of LinkedIn articles from David Ciancio, advocating the voice of the customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry.
In the first episode of Customer First Radio, Dave Clements, Global Head of Retail for dunnhumbyand David Ciancio, Global Head of Grocery for dunnhumby kick off the series by discussing what it means to be a truly Customer First business, share which retailers and brands today embody a Customer First mindset, and examine how Customer First materialized during the pandemic with retailers.
The 2021 Retailer Preference Index: Who's winning and why. David Ciancio, Global Head of Grocery discusses the 2021 U.S Retailer Preference Index (RPI): Grocery Edition with the lead author of the RPI, Erich Kahner. They unveil key insights and discuss who is winning and who is best positioned for the future.
The Prophets of Aisle Six is the first online reality series focusing on innovation in the food retail industry. In this episode, Jose Gomes, dunnhumby's North America Managing Director, travels to the downtown Cleveland store of Heinen's Fine Foods. Jose meets with Tom and Jeff Heinen, co-owners and brothers, and learns how they are evolving their grandfather's mission of delivering excellent customer service. With 23 stores in Northeast Ohio and the greater Chicago area, and a 90-year legacy, Heinen's is proving that being a small retailer can be an advantage when it comes to data.
In this series, dunnhumby tours the globe and speaks with some of the world's greatest brands, exploring their biggest challenges and how they are using customer data science to meet those challenges.
In my last post, I posed five questions to retailers to help them determine whether they're ready for a customer-first mindset. Now, I'd like to challenge the retail basics that seasoned retailers were trained on, and suggest instead a new customer data science approach.
"Retail is detail" is common industry wisdom, and it means that achieving success is subtle and difficult. Success in any field demands practice and experience, and so it is little wonder that many senior retail and brand leaders and managers have vast years of involvement, and that most have grown up through the business in progressive steps.
Accordingly, business decisions are heavily based on experience, and more often on personal memory of choices and executions and how a thing has traditionally been done. As Chris Foltz, director of operations at Heinen's Fine Foods, told me, "Our industry, and our company, was very opinion-based, albeit expert opinions. We realized early on that we needed data on customer needs, customer satisfaction and customer buying behavior to improve our decision-making. As we adopted this metric-driven approach, I believe we prioritized our investments and effort to deliver a better customer experience."
These are a just few of the things that most retailers absolutely know for sure:
- We must acquire new customers in order to grow our business.
- Price-sensitive and "cherry picker" customers are not profitable. The competition is welcome to them.
- Customers are different in every region of the country. There are also differences between urban and suburban shoppers.
- Loyal customers are already giving retailers most of their spend in the categories offered.
- Weekly flyers and promotions always drive footfall and sales.
- After all these many years in the business, we know what customers want.
Why What We Know About Customers Just Ain’t So
The old axioms are no longer factual because customers themselves have dramatically changed, in their needs, expectations and experiences. Separating fact from fiction—and business truths from myths—will change how the business sees itself and how it will make decisions. The following are some of the new truths of retailing in the 21st century:
- Expanding share of wallet from customers who are already "loyal" can better optimize growth.
- Loyal customers need more love and investment than new customers.
- Retaining loyal customers and reducing churn among "opportunity" customers can drive more growth than acquiring new customers.
- Price-sensitive customers are often more profitable than other segments because their basket mix includes more private label products or higher-margin portion sizes.
- Behavioral "buy-o-graphics" and intended trip missions matter much more than demographics or geographics.
- Customer segments are typically distributed variably within geographic regions or zones, but all customer types exist in all stores.
- Store clusters built upon customer dimensions are more useful to operations and execution than store groupings based on geographic zones or volumetrics.
What We Know for Sure Can Fit on a Post-It Note
Agility in retail can only be maintained by understanding customers and using data in all available quantitative and qualitative forms. Here's a personal story to illustrate:
A perception-based research tool measured one retailer's progress against factors that customers themselves had said are most important to them. Before the first customer perception report was published, I set out to learn how the customer ranking compared to the rankings that the senior decision-makers would assign.
The regular weekly senior team meeting brought together many of the wisest and most seasoned leaders in the business. After briefly introducing the research methodology, I asked the team to list what factors they thought customers would list as important, and in what order they thought customers would place them.
Not surprisingly, each merchant tended to rank factors in their department higher on the list than those for other parts of the store. Although little agreement was reached, a compromise ranking was eventually defined.
Comparing our list to the customers' list revealed spectacular differences; leaders had listed most of the same elements as did customers, but in completely the wrong order. That day, the team experienced a true epiphany—they realized that "we didn't know what we didn't know."
The lessons learned were:
- Humility gained in discovering that "we don't know what we don't know" empowers the customer-first journey.
- To become more relevant to customers, we must become fact-based deciders and activators.
- Using customer data well creates true consensus and inclusive action.
In summary, “In God We Trust” ... all others must bring data.
David Ciancio is global customer strategist for Dunnhumby, a pioneer in customer data science, serving the world's most customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years' experience in retail, 25 of which were in store management. He can be reached at email@example.com