SERVICE CALLED MORE IMPORTANT THAN PRICE

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Supermarket delis should stop concentrating on price and, instead, set out to provide "wow" customer service.That was the message conveyed by T. Scott Gross, author of "Positively Outrageous Service," while speaking at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's seminar and exposition here last week. Gross said stressed-out customers today don't care as much about price as

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Supermarket delis should stop concentrating on price and, instead, set out to provide "wow" customer service.

That was the message conveyed by T. Scott Gross, author of "Positively Outrageous Service," while speaking at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's seminar and exposition here last week. Gross said stressed-out customers today don't care as much about price as they do about a pleasant experience.

"They're buying an experience, not stuff," Gross said. The problem is that even the basics of "making customers feel good" elude many supermarket deli and bakery departments, he added.

For example, quick-service restaurants are maintaining a competitive edge with quality, fast service and showmanship, while supermarkets are spinning their wheels trying to compete with them on price, he said.

"I used to think price was the key, but as you cut, cut and cut prices, margins get ever thinner. Price isn't the issue anymore; it's all the things you wrap around it," Gross said.

"Think about the McDonald's commercials that say you deserve a break today. That makes the customer feel McDonald's is thinking about him, not just selling him something. That's feel-good marketing," he said. Those ads say very little about price or product, Gross added.

His strategy for offering "positively outrageous" service to increase sales is to do something to make your customers say "wow" on a random basis. The element of randomness will assure they keep coming back.

"When you do that, you're creating purposeful, positive word-of-mouth advertising that's going to bring your customers back and you'll also get their friends and relatives, too," Gross said. Keeping your customers coming back is a good way to build volume, and it's a lot less costly than attracting new customers, he added.

Gross said people are so busy these days that their time has become more valuable to them, and that makes courteous, helpful service more important to them. Thus, they're more appreciative than ever when an experience -- shopping included -- is a pleasant one.

That food experience is something the quick-service restaurants are offering and supermarkets are not, he said.

"There are three things the quick service people know that you don't -- quality, fast service, and showmanship," he said.

"If french fries in McDonalds aren't sold within a prescribed, short amount of time, they go in the trash, and their employees are trained enough to be able to answer questions about holding time, if a customer should ask. Restaurants also know how to get customers in and out in a hurry, and they're offering meal solutions, not just a product," he added. Gross offered the example of one restaurateur who created a "wow" experience for his customers and solved a problem at the same time. The restaurant's business was slow on Mondays. Trying to change that, the owner announced one Monday evening that all customers in the restaurant would get their meals free. He did that a few times on a random basis.

"The parking lot's full on Mondays, and he hasn't given away meals for years. But that gesture is still producing Monday night crowds three years later," he said. In another example, Gross said one supermarket deli manager on the West Coast who read Gross' book related an incident in her department that bred customer loyalty. A customer came to the deli and asked for a cloth to clean up a spilled cup of coffee in her car. Instead of giving the customer a cloth, an associate went out to the car to clean up the mess for her. "That woman has never forgotten that," Gross said. "She's a regular customer now."