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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.

[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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The dunnhumby Consumer Pulse Survey is a multi-phased, worldwide study of the impact of COVID-19 on customer attitudes and behavior. We surveyed more than 27,000 respondents online in 22 countries, with interviews conducted for Wave one from March 29 – April 1, for Wave two from April 11 – 14, and for Wave three from May 27 – 31. Due to the rapidly unfolding crisis in North America, dunnhumby conducted Wave four from July 9 – 12 in the U.S., Canada and Mexico only. Here are highlights from the study:

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In a series of posts published earlier this year, we covered the results of the dunnhumby Customer Pulse – a global study designed to explore changing consumer mindsets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over three waves, conducted between March and the end of May, we polled thousands of people from more than 20 countries on subjects including supermarkets' responses to the outbreak, the economic outlook, and how their shopping behaviour had changed due to COVID.

At the beginning of September – three months on from the previous wave and with supply chains stable and the changing nature of lockdowns – we wanted to revisit the Customer Pulse to see what, if anything, had changed. Below are some of the standout findings from this fourth tranche of research.

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Are you looking to increase your contactable Customer base? How much money are you losing on incorrectly identified Customer communications? Throughout our 30 years of big data experience working with clients across industries around the globe, we have found that maintaining contact through relevant Customer engagement is a crucial component of putting the Customer First.

Essential to preserving contact data is ensuring that you have the most up-to-date information from your Customers; not an easy task. On average, people in the United States will move an average of 12 times in their lifetime. United States Postal Service data indicates 14% of the population change addresses annually. As email contact has grown, it's important to note that, on average, 30% of people change their email addresses each year. This is driven by ISP or job changes, or just to stop being spammed. As people move away from home phones to primarily mobile devices, phone numbers are stabilizing as consumers maintain the same numbers through physical moves.

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It's a well-worn phrase by now, but it's true that the COVID-19 crisis has drastically altered the global retail landscape. Here in the Asia-Pacific region, a majority of markets are now looking past the panic of the first wave and towards the future. In this series of articles, we'll explore how grocery retailers must adapt to a more omnichannel reality to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

The new wave of online grocery customers

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis we've seen the sharp rise and fall of many trends. As countries veered from one phase of the pandemic to the next, we've seen everything from panic-buying and stockpiling, to a booming demand for hygiene products. While some of these trends have stuck, the resumption of a more 'normal' life in many parts of the Asia-Pacific have seen others tail off.

One trend which is set to stay is in eCommerce, particularly within grocery. Lockdown drove a surge to online grocers the likes of which we have never seen – and it seems customers have been convinced by the online experience. According to multiple recent studies[1] China's grocery eCommerce market, already a booming sector with 29% growth last year, is now tipped to grow by 60% this year as the coronavirus has driven whole new segments of customers to the online grocery market. The trend is also sustaining; the main growth driver in JD.com's record-breaking '618' event this year was grocery, with sales almost doubling[2].

While general retail has been building momentum online for some years, grocery has been something of a laggard, rarely accounting for more than 15% of the overall grocery market. Historically the major barrier to entry to online grocery has been trust – over 50% of customers do not trust online grocery deliveries to pick the freshest and best items[3]. For years this has been a catch-22 scenario for retailers: customers don't trust the quality of online grocery because they haven't tried it, but they won't try online grocery because they don't trust the quality.

COVID-19 has caused a new wave of customers to finally take a leap of faith into digital grocery. Retailers can be happy that they've won new customers online, but now comes the hard work of retaining them.

The need for Customer Infrastructure

Much has been made of retailers' attempts to keep up with surging online demand during the early phases of the pandemic. Even in globally advanced eCommerce markets like the UK, the lead retailer has had to significantly expand delivery capacity to keep up with demand[4]. In order to meet the needs of new customers, retailers have rightly focused on having the right physical infrastructure in place.

However, if retailers want to keep meeting the needs of customers, they'll now need to focus on a different kind of infrastructure - the online customer experience.

The ease of shopping online is a double-edged sword for retailers. If customers can shop online with one retailer, they can shop online with any retailer. Your competitor store is no longer 1 kilometre away, it is one click away. Customers can literally browse competitor shop windows while they are in your store, and for countless retailers in the Asia-Pac region where online sales have historically been low, their digital stores may be looking rather outdated.

