April 22, 2020

Retailers, up your customer ante or fail!

security guard (photo: Robert Kneschke_shutterstock)
(photo: Robert Kneschke_shutterstock)
"I've warned you once, I'm not going to tell you again..."
Dear Retailers,

If you want to survive a savage post-Covid-19 recession, you will have to change your shabby old customer marketing ways. True, the era of mass retailing has always been an excuse for poor and surly service, but the times they are a-changin'.

Just look around. Before, you couldn't pack enough customers into your stores, and you kept them in for as long as possible. Now, in the time of coronavirus and the Great Lockdown, you drastically limit their entry and push 'em out as quickly as you can...

In the old days of retail therapy for stressed and troubled consumer minds, even the grim Spartan ambience of your stores offered the lonely a pathetic opportunity to exchange a word or two with another customer or with staff at the till.

But now even those days are gone, and, when your customers are not fighting each other for the loo paper some of you have price-gouged, everyone shuns his fellow man as if he were a leper.

In your relentless search for profit under the fine-sounding name of efficiency, you had already succeeded in making shopping a chore. But now your stores are as regimented as any socialist would care to have them.

All must wear masks, wait in line, and keep their social distance. Your supermarkets have become a mass of restrictions without the slightest joy in them.

You say the State is to blame and that you must obey the law in order to protect your customers. Perfectly correct, but are your choices really so limited as you claim, or do you just lack imagination?

Shop till you drop?

A few recent shopping trips in Frankfurt have only served to strengthen the impression that it could be the latter. For the sake of brevity, let's start and finish with the security guards you employ at your store entrances. After all, first impressions count.

We begin with a major German supermarket multiple posting billions of annual sales. After waiting in a long queue out on the street, a young girl, just one place ahead of the writer, finally made it to the store doors. Her path was immediately blocked by a burly man, which led to the following altercation:

"You have to take a trolley!"

"But all I want is a packet of salt, why do I have to take a trolley?"

"You must take a trolley, or you're not coming in!"

Eventually the young lady was obliged to give in – after all, superior force was not on her side – but the human interchange was considerably less pleasant than given here.

Communication breakdown

The main trouble was, however, communication. The security guard had the muscle but couldn't express himself either clearly or grammatically.

(Editor's note: As elsewhere in the West, most Germans seem to believe that all hard and dirty work must be done by foreigners. Strangely, the same are also often employed in roles, such as on telephone switchboards or at hotel receptions, where communication skills are at a premium.)

The danger of buying organic

The next stop was at one of Germany's larger organic retailers. Here, where prices are at least 10 to 15 per cent higher than at any supermarket, and where the clientele runs from Green Party voters to bleeding-heart liberals, one might almost have expected the security guard to have talked with a posh accent.

Instead, a big truculent man with no visible indication of his security status, leapt out from some murky shadows near the door and accosted a young couple, two places ahead of the author and both obviously very much in love.

"You can't both come in!"

"But we're married!"

"The two of you are not coming in! Not more than five people are allowed in this store at any one time!"

"But I can only see one person in the whole shop…"

Women being generally far braver than men, the young wife simply swung past this local Oddjob – much to his embarrassment. However, he wasn't going to take any stick from any man, so the hulk positioned himself directly in front of the young husband, while giving him the eye.

This poor chap was now in a difficult position. No man wishes to be browbeaten by another one before an audience of strangers and least of all in front of his wife. Given the overbearing presence of the guard, one could only pray as a mortified observer that the situation would not escalate. Mercifully, after what seemed to be an eternity, some customer came out.

"You can go in now," the guard said with a sneer obviously meant for the entertainment of his captive audience in the queue. The young man entered very warily for this information was issued in such a tone of menace that no one could have been entirely sure that he was not going to receive a beating in a lonely aisle once there were no longer any witnesses in the queue.

Anything for some loo paper

Thankfully, a visit to the local branch of one of the largest discounters in Germany merely proved irksome. Here, the guard had zero charm, but was perfectly professional insofar as he was able to do his job. He was frequently asked by those in the queue if there was any toilet paper on the shelves inside. Of course, the poor devil didn't know.

