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.
The traditional, regional U.S. grocery store—it's the institution that has fed communities for decades and families for generations. It offers that connection to a simpler time, a time when the guy behind the meat counter would know Customers by name, a time when a dad pushed his child around in a shopping cart while they "helped" him shop and a time before mobile phones invaded our lives and sped up the pace of life…
That place—the traditional grocery store—has history. Customers and the people who work there are part of a family. That kind of emotional connection is priceless.
If this is true, then why does Aldi—which borrows a quarter per shopping cart and operates with a small crew that arranges shelves while taking care of customers—have a stronger emotional connection with shoppers than 90% of its competitors?
Yes, that's right. Aldi, known for its cost cutting and low prices, has– an emotional connection that is stronger than nine out of 10 traditional grocery stores.
Traditional grocers may take for granted that they have an advantage over non-traditional channels in the strength of their emotional connection with shoppers, but that doesn't appear to be the case at all. So just how bad is it for traditional grocers?
The inconvenient truth is that the average traditional grocery store has a lower emotional connection with its shopper than the average store in any other major channel where groceries are sold. While traditional grocers have been focused on selling groceries to the same towns for decades, non-traditional grocers have been able to move into those towns and secure a stronger emotional connection in far less time.
How? Well, it appears that emotional connection does have a price, after all. In fact, price perception is slightly more associated with emotional connection than perception of the quality of products and store experience:
And, whereas traditional grocers have managed to hold their own on quality perceptions, they lose on price perception.
So, where does the traditional grocer start if they want to win back the hearts of their local constituents? After all, there are many levers they can pull within pricing, assortment, and store experience to move perceptions. A close look at data from our 2019 Retailer Preference Index: Grocery Channel Edition offers some hints. Stores who have the strongest emotional connection separate themselves from the pack with the following:
- Private brands that customers love
- Leading prices on natural and organic items
- Fast checkout
- Staff who show they value shoppers
Translated into language customers might use, that means:
- Have products I can't get anywhere else, at competitive prices
- Make healthy food affordable
- Don't waste my time
- Treat me like a person
Of the 56 retailers ranked by emotional connection, 24 of the bottom 25 are traditional retailers. And while Aldi, ranked 17th for emotional connection, has been used as a stark example to illustrate traditional grocers' emotional connection issue, many other non-traditional stores have a stronger emotional connection with their shoppers than Aldi does with theirs.
However, 3 traditional grocery stores buck the trend and join non-traditional retailers in the top 10: Market Basket (4th), H-E-B (5th) and Publix (6th). They each check more than one of the boxes on the core ingredients of emotional connection.
These retailers, more than any other traditional, regional grocer, have established with their emotional connection an insurance policy for an uncertain grocery industry future. And the prevalence of non-traditional grocers with superior emotional connection proves the point that this insurance policy is more a product of "what have you done for me lately" than a product of consumer nostalgia. Non-traditional grocers are buying emotional connection with better prices while delivering on some combination of a superior private label, offering the best natural and organic prices and having staff who show they value customers.
Big data is no longer an advantage for only the big guys. Just ask Heinen's.
As I wrote in my previous article, being truly loyal to customers is, above all else, about creating a better store experience. Naturally then, the role of big data analytics (customer science) must be to improve the traditional '4 P's of marketing – so that customers better find the right products, at prices that shout better value for money, and in promotions that more clearly deliver exciting value.
Typically, the costs and complexities of harvesting insights from big data to improve the 4 P's have shut out smaller retailers. But today's cheaper cloud computing and open source technologies can now enable big data advantages to small companies. Data has been 'democratized' in a way that size of retailer no longer matters. To wit: leading the application of big insights in small spaces is Heinen's, a 23-store chain headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio.
If you want to see an amazing store experience born from inspired retail art together with applied customer science, you've got to see the Heinen's store in downtown Cleveland. You are sure to notice that Heinen's have transcended the traditional 4 P's to add 3 new P's of Customer Engagement – People, Place, and Personal – and have thereby become even more loyal to their customers. There's a link to a special video feature about this incredible store at the end of this article.
In the age of Amazon, it pays to think big when you’re small
These are dangerous times of disruption and of tectonic shifts in structures, formats, and channels for both retailers and brands. A new epoch of retail has arrived, wherein, once again, only those most agile / most adaptable to change will survive. The challenge is even more acute for smaller retailers.
"The brick and mortar solution won't survive very well unless we up our game and create an even better experience for customers than we have in the past." – Tom Heinen
And the way to create an even better experience? Use Customer Data Science to understand customers better than in the past, and apply insights to improve the store itself. I contend that deeper, truer loyalty can be better earned by responsive regional and smaller operators because they have a natural head start as 'local' puts them inherently closer to their customers.
The paradox of disrupted retail is that the big companies must think small, and the small must think big. Those bigger to become more local and personal, and those smaller to embrace the advantages of big data.
Speedboats vs. cruise ships
As the saying goes, it's about the size of the fight in the dog (and not the size of the dog in the fight). In Tom's words, "Being small when you deal with data is actually an advantage. Big companies are like driving a cruise ship; we're a speedboat. What levels the playing field for smaller companies is, in fact, good data-driven decisions."
The principles around using customer data to better engage customers are applicable regardless the size of your business, and no matter the channel – convenience, traditional offline, online, e-m-or v-commerce. These are the universal customer principles of retail:
- Loyalty = Trust + Value. Customers define what 'trust' and 'value' mean to them, personally. This loyalty is a thing earned, not expected
- Relevance is everything
- Customers leave for a reason – they are usually pushed, not pulled away
- Those most adaptable to change are those most likely to survive
To Chris Foltz, Heinen's Director of Operations, survival today is about investing in data science, and the benefits thereof are simple; "…to find insights that enable us to engage customers differently. We need to better change to meet their changing needs and find new ways to delight them".
3 P's of Customer Engagement
Chris and Heinen's understand – and practice perhaps better than anyone – that engaging and delighting customers goes far beyond executing on only 4 P's. I see three more P's in their brilliant operating model; the human P's, if you will – People, Place (in the sense of Ray Oldenburg's Third Places) and Personal.
People: Heinen's have energised and empowered staff by giving them ownership of the customer and the superpower of trust to satisfy customers using their own best judgement. Upskilling is not only about how to do a task, but also about the applications of good judgement and warm behaviours of empathy, dignity, and respect for shoppers. One store, one person can make a big difference for customers.
Personal: Treating all employees with dignity and remembering that each employee is an individual with different needs and aspirations teaches employees that all customers deserve to be treated with respect and individuality (what I call true 'personalisation'). Heinen's employees, following the example of their leaders, learn how to build up relational bank accounts with customers – earning credits for giving recognition, appreciation, thanks, kindness, dignity and respect to shoppers as individuals. When it comes to empathy and respect, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree at Heinen's.
Place: Oldenburg describes spaces at the heart of a community's social vitality a "third place". In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy other people and the space around them. Heinen's downtown Cleveland store stands as a model for grocers to create this very human and psychologically important third space, and demonstrates again how Tom and Jeff Heinen are loyal to their customers and to their community.
For a look at this amazing place and the loyal application of the 4 P's to enhance the customer experience, please watch the below video.
Implications for retail leaders
- You don't have to be big to benefit from big data
- The principles of earning loyalty from your customers apply regardless of the number of stores, or of format
- Retail art must be informed by customer science if you want to win in the age of Amazon
- In the age of artificial intelligence, it's the human intelligence that wins customer engagement