Do you carry out their orders?

While in high school, my first “real” job was bundling groceries for a small local grocery store chain. The job included carrying the groceries out to people’s cars which at that time was becoming rare and now is almost unheard of. The job interview was one of the toughest I have ever gone through; partly because it was my first but also because of the company culture. They viewed bundling as one of the most important functions in providing the customer their brand experience.

Decades later, I still remember the expectations they laid out in the interview. Even though I was fifteen years old, I was asked how I valued customer service and how would I deliver an extraordinary experience. The lessons I learned that day set a solid foundation on which I would later develop into my current beliefs about the importance of customer service. During my training I quickly learned that everyone who touches the customer experience plays a vital role in delivering an experience which retains customers.

Then I was told the most important rules:

  1. Always take care of the customer
  2. Properly pack all bags so they stand up in the trunk
  3. Never squish the bread
  4. Under no circumstances take a tip

After explaining the rules, they informed us that they had secret shoppers and if they caught us excepting a tip we would be fired immediately. They insisted that customers were not expected to pay more for excellent service.  We were instructed to politely decline the money and inform the customers that it was our job to carry out their groceries.

They then brought me out to the exit of the store and pointed out the giant sign above the door which read, “We carry out your orders.”  The sign then explained the philosophy of the store and how each and every employee was expected to go above and beyond to exceed the needs of the customer. It informed customers that each employee, including bundlers, were paid to provide this level of service and customers should need not feel inclined to tip as it was part of the service the store provided to them when they chose to shop at our store.

Once I was hired, the training was more comprehensive than most of the “professional” jobs I have had. It was three days long and included classes, hands on training, and mentorship. I was instructed on proper packing technique and customer relations. By the time I flew solo I was fully aware of my role in this company, the expectations they had of me, and I had all the knowledge necessary to perform at the level their customers expected.

After I passed my probation period and proved I had what it took, I received a raise. Then I was asked if I had any friends I knew who I felt would fit in on “our team.” Because I knew what they expected, I was quickly able to suggest a few good candidates as well as eliminate those who I knew would not make the cut. I appreciated the fact that  management valued my judgment and took pride in helping to better “our team”.

I worked at that store for eight years and saw many changes in that time. Over the years the store merged with larger chains which were bought up by larger holding companies. The sign over the door came down, the carry-out service ended, and the training was shortened to a few hours. Ultimately the small-town store could no longer compete, not because it didn’t offer a selection needed to compete with the superstores, but instead because it had lost its identity, culture and finally its purpose.

After limping along for many years, the store finally closed and stood vacant for five more years like a tombstone in the center of town. Upon my last visit I discovered the building has been gutted and it is now becoming a Panera.

The grocery needs of the town are now being met by a large uncaring superstore and a new smaller “hometown” style market which is offering a shopping experience very similar to the one we once provided. Now they serve the same shoppers we once did and people rave about the shopping experience.

The grocery business has come full circle in my hometown except for one thing: this new store doesn’t carry out your orders. They did in their first few stores, but as they have expanded the chain over the past ten years they eliminated the carry-out service in their “new” stores. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same and so begins the next cycle. Will they ever learn?

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