So customers seeking, for instance, only one packet of loo paper were obliged to take a trolley and traipse around the whole store. But, even after finding none, they still had to queue in a long line at the till with their empty trolley and wait their turn to leave as there was no separate exit for those who hadn't been able to buy anything.

The boomerang principle

These types of experience could doubtless be endlessly reproduced throughout Germany and probably Europe. There is nothing special about them, they could happen to anyone. But, gentle reader, do you think the customers concerned will honour these stores with their patronage ever again?

Feargal Quinn (photo: Declan Corrigan)
(photo: Declan Corrigan)
The mighty Quinn: Senator Feargal Quinn
May one at least suggest how these unpleasant scenes could have been avoided or even have fulfilled what the late great Feargal Quinn once called, the 'Boomerang Principle'. After all, isn't the whole aim of retailing to get the customer to return?

Of course, one should ideally only employ happy, friendly people in positions with any significant customer interaction. But, even given the world as it is, what an opportunity has been lost here!

Just one good-hearted lad on security at a store entrance, taking things in a good-humoured way, à la 'We're all in this together, so let's make this as much fun as we can', would put a retailer firmly on the map for a long time to come throughout a whole catchment area.

It might be simpler and cheaper to hire a few bouncers from the local disco, but threat and force should always be the ultima ratio when dealing with customers.

Why not name and shame?

The identities and addresses of the stores mentioned here have deliberately not been revealed. This is because, as much as the rich and powerful owners of the companies concerned may love to exact retribution on their lowest minions, rudeness to customers is almost always a failure of management.

Adequate training on how to treat customers is not rocket science, even for the roughest of diamonds. If it is explained to the average heavy at the door that customers are not a threat, but something desirable, then his whole mind-set would be changed for the better.

Imagine if he was told, not just to say "You can go in now", but "Please, come in, Sir, and thank you so much for your custom." Just a few extra words, but what a difference they make to those who hear them!

No other way?

And, while not wishing to underestimate the unexpected difficulties under which all retailers are now obliged to labour, how about our discounter with no loo paper? The company concerned is well aware of the run on basic commodities caused by panic buying. So why not put a simple sign in the store window with something like 'Yes, we have no toilet paper!'?

True, you might lose a tiny amount of extra impulse buying on the day. But customers would thoroughly appreciate the coy honesty of such a sign and respect not having their time wasted. Again, such a simple thing, but what a world of difference to current reality at street level!

Should German retail managers read these lines and think they are immune from change in the knowledge that customers will almost inevitably be treated as badly by their competitors, they should think again.

Worst recession in a century

 Metro C&C entrance (photo: Santiago Engelhardt)
Santiago Engelhardt
Under pressure: Metro C&C
The closures of restaurants, cafés, and bars etc., however necessary for containing the spread of Covid-19, will inevitably cause many small businesses to fail. This will not only hurt Cash & Carry wholesalers such as Metro.

The resultant lack of spending power and the absence of any 'feel-good factor' among consumers will also hit retail sales and profits for a long time after the pandemic has ended.

Some international experts even claim that the global economy is set to experience the worst recession in a century as from the second half of this year. One therefore doesn't need to be a prophet to predict that only those retailers will survive who up the ante on their customer marketing game.

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia

Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text:

Lebensmittel Zeitung with its online sisters (photo: LZ)
Our German retail B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German
: 'Europas Lebensmittelfilialisten wappnen sich gegen Rezession' by international editor Mike Dawson on page 8 of Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 17, 26.04.2020

Readers are also referred to two contributions below. In the first, Marketing Professor Marcel Corstjens of INSEAD business school rates how well retailers have been doing on the PR front in the current crisis:

 "Retailers could come out of this as the good guys"

Professor Corstjens, would you grant any governments an MBA for the way they have handled the coronavirus pandemic?

