BrainTrust Query: The Neighborhood Store – Fact or Fiction?

Discussion
May 07, 2010
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By Kelly Auerbach, Database Marketing Consultant, M Squared Group

Through a
special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current
article from Cultivating Your Customers, the M Squared Group
blog.

As a Gen Xer, I’ve been in marketing for well over a decade. Being
steeped in this business, it has recently dawned on me that I have never once
truly experienced one of the foundational assumptions of relationship marketing:
People actually want a relationship with the companies they do business with.

Within
relationship marketing, there is the over-used metaphor of the neighborhood
grocer as the iconic figure.  You know, that Mr. Rodgers-like man who knew
you so well that he would special order your favorite items — like Sam did
for Alice on The Brady Bunch.

The question became, how do you leverage the strategic
advantage of being one of the big guys, while also recapturing that personal
touch? Database marketing and, by extension, relationship marketing are supposed
to provide solutions to this personal-touch/high-scale problem.

But I ask myself,
as a Gen Xer, did this relationship-based neighborhood grocer ever really exist? 
If so, it disappeared before my lifetime and has settled into collective legend. 
Otherwise, it never really existed and is a fabulous myth we in marketing aspire
to.

I’m so accustomed to shopping anonymously with no one recognizing me – not
even at my favorite stores – that
I almost can’t believe the friendly, neighborhood grocer ever existed.  (Boomers,
am I wrong?)  I’m used to direct mail that still has my maiden name; customer
phone lines where I enter my personal information and then have to repeat the
same information to the call center rep; 100 percent technology-driven online
purchasing; and checkout lines where I am positive I will never see the associate
again.

I’m still
not sure I want a relationship with a company, but at the very least, I would
like to be recognized and acknowledged by a company for more than my current
transaction.

Did the corner store ever really exist?  Do businesses actually
behave like they remember you and put things aside? I would love to hear about
businesses that know the real value of their customers.

Discussion Question: To what degree is the neighborhood store a myth?
What type of relationships should stores aspire to create with customers?

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12 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: The Neighborhood Store – Fact or Fiction?"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 1 day ago

Excellent question. Did Ward & June Cleaver emulate or try to create the perfect ’50s family that Madison Avenue swore to us was worth achieving? Did we enjoy telling ourselves that the Cosby show was a “hip” family just down the block? I think this article confirms many want to be noticed secretly, even if they have nothing to back it up. That’s why smaller boutiques stand out when people find someone cares enough to create a relationship. Even though I have read about legendary Nordstrom service but rarely found it, I still long for being noticed, just like this author. Yes Virginia, there is a store that wants to acknowledge and notice you but you’ll have to put up with a lot that don’t.

Warren Thayer
Guest
11 years 1 day ago
Well, this is puzzling. All my life I’ve had relationships with small merchants. The big stores, forget it, because I don’t expect it. But when I lived in Boston, I knew the corner grocer and he would get things specially for me. When I lived in NYC, the dry cleaners and the bodega guy were friends who were always looking out for you, and we’d chat about friends and family. And now that I’m in small-town Vermont, I have Dan & Whit’s General Store, where everyone knows my name, I can run a monthly tab, special-order anything or get really knowledgeable personal advice on hardware, or even buy ribbon by the yard if I’m ever so inclined. So I know relationships with merchants DO exist, and they’re unique and irreplaceable. I actually like Walmart, but if there’s ever a choice of getting something at Walmart or paying more for it at Dan & Whit’s, I’m at Dan & Whit’s. I never expect any of this sort of service at Walmart, Best Buy or any of… Read more »
Anne Howe
Guest
11 years 1 day ago
In my area,(Oakland County, MI) there are actually more neighborhood grocers than there were ten years ago. In a store Kroger vacated a few years back, Plum Market – a high-end store with plenty of organic food selections, including fresh meat, seafood, bakery, floral and home-made takeout as well as natural beauty/personal care – is run by a local family. They have a loyalty card, they know customers by name and always ask you if you found everything you were looking for. Over the past few years, they’ve changed the merchandise mix to reflect what the shoppers want. They are thriving. The wine crew is excellent and wines are priced to bring traffic in the door. Another is Market Fresh, an expanded second location of a locally owned market called Market Square that is literally less than one mile up the same road. They’ve built their brand in both locations around their butchers and their wine knowledge. No loyalty card, but the friendly staff offers help as they stock shelves and suggest interesting products to… Read more »
Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
11 years 1 day ago

As a Boomer, I do remember the kind of experience that Kelly describes. It was, of course, a much different time. Populations were less mobile, the stores were locally owned and run by people who had worked in the store their entire working careers. They were staffed by people that you went to school with. Like I said, a much different model from today, where, with a few exceptions, retailers are divisions of faceless corporations directed from offices in a different time zone by individuals who are working their way through their own personally-designed career path and change companies on average every three years.

This is not to say that retailers cannot develop a relationship with their local customer base. Involvement in local events and charities, an assortment that speaks to local preferences and tastes, a focus on engaging each guest, and of course, CRM. All these elements, done well, can help develop a sense of “the neighborhood store.”

David Zahn
Guest
11 years 1 day ago

I do think the “merchant” did exist then and even exits today–just not commonly found in the chain supermarket. One has to venture into the independent pharmacy, the specialty apparel store, or the “Mom and Pop” butcher/fish stores to experience it.

