The Customer Experience of Supermarkets

Last year at EuroGel 2006, Mark Hurst had invited David McQuillen to talk about the customer experince of Credit Suisse. One of the things he said that rung true with me is that most people who work at banks never go to a bank as a customer. Especially in top management, these people have probably not set foot at the front desk of a bank for 30 years. Such ignorance can’t but affect the customer experience.

I wonder how many of the people who work at a supermarket ever experience shopping at their own store. The checkout experience is usually horrible.

Before you start your approach, you have to know which things need to be weighed and make sure you weigh them at the far end of the store before you proceed to the checkout area. If you forget, you have to run all the way back, while the people behind you in line scoff at you and the clerk takes a break. How much could it cost to build a scale into the checkout counter?

Then you have to carefully measure how many bags you’re going to need. You bring bags with you, of course, to save the environment, but maybe you bought more than you thought you would? You better guess right, because by the time you find out, the clerk is on to the next customer. And if you get too many, it’s bad for the environment.

Next up, you have to scramble to pack your stuff before the next customer’s ditto come tumbling down the lane. It’s a fight against the tide, the conveyer belt keeps rolling, threatening to crush your fragile eggs and delicate basil under the onslaught of the two kilos of all-purpose organic flour. At the same time moving belt makes it hard to make your bags sit still while you try to fill them.

Best as you’re scrambling, it’s time to pay. You have to move from where you are, and make your way back up, past other customers, to where the clerk awaits your payment. But before you do that, you have to ensure that that sack of flour won’t crush that basil while your attention is elsewhere.

After paying, you can finish packing, and leave the store. And pray that everything is correct on the bill, because otherwise you have to go over to another long line, carrying all your stuff, to get it fixed.

What could be done to improve this? First off, build a scale into the register. It costs a little, but it also saves time, but more importantly, it stops putting customers at fault.

What about the packing experience? Have the clerk pack stuff for you as you go. Or employ someone to pack, who’s doing only that, so you can focus on paying. Alas, these cost labor, and labor is expensive in Europe, and supermarkets are are margins business.

But at least take care in designing your checkout counter. Think about where people are supposed to stand, where they’re supposed to put their bags, their children, how to prevent their goods from destroying one another, how to get from packaging to payment without having to move too far and without interrupting the packing flow too much, and how to give enough time for it to not be a stressful experience.

And make sure you don’t destroy a great checkout arrangement by throwing up one of those giant anti-theft screeners right where customers are supposed to stand when they pack their bags.

Oh, and think about creating an experience that gives the clerks an opportunity to be happy, relaxed, friendly, and helpful. They’re the primary face that your customers will see.

The bottle return system deserves a special note. I know Danish stores probably hate the bottle deposits and the return system as much as the next guy. I assume it’s only a cost to them. But hey, even when we’re standing there in front of these machines that so frequently break down, in line after some drunk guy with 18 bags of wine bottles at 25 ¿re apiece, our hands and cuffs drenched in a delicious mixture of stale beer from the other night and wine from that lunch with the in-laws—even then, it’s still us, your trusted and loyal customers.

You don’t have to treat us like shit just because we’re returning bottles like our government wants us to. My local supermarket recently moved their bottle return machines into the basement where they have parking. So now you have go through the humiliation of walking down a ramp, enjoying the care exhaust, and finally taking the painfully slow elevators up to the store. Thanks, but on thanks. I’ve started to just leave my bottles in the street and let whoever wants the pennies take them. After all, the system does work rather well that way.

So. Are we going to see better shopping experiences generally available? I doubt it. But I’m appalled each time I shop that the experience is so poor, and everyone seems so oblivious to it. Oh, that’s just the way it is, they’ll say. Yes, because noone has experienced or bothered to imagine something better.