SHOPPING FUN

"We can't be a good place to shop without first being a good place to work." -- Larry Del Santo, chairman and chief executive officer, Vons Cos.Larry Del Santo's observation about the goal of making Vons a "good place to shop" goes straight to what is perhaps the most pressing concern facing supermarkets today: They aren't much fun to shop and going to the supermarket is far from an activity of choice

"We can't be a good place to shop without first being a good place to work." -- Larry Del Santo, chairman and chief executive officer, Vons Cos.

Larry Del Santo's observation about the goal of making Vons a "good place to shop" goes straight to what is perhaps the most pressing concern facing supermarkets today: They aren't much fun to shop and going to the supermarket is far from an activity of choice for most consumers.

After all, supermarkets traditionally have been in the business of selling consumers what they need, not what they necessarily want. But maybe that's a bit harsh since the industry is taking steps to solve this problem, such as by installing attractive perishables departments that go more in the direction of providing wants, not just needs.

But there's no denying that a store filled with dreary workers can eclipse many a vibrant department, making the store a bleak place no matter how clever its departments.

It's to that problem that Larry's formula speaks. Indeed, making shopping fun is a significant part of a broad plan of change set in motion at Vons by Larry and Dick Goodspeed, Vons' president and chief executive officer. The pair were interviewed by SN reporter Elliot Zwiebach. Results of the interview form the basis of the front-page news feature in this week's SN.

What exactly was done at Vons to help make employees project cheer instead of gloom? Dick Goodspeed told SN that "what we did was re-instill in the organization the importance of being a merchant. We put the fun back into selling by having our people ask themselves 'What does the customer want?' and 'How can we have fun providing that?' And that returns a winning attitude in any field organization."

Moreover, Dick said, Vons moved to give employees "more power" through decentralizing some authority for in-store merchandising. Other efforts were also layered on such as participatory management meetings, authorizing more casual uniforms, offering employee discounts, starting family assistance programs, posting job openings, closing on Christmas day and the like.

It shouldn't be much of a surprise to find that the bid to increase previously sagging employee spirits has evidently paid off for Vons: "I know it sounds corny, but it has worked for us," Larry said.

Also in line with making shopping more fun, Vons is inching toward a more promotional pricing outlook, and moving away from the Everyday Low Price strategy that pertained five years ago.

"Consumers today are obviously more promotions driven than they were five years ago, and focusing on promotions drives sales and provides what customers expect," Dick said. Said Larry: "As long as our numbers keep improving, we will continue to be promotional."

In sum, seeking ways to make shopping more fun in these two ways has to be all to the good for Vons. Naturally, there is often a wide gulf between stating goals and making them reality, but it looks as though Vons is moving well toward a new reality too.