It is there that products are “put aside” for better customers and knowledgeable clerks or store operators share insights and wisdom on product preparation, how to integrate a product into one’s existing/previous purchases, etc. The pharmacist answers questions, the store clerk sees a dress or a pair of shoes and recommends it to complement an outfit, the butcher spends time discussing the merits of grilling vs. broiling, etc.

It does exist…just in very short supply in the chains where the labor costs are closely managed, the expertise is not required to be as high (generally speaking), and the customer contact is to be minimized as it impacts efficiency.

Marge Laney
Guest
11 years 1 day ago

This is a terrific article and should make every retailer sit up and take notice. Retail in general has relegated the building of customer relationships to self service devices or passed it off to poorly selected and trained associates. Technology doesn’t sell things, make friends, and build relationships; people do. Customer service is personal, and personal service involves the selection and training of great people. To say that there are no companies out there delivering great service with great people is wrong. But it’s right to say that it’s inconsistent, as Bob points out, even at the greats like Nordstrom.

On the other hand, you as a customer must ask yourself, am I willing to pay for great service from great people? In my latest blog The Ultimate Cost of Service, I opine that we usually get the service we pay for, and retailers pay for the service they deliver.

Jesse Rooney
Guest
Jesse Rooney
11 years 1 day ago
Of course the neighborhood grocery exists to this day and they are frequently willing to go the extra mile for your business. There are a few reasons why they are less prominent than in previous years, including consumer trends favoring convenience and the appearance of larger chain stores. For consumers, convenience basically translates into getting what they want with as little effort and time expended as possible. Chain stores frequently trump local grocers in this regard because the chain store is able to provide a faster POS transaction than local grocers. Chain stores also tend to have a larger selection of convenience foods where as local grocers tend to focus on their produce, butcher, and their deli departments. Finally, chain stores tend to be open longer than local grocers. All that feeds into the consumer tending towards the chain store over the local grocer. The appearance of the store is also a factor. Local grocers frequently have smaller stores with somewhat antiquated decor whereas main chain supermarkets are massive, modern, well-lit shopping areas. Consumers simply… Read more »
Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
11 years 1 day ago

I think the very best independent retailers recognize that customers don’t form relationships with companies, they form relationships with the people they meet there. It is that interpersonal experience that is remembered and valued by the customer.

From my experience, the people you meet in these stores, whether they are owners, managers or sales associates, all share an animating passion for what they do, and have an innate ability to engage people comfortably and naturally. They represent the mission and values of the company, but they are also open and accessible.

This is not possible for many national chains. Their model is built on scalability and volume. They are not able to consistently offer a memorable interpersonal experience (if at all). They rely on the power of their marketing to create memorable brand equity instead.

All of which leaves Kelly feeling a little bit hollow, both as a marketer and a consumer.

George Whalin
Guest
George Whalin
11 years 1 day ago
In my 40 + years of experience in retail neighborhood stores do exist. In fact, some of them thrive in today’s competitive environment. By neighborhood stores I don’t necessarily mean small grocery stores. In my book Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America I profile extraordinary single location stores that have done an amazing job of developing powerful, long-term relationships with their customers. While some do most of their business within their own communities, a number of these retailers are so good at giving customers what they want in the way of merchandise, value and service they draw customers from hundreds of miles away. What I find so amazing is how few retailers large and small understand and appreciate the value of providing customers with a truly outstanding experience in their stores. It is quite simple, really. Offer merchandise that isn’t available in every other store in town. Make sure that merchandise represents real value. And provide a pleasantly memorable shopping experience to every customer. Do this and customers will come back… Read more »
Victor Willis
Guest
Victor Willis
11 years 1 day ago
Neighborhood stores with friendly customer service do exist but in a crowded marketplace you have to work hard to find them. Wegmans (N.E), UKROPS (S.E), New Seasons (NW) all do a fine job. Staff there build a natural rapport and have what I call retail charisma. Next time you shop in one of these stores, strike up a conversation with an employee. It’s a real skill to be able to converse with customers who are complete strangers. In large chains with antiseptic service, I just want to get the hell of there. ‘Customer service’ seems like an after thought. In neighborhood stores, there’s a friendliness that’s pervasive throughout the store like the aroma of freshly baked bread. Speaking with employees at the demo carts, the deli counter, even the checkout areas is enjoyable. It all starts at the top with the culture, the company vision and management. For large national chains, they can learn a lot from neighborhood stores. They should never forget the bulk of innovation comes from the small guy. That along with… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
11 years 1 day ago
What a great question to go to Mother’s Day weekend with. I can remember too, too well the neighborhood grocer, shoemaker, and even the family doctor to name a very few. This was before most of the big box chains were expanding to smaller second level communities. The doctor was someone you knew and knew you. You went to him for a cut, bruise, break or even those ailments you were not sure of. And, by the way, you did not need a referral to see him. These people we are speaking of were the owners of the local or neighborhood businesses. Of course you knew them. It was important that they knew you. Repeat business when the neighborhood was the place to shop was the lifeline of those businesses. The closest I can think of today is the grocery chain. Ours is regional. The Store Manager, Meat Manager, Deli, Pharmacy and Bakery manager have been at the same location for years. Longer than most of the local; area families. They have built a strong… Read more »
John Crossman
Guest
John Crossman
11 years 7 hours ago

I am a member of Generation X and relationships with neighborhood retailers is very important to me. My wife, two daughters, and I have several retailers (both national and local) that we go to regularly and furl that we have a close relationship. People, at their core, desire and need to be in relationships. That does not change generationally.

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