So while you may have won new customers, the fight to keep them is much more challenging.

Getting the digital experience right

The principles of great customer experience online are the same as instore. It's about helping customers easily find what they want. It's about helping customers feel they've got a good deal. It's about having a well-laid out store. Fundamentally, a great digital experience is about putting customers first and responding to their needs. Thankfully, the nature of eCommerce makes it possible to know these needs in detail through the wealth of data available to retailers. The data you're likely already collecting will tell you everything required to build a better overall and individual shopping experience for each customer who shops online.

Here are 3 ways retailers can act now to build a winning customer experience online:

  1. Bring the offline online
    Your customers may be new online, but many of them will be existing offline shoppers. Their loyalty card history enables you to show them items they already buy. Better still, predictive data science can detect which of those items are staple and regular purchases that each customer might need right now – helping them quickly and efficiently build a basket based on their own personal behaviour. This knowledge can also help act as an online virtual assistant, helping customers find substitutes for out of stock products and prompting them with items they may have forgotten to add at the checkout.
  2. Make it easy to find value
    In a world where customers can price compare at the flick of a tab, maintaining price perception is vital. This is easier said than done online, as customers won't spend time browsing the 500 products you have on special that week. Instead, use relevancy algorithms to curate your promotions list at the customer level using their previous behaviour, and show each customer the offers that actually matter to them.
  3. Optimise the navigation
    Newer online customers tend to use online search and taxonomy functions much more than experienced online shoppers. If your online category flow is unclear, difficult to interpret or poorly arranged, shoppers will have a harder and more frustrating experience. Equally, if their searches lead to incorrect or blank results, customers will quickly lose patience. Site analytics data in the hands of an expert is a goldmine for optimising the online navigation – from naming and arranging categories in a strong taxonomy to eliminating poor-performing searches.

Retailers in Asia have a limited window of time to win the continued business of new online customers. As these customers become more familiar with the experience, the greater will be their demands and their likelihood to look elsewhere when their experience is sub-optimal.

At dunnhumby, we've been advising grocery retailers on digital best practise for over 10 years, led by 30+ years of leading experience in data science and we have developed a range of products for retailers to deliver exactly these kinds of industry-leading customer experience online, powered by retail data.

In the next part of our series on the post-COVID landscape in Asia-Pacific, we'll explore the diverging needs of customers in the wake of the pandemic, and how omnichannel personalisation can help retailers meet those needs efficiently and effectively.

[1] E-commerce drives China's stay-at-home economy in coronavirus aftermath & China's online grocery sector set for explosive growth, says GlobalData

[2] Chinese shoppers are staying online. That's great news for JD.com

[3] Study cites barriers to online grocery shopping

[4] Tesco Delivers One Million Online Orders In A Week In The UK

labeled box lot

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Article originally appeared on Forbes.

My company recently produced a report on the state of the food retail industry, and in studying that sector, we discovered something that we hope will make food retailers stand up and listen. We learned that the nation's top grocery chains have found a way to focus on both short-term financial performance and investment in long-term consumer engagement. The latter is considered an insurance policy for the future — a sobering thought in the new year.

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Lately, retail has become almost impossibly more brutal than ever before.

These are unprecedented times of rapid and deep changes for customers and society, driven primarily by technology, economic volatility, and political uncertainty (e.g. Brexit, US elections).

For Retailers and Brands, these are dangerous times of disruption and of tectonic shifts in structures, formats, and channels. A new epoch of retail has arrived, wherein, once again, only those most agile and adaptable to change will survive.