Professor Marcel Corstjens, INSEAD (photo: Mark Mackenzie)
(photo: Mark Mackenzie)
INSEAD Marketing Professor Marcel Corstjens
There will certainly be many aftermath analyses once it has subsided. National authorities in, for instance, the UK, France and the US will have a lot more to answer for than retailers. The way most of them, excluding Germany, have dealt with the coronavirus has been disappointing.

The excessive role of 'scientists/experts' in governmental decisions and the way politicians have used them as fig leaves need to be questioned. The disproportionate medicine administered by the authorities compared to the real scope of the problem will be another fruitful discussion.

Governments have brought whole countries and peoples to an almost complete standstill for a problem which mainly concerns those over 65 and with serious existing health histories.

In a world of internet, artificial intelligence, social media etc., governments have not sufficiently segmented their actions to target high-risk individuals. In trying to obviate maximum risk, they have ended up with a mass of unintended consequences.

These include the insufficient treatment of other patients with serious, non-Covid-19 illnesses, social problems such as alcoholism, drugs, suicide, loneliness, and the mental health problems caused by confining whole families to a limited space for long periods of time.

Not to mention lack of schooling, especially for children from disadvantaged families, and massive economic problems due to the shutdown. Constraining the population more is not necessarily better.

What has been the media's role in all of this?

Professor Marcel Corstjens, INSEAD (photo: Mark Mackenzie)
(photo: Mark Mackenzie)
"The media will have to answer some difficult questions"
The media will be a second institution that will have to answer some difficult questions. The way they contributed to scaremongering among the population by uncritically passing on controversial and mostly negative information will need to be addressed.

The media has created so much fear within the population, especially among the uneducated, that, now governments want to reduce constraints, they feel deeply uncomfortable. This is more than understandable as they have had the risks drummed into them from day-to-day and hour-by-hour.

How have retailers fared so far?

Those I follow in the UK, France and the USA seem to have generally come out of this crisis quite well and have enhanced their image.

They've made huge efforts to service their customers under very difficult circumstances. Although they've been able to grow their sales during the first wave of panic buying, they have also experienced significant cost increases.

This explains why they have seen no spectacular increase in their share prices, albeit on global securities markets which have broadly tanked.

Overall, I suspect that retailers will come out of this crisis as the good guys. They have done a professional job and, in my view, they will come over as contributors to other people's well-being in difficult circumstances.

Presumably the lockdown has proved a godsend for online retailers?

Seen as a whole, the crisis will have helped their expansion, but only in a limited way.

The pandemic might have brought in new customers for online grocery retailers, but, by and large, they haven't had the capacity to handle the increase demand. This has certainly cooled the enthusiasm of new customers, many of whom actually weren't able to be serviced.

There are two bottlenecks: It's difficult to change long-held shopping habits, and home delivery isn't profitable. So one must find a better logistical solution for online deliveries which will reduce cost and accelerate changes in buying behaviour.

Convenience and neighbourhood stores have profited at the expense of hypermarkets during the lockdown because they are nearer to consumers’ homes. What conclusions can one draw from this?

INSEAD-Professor Marcel Corstjens (photo: Markt Mackenzie)
(photo: Markt Mackenzie)
"Hypermarket operators will have to stop rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic"
It's a question of now or never. This pandemic might have put sufficient pressure on hypermarket operators to find a way of making their larger stores more attractive. They must stop rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic by creating truly innovative ways of using existing sales floors to create value for shoppers. Retailers must therefore ask themselves whether the hypermarket problem is really due to a mature business model or to mature managers.

In the crisis retailers have been outdoing themselves in philanthropy. Hardly a day goes by without some retailer proclaiming how much they are giving to food banks or front-line staff etc. Wouldn't retailers be better advised to simply concentrate on making profits for their shareholders?

This is too broad a question to answer properly here, so let me take Tesco, the leading UK retailer by sales, as an example.

They've just done a great job by selling their business in Thailand at top dollar. Since they don't seem to know where else to invest the money (and given that their CEO, Dave Lewis, is leaving later on this year), they have announced that they intend to reward shareholders for the sale with a massive extra dividend.

