B&R FOODS FOCUSING ON SERVICE

LINCOLN, Neb. -- B&R Foods here is trying to sharpen its focus on service with a program designed to increase awareness of the deli's service function among both customers and employees.The program, dubbed the "Year of the Consumer," is the brainchild of Steve Nelson, deli director for the eight-unit independent.It includes hanging huge banners above the service department proclaiming the stores'

LINCOLN, Neb. -- B&R Foods here is trying to sharpen its focus on service with a program designed to increase awareness of the deli's service function among both customers and employees.

The program, dubbed the "Year of the Consumer," is the brainchild of Steve Nelson, deli director for the eight-unit independent.

It includes hanging huge banners above the service department proclaiming the stores' commitment to service, as well as programs for retraining for deli employees to improve their selling skills.

Nelson joined B&R's staff last fall after leaving the post of food service coordinator for Baker's Supermarkets, Omaha, Neb. He told SN he brought with him an ingrained mindset towards service.

"At Baker's, pleasing the customer was a priority. When I came to B&R, I wanted to make the deli department a showplace of customer service, and top management here was very supportive of my efforts," says Nelson.

B&R Foods, served by the Oklahoma City-based Fleming Cos., consists of four conventional supermarkets trading as Russ', and four warehouse units called Super Savers. All eight units have full service deli departments with catering facilities and offer fully prepared meals. At the Super Center stores there are small eat-in areas.

"We can't compete with other formats such as warehouse stores or mass merchants on a price basis," added Nelson, "but we can compete when it comes to customer service. We want to be known, to be recognized in the community we serve not only as the place to go for quality and variety, but as the place where the customer is treated better than at any other store."

At Russ's units, eight-foot "Year of the Consumer" banners hang directly above the service deli case.

Banners at the Super Savers units read, "Super Savers Customer Service -- We're Going to Knock Your Socks Off." In addition to the banners, each deli area features a poster asking, "How is our customer service today?" The poster is accompanied by pre-printed customer evaluation forms and a box in which to drop the forms.

The themed event is still in an embryonic stage at this point, Nelson said. However, he reported that he has begun to recognize changes in the deli staffers.

"It's a bit too early to draw any specific conclusions as to the impact of the promotion, as far as customer response goes, but each and every staff member is a walking advertisement for the deli area in responsiveness, sensitivity and just plain niceness," he said.

Staffers were trained to build relationships with their customers, he said from asking each shopper, "How may I help you?" instead of "Can I help you?" to guaranteeing that party platters will arrive exactly when expected and following up to see that they do. That level of service, Nelson said, should help build store loyalty.

Nelson said he is very hands-on in communicating with his staffers. He writes weekly operational notes stressing customer service. He conducts monthly meetings with deli managers and makes in-person visits to all departments on a regular basis.

At this time, only the deli departments are participating in the Year of the Consumer project, but Nelson said he expected that other departments will follow suit in the future as it takes hold.

"Year of the Consumer is new and it will take time to evolve to where I would like it to be. But, I have no doubts that it will make a difference, a radical difference, in how B&R Foods will be perceived by customers," Nelson said.

Plans are underway to create a bigger customer service event for 1996, including the in-store displays, in-store special events, direct mail pieces and the utilization of print and broadcast media.