Amongst the new realities keeping retailers up at night and dragging down already thin margins:

  • Economic forces. For customers, the definition of "value" has changed because of economic forces like recession and austerity politics. The data points to growing numbers of customers concerned about price. As one supermarket CEO puts it, the "lower third of price-sensitive customers has become the lower half."
  • Disruptive price innovators. Hard discounters like Aldi and Lidl are becoming more aggressive (and more popular) every passing day. Both recently appeared in a '10 Best Supermarkets in the US' list from Food&Wine. European grocers' experience suggests that this variation of discount format might impact the global industry even more significantly than has Walmart, and within a shorter time period as well because this approach impacts the mid to upper tier of shoppers as much as it does the price-sensitive.
  • Higher operating costs, especially for store labor. Staff turnover combined with a smaller pool of qualified workers is driving up wages.
  • E-commerce. Online and mobile will account for 24% of global chain retail sales in 2020. E-commerce represents a structural shift at the very foundation of a retailer's or brand's existence, from simply producing and distributing products, to delivering a valuable and personally relevant "experience" wherever the customer is in space and time. And most of the growth in ecommerce will not be through today's pure-plays or in bricks&mortar.coms, but rather through 3rd party marketplace 'aggregators', introducing yet another form of competition for the embattled retail industry.
  • Customers are increasingly demanding a faster, simpler, less-painful shopping experience. Chains are allocating larger shares of their capital budgets to enabling technology and repositioning existing stores to be more attractive to convenience-seekers and millennials. Underperforming assets – particularly big boxes – are being shuttered at a faster pace.

Arguably, in today's multichannel world, retailers face a binary decision (relative to competition) to either be cheaper or more relevant (as any middle position is short lived and profit starved). Being cheaper means beating Walmart, Rakuten, Amazon and others at their own disruptive model game, which is highly improbable. Being more relevant means understanding customers better than others do, and from this, delivering an experience that customers personally value.

The best of times for Retailers and Brands

On the other hand, the opportunities for business growth arising from these challenges are immense. Seeing a tremendously fertile (and frightening) environment for change, even the hard-nosed, raised-in-the-business retail leaders are realizing that they must become more science-driven and more customer-aware if they want to even survive, let alone seize upon any opportunities for growth.

Agility is exactly the capability that retailers need, driven optimally by using data and science to delight customers. Retailers and brands must embody a cultural and mind shift to putting customers first; this is how they become empowered to seize on the opportunities now presented, and how they enable themselves to thrive therefrom. To change best and with purpose, it must be via Customer First – to deeply understand customers, to strategically invest in what matters most to them, to improve the shopping experience, and to personalize conversations with the most precious assets of the business – its customers.

The higher purpose for a Customer First approach

Delighting customers using a loyalty approach – what I call Customer First – is not just some warm, fuzzy, altruistic thing (although a Customer First organization will feel better to its employees as a place to work and customers will enjoy better experiences), but is, rather, a growth-driving, growth-sustaining machine proven to generate profit when executed optimally.

Customer First delivers profit and margin growth by focusing on growing top line sales first. Sales growth, as every good retailer knows, covers many sins: it improves the percentages on the measures retailers care about most (e.g., store labor percentage, OG&A expense percentage). Greater sales directly translate into greater purchasing leverage on suppliers. Simply, growing sales via Customer First grows greater shareholder value.

More importantly, beyond projecting well-being for customers, Customer First protects jobs and well-being for employees of the business. In this protective role, Customer First becomes a moral obligation for the business and a moral responsibility for its leaders – and this is the highest purpose.

The new reality is that change is here to stay, perhaps more fiercely than ever. Those of us who understand this reality, who accept it and adapt quickly, will emerge profoundly the better for it. Better in terms of market value and employability as a business and as individuals. Better because we don't squander precious time and energy resisting the inevitable. And certainly, better when it comes to the health, happiness, and well-being of our customers and ourselves.

This is the seventh in a series of LinkedIn articles from David Ciancio, advocating the voice of the customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry.

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Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

Last March, when we realized the potential impact that COVID-19 might have on all aspects of our lives, dunnhumby launched a survey to understand how the virus would affect consumers food shopping habits. It was designed to help our clients better meet the needs of their Customers by seeing the impact of the virus through their customers eyes.

Little did we know at the time that one year later we would still be dealing with the impact Covid-19. This study presents the results of the sixth global wave of the study and the seventh wave for the United States. Other waves were conducted in March, April, May, July, September and November of 2020. This wave was conducted in February 2021.

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In the first episode of Customer First Radio, Dave Clements, Global Head of Retail for dunnhumby and 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.

black and silver headphones on black and silver microphone
Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash

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.