But then the pandemic came, and the UK government is offering a subsidy to retailers in order to compensate them for the higher costs they have incurred.

So should they use the money from the Thai sale to finance this extra cost rather than give it to shareholders? This is a difficult question, but I see it only as a short-term issue which will not have any deep or lasting consequences for retailers.

Interview by Mike Dawson, international editor, Lebensmittel Zeitung

A second contribution comes from our former Paris correspondent, Dr. Jürgen Briem. In this sketch, written in German, he praises two young people from a local retail store and a bistro-café in Montmartre who helped him and his wife, both senior citizens, with their shopping in an exemplary way. Sam Walton and Auguste Escoffier would have been proud of these youngsters. Their actions also lend a human touch to these strange and demanding times:

Shopping in Paris zu Covid-Zeiten

von Jürgen Briem 

Dr. Jürgen Briem in Paris (photo: privat)
Jürgen Briem
Dr. Jürgen Briem in Paris
"Wir haben ganz selten mal Kontakt zu dem, was manche mit einem gewissen mokanten Unterton 'die Jugend von heute' nennen und ihr ganz überwiegend Schlechtes andichten. Aber dass in dieses zugegeben sehr verbreitete populäre Raster offenbar längst nicht alle Jüngeren hineinfallen, dafür zwei Beispiele.

In einem etwas weiter von unserer Adresse gelegenen Supermarkt, in dem ich gerne einkaufe, weil er groß und geräumig ist und viel Platz lässt zwischen den Gängen, hatte ich eigentlich nicht vor, mehr als das wirklich Notwendige in den Caddy zu legen. Nur, wie es halt so geht, ein paar Verlockungen konnte ich nicht ausweichen, wie so oft, und als ich mich mit dem Wagen in die Kassenschlange stellte – sie war nur kurz – brauchte ich dann doch drei Plastikbeutel, um alles zu verstauen.

Und da ich alles hätte mit der linken Hand fassen und heimtragen müssen, weil ich mit der rechten den Gehstock halte, fragte ich den Kassierer, ob sie auch Heimlieferungen machen. Meine Frage ging in ein völlig ausdrucksloses noch relativ junges Gesicht, auch der Mann an der Nachbarkasse hatte so eins. Nein, machen wir nicht, hieß es wie aus beiden Mündern gleichzeitig. „Bedauerlich“, gab ich zurück, und packte die drei Beutel wieder in den Caddy, – unschlüssig, was ich jetzt machen sollte.

Da stand plötzlich, deutlich kleiner als ich, ein junger Mann rechts neben mir, so einer mit steif hoch gestellter Frisur, wie ich sie eigentlich nicht leiden kann. Meckie, der aus der „Hör Zu“ in den Fünfzigern, der war doch was Anderes, hübscher anzusehen. Aufgefallen war mir der Junge schon, während ich durch die Regalreihen ging, und ich dachte mir, naja, mal von der Frisur abgesehen sieht er ja ganz adrett aus, und wie er sich hier so durch die Regale bewegt und darin hie und da was richtet, gehört er vielleicht zum Personal.

Keine Sorge, Monsieur!

Und da stand er plötzlich neben mir und meinte, „Keine Sorge, Monsieur! Ich bring‘ sie nach Haus damit! Kommen Sie! Das geht schon!“ Bevor ich auch nur ein Wort rausbringen konnte, sowas wie „aber Moment mal, - die beiden hinter der Kasse haben mir gerade gesagt, dass Heimlieferungen hier nicht gemacht werden, …“, da hatte der Junge auch schon den Einkaufswagen gedreht und in Richtung Ausgang gerollt.

Draußen sagte ich, „erstmal nach links!“ Er bewegte den Caddy, wie wenn es ein Leichtes sei. Mit dem ganzen Charme seiner jungen Kräfte. Über die erste kleine Straße hinweg, die zur Sacré-Coeur hochgeht und meist voller Touristen ist. Vorbei an dem malerischen kleinen Théâtre de l’Atelier, ganz in Gelb, mit den Bäumen auf dem Platz davor.

