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Ready for ‘Customer First’? Five questions food retailers need to ask themselves.

Retail leaders must objectively understand how their business currently considers Customers before trying to set a more Customer-centric direction and focus.

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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.

white and blue magnetic card

Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash

Most companies attempting to drive customer loyalty fail miserably—and few so-called customer-centric companies generate sustainable customer loyalty that drives measurable business results. Why? Because they get three key principles completely wrong, right from the start:

  1. Loyalty is about the company acting loyally to its customers, not vice versa.
  2. It is about a loyalty approach, not a loyalty program.
  3. Loyalty is about the store, not only about the CRM.

1. Loyal to Customers

We start to act loyally to customers when we understand them to a level of detail that ensures that we remain responsive to changes in their behavior, relevant to ever-changing customer needs and rewarding in the way we treat customers.


Acting loyally is about adopting a loyalty mind set of managing customer segments as strategic business units (aligning with how we think about a category management strategy as managing categories as strategic business units). This context demands change that is both incremental and transformational—evolution, but with a bit of manageable revolution.

What customer loyalty is, and is not:

  • Acting loyally (responsive, relevant, rewarding) to our customers; not about customers being loyal to us
  • An overall approach throughout our business; not a proposition or program
  • Earning customer loyalty; not thinking that customers should become loyal
  • Collaborative partnerships to win customers together; not tolerant of internal conflict between areas of the business or with suppliers
  • Transparent; not opaque
  • Driving sales and cash margin; not customers being responsible for percent margin

2. Loyalty Approach vs. Loyalty Program

We demonstrate loyalty to our customers by taking a loyalty approach wherein we commit to rewarding and delighting our customers with products and experiences that meet their wants and needs.

  • We call this putting customers first—when we decide on priorities and actions based on insights from our customer data.
  • By doing so, a retailer becomes an even more prominent choice in the customer's consideration set. This is not a tactic; it is a long-term strategy that makes the customer the focal point of our business decisions and objectives.

The loyalty program is an important element within a loyalty approach, as the key source of the data that enables customer intelligence, and as the channel that enables us to talk to our customers personally. I call the loyalty program the "little l" in loyalty, with the loyalty approach as the "big L."

But a loyalty program is not required to act in a loyal way to customers. Here's how to think of "big L" loyalty:

A loyalty approach, simply put, embeds customer insight throughout the retail organization to enable better, faster decisions and thereby increase sales and profit sustainably. Best-in-class practitioners have seen an incremental sales uplift in the early stages of a loyalty approach of between 1% and 2% and later stages between 3% and 4%, quarter over quarter and year over year.

3. Loyalty Is About the Store, Not Just the CRM

As I used to say to my retail colleagues, "If the store is lousy but we deliver brilliant targeted CRM, the store will still be lousy."

Even if the personalized CRM is perfect, customers need to perceive that tangible changes have been made in the store itself before they will respond by giving more of their custom. We must put customer insights into action within the "hardwiring" of retail practices—pricing, promotion, assortment, adjacencies, new products, the checkout experience and so on.

In a previous article, I shared several examples of being loyal to customers in store by simply making the shopping experience easier—setting the yogurt section by customer need rather than by brand blocks, for example, and by setting product adjacencies according to how customers shop, rather than by how items are sourced in the supply chain.

3 Ways to Activate a True Loyalty Approach

  1. Make better business decision by putting the customer first. Everything is better when you start with the customer. Start with the data you hold on customers—understanding how they shop and behave, what is important to them and how they engage with your business. This insight will identify a number of opportunities for better decisions using the data.
  2. Improve the customer experience by using data-driven insights to improve your retail offering, such as assortment, pricing and promotions. Use insights to connect you to your customer through the store. Think of the mantra "data to insights to actions"—this is how improved like-for-like sales growth and customer loyalty is delivered.
  3. Transform the organization using customer-driven insight to help you better understand, anticipate, measure and continually respond to your customers. This is realized through empowering, aligning and equipping your people with relevant insights, values, goals, strategies and actions.


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[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. 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 David.Ciancio@dunnhumby.com].

Treating Customers differently based on their 'profitability' is counter-productive to building loyalty and toward creating a healthy retail Customer Experience.


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