Vor der nächsten Straße stoppt der Junge und schaut fragend zu mir hoch; „Noch weiter geradeaus?“ – „Ja bitte, – ist noch’n ganzes Stück!“ Das Trottoir ist jetzt etwas breiter, aber um den Wagen dahin zu bringen, denn der Bürgersteig ist ziemlich hoch, muss der freundliche Helfer ihn ein wenig anheben, erst mit den Vorderrollen, dann mit den hinteren.

Dann geht’s weiter, ich immer ein paar Meter hinterher. Da hält er den Caddy einen Moment an und fragt mich, ob er für mich nicht zu schnell gehe. Ich versichere ihm, dass das nicht der Fall sei. Donnerwetter! Was für ein gut erzogener, höflicher, aufmerksamer Junge! Und ich freue mich darüber.

Vor der Apotheke, Ecke Rue D’Orsel/Rue des Martyrs, nochmal dieselbe Frage: „Noch weiter? Geradeaus?“ – „Ja, bitte,  bis zur nächsten Straße noch und dann links ein Stück runter.“ – „Okay.“ Aber diese kurze Stück Trottoir ist nicht leicht zu nehmen. Der Einkaufswagen droht runterzurollen und der Junge muss nochmal Kraft aufwenden, um ihn daran zu hindern.

Jetzt geht es rechts rein in die Rue Piémontési mit buckeligem Kopfsteinpflaster, dann noch die kurze Verlängerung in die Rue André Antoine 21, und da ist Schluss. Da wohnen wir.

Ich öffne die rote Tür und beide Flügel, damit er den Caddy in den Flur rollen kann, und bedanke mich, aber er nimmt die drei Beutel heraus und schickt sich an, sie noch von Hand weiterzutragen bis ins Hinterhaus. „Nein“, bremse ich seine Hilfsbereitschaft, die mich ganz überwältigt hat, und sage, „Nein, nein, ist genug. Den Rest schaff‘ ich noch selbst.“ – „Vous êtes sûres?“ (Sind Sie sicher, Monsieur?).


Da will er mit dem Wagen schon wieder durch die Tür zurück und auf den denn doch ziemlich langen Rückweg. Ich aber sage „Stopp! Kleinen Moment noch!“, und gebe ihm einen Fünf-Euro-Schein als Dankeschön. Und wie er mich da anstrahlt! So können das nur so junge Menschen wie er, denke ich, noch ganz ‚unverbaut‘ vom Leben, ganz frisch und grundehrlich und ganz offensichtlich toll erzogen.

Das zweite Beispiel. Wir kennen ihn aus dem nahegelegenen Coffee-Shop, unserem Lieblingscafé, das mit dem besonderen, wie ausgewählt wirkenden überwiegend jungen Publikum bis hin zu Kinderwageneltern, nicht mal zweihundert Meter von unserem Haus steht.

Carine, Französin, und Pascal aus Laos oder Vietnam, haben es vor zwei Jahren eröffnet und „Sylon“ benannt: „Sy“ steht für Sydney, wo Pascal ein paar Jahre gelebt und gearbeitet, und „Lon“ für London, wo Carine ihre Grunderfahrungen im Restaurantbetrieb gemacht hat. Weltgeformt, die beiden. Absolut.

Eine Wohltat, bei ihnen ein paar Stunden zu verbringen, mit ihnen an der Theke etwas zu klönen oder auch einfach zuzusehen, wie sie mit ihren Gästen umgehen, wie sie sie begrüßen, bedienen, und am Ende wieder gehen lassen, als seien alle schon seit langem miteinander freundschaftlich verbunden.

Und die kleine Küche, auch mittags, besorgt der lange, spindeldürre, absolut selten einmal, und dann auch meist nur halbwegs lächelnde Nicolas, von allen selbstverständlich nur „Nick“ genannt.

Ich hatte ihn eigentlich immer für eher zurückhaltend gehalten, fast schüchtern, dabei aber mehrfach kompetent, - nicht nur in der Küche; auch, was die Pflanzen und die Kräuter angeht und alles, was draußen sonst noch wächst.

Aber sehr viel mehr wissen wir nicht von ihm. Dass er noch recht jung ist.  Knapp über zwanzig. Dass er in einer Rockband Schlagzeug spielt („Wie das?! Der?! Dieser schüchterne lange Schlacks von Mensch?! …“)

Dass er Pflanzen liebt, wie schon gesagt. Mehr nicht. Ja. Und er kleidet sich meist tiefschwarz. Wirklich! Heute trug er beispielsweise einen knöchellangen schwarzen Staubmantel und eine dunkle Mütze auf dem Kopf, der schon so gut wie keine Haare mehr trägt, dafür aber einen Bart, der das vielleicht etwas wettmachen soll.

Egal. Er ist nett, der Junge, Aber dass er irgendwann einmal etwas Buntes anhaben sollte, etwas Farbiges, Sommerliches, kann sich keiner von uns vorstellen. Er hat etwas Mönchhaftes an sich. Keine Frage...

Kann ich 'was mitbringen?

Okay. Das war das Bild, das wir vor kurzem noch von ihm hatten. Aber dann rief dieser Nick vor ein, zwei Wochen plötzlich und völlig überraschend bei uns an und fragte, ob wir etwas bräuchten. Er gehe gleich für sich was einkaufen und könnte uns gerne etwas mitbringen.

Wir waren platt wie `ne Hamburger Scholle und wussten erst gar nicht, was wir sagen sollten. Sein Angebot annehmen? Einfach so? Und was soll er uns mitbringen? Doch nicht die ganze Liste, die ich für mich selbst schon vorbereitet hatte? „Ist das nicht zu viel, Nick?“ – „Nein, ist in Ordnung, das geht schon. Kein Problem“.

Und schon ging er unsere alte Holztreppe wieder runter, überquerte den Hof und war verschwunden. Als er wieder zurückkam, vor der Tür stand und klingelte, stellte er uns zwei, drei große stabile Packpapiertüten ins Zimmer, alle prall gefüllt, und wegen der Tüten wusste ich gleich, wo er alles eingekauft hatte: im Bioladen unten an der Place Pigalle. Ist etwas teurer als im normalen Supermarkt, aber was soll’s, – wir waren von seiner spontanen Hilfsbereitschaft derart überrascht und überwältigt, dass wir uns rasch per Blickkontakt darauf verständigten, „Komm‘, lass‘ gut sein!

Drei-, nein, viermal hat Nick für uns alles besorgt, was wir in diesen eigentümlichen Wochen des zwangsweisen Daheimbleibens für unseren kleinen Zwei-Personen-Haushalt benötigten.

Das Schwere kommt per Auto

Nicht diese schweren Sechserpacks Mineralwasser, auch nicht den obligaten Rotwein. Das bestellen wir alles immer direkt im nächsten Supermarkt und von dort kommt es per Auto zu uns. Aber sonst? Alles, was auf meiner Liste stand! Reineweg alles!

Und dass wir ihm nicht irgendwie mit Geld danken könnten, das war uns klar. Wir kennen uns schon zu lange, schon aus dem oben erwähnten Café. Nein. Geld kam nicht in Frage. Wirklich nicht. Aber womit ihm sonst Dankeschön sagen? Die Frage wehrte der junge Mann mit einer weiten Armbewegung ab und meinte, es habe ihm einfach Freude gemacht, für uns mit einzukaufen, und wenn wir demnächst wieder was bräuchten, sollten wir ihn einfach anrufen.

Beim letzten Mal schien er ein wenig von seiner üblichen Schüchternheit verloren zu haben. Er stand etwas länger als zuvor in der Tür und hatte offensichtlich Lust oder das Bedürfnis, ein wenig mit uns zu plaudern. Dabei wurde sein Gesicht immer offener, weicher, zugewandter, einen langen Augenblick lang nicht mehr so in sich selbst verschlossen. Für uns ist er jetzt 'Nick, – der mit dem ganz großen Herzen'…"

© Jürgen Briem



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