TOUR DE FORCE

They say seeing is believing.For Giant Eagle, it's all about seeing -- and tasting -- and talking face to face.The 223-store chain has embarked on a radical program that brings store- and department-level managers out into the world as customers, with the goal that they will turn their experience into better customer service back in Giant Eagle's stores."Our strategy is to find ways to differentiate

They say seeing is believing.

For Giant Eagle, it's all about seeing -- and tasting -- and talking face to face.

The 223-store chain has embarked on a radical program that brings store- and department-level managers out into the world as customers, with the goal that they will turn their experience into better customer service back in Giant Eagle's stores.

"Our strategy is to find ways to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and it's our firm belief that one of the best ways we can do that is through our people at store level. They're the people our customers see," said Laura Karet, senior vice president, retail operations, at the Pittsburgh-based chain.

This most recent effort has involved months of training for store-level personnel hand-picked from existing Giant Eagle units to ready them for the opening of a new store in an upscale Cleveland suburb. They went through off-site training that resembled college, learning about everything from food trends to communications skills, before the pilot store opened last fall.

The standout educational vehicle, however, was a "Passion for Food" tour to the far corners of the United States to visit manufacturers, processors, retailers and restaurants known for their quality and service.

The first of the road tours -- developed and orchestrated for the chain by Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio, consulting firm -- took one group of 11 employees to Northern California and a like-sized group to New York and New England.

Some on the tour tasted authentic pate, caviar, eel and oysters for the first time. The California group saw how artichokes are cultivated. They trouped through Salinas lettuce fields and later watched Giant Eagle's private-label salad mix being prepared and packaged.

"Seeing the cold chain integrity and how the salads are made showed us how fresh and well taken care of the product is before it goes into the package," one Giant Eagle employee said.

Meanwhile, the New York/New England group was visiting Cornell University's dairy, the Old Chatham Sheep Herding Co., the Anchor Bar (birthplace of Buffalo chicken wings) and Bully Hill Vineyard to sample New York state wines. Then, it was on to Vermont to see how cheese is made.

Such first-hand experience already has translated into enthusiasm and a confidence that has given employees a new attitude, chain officials told SN.

Indeed, the enthusiasm at the pilot store is palpable.

"You feel it. The store has an air of excitement, of fun, that you don't feel in a typical supermarket. Measuring its worth in dollars is hard, but I can tell you we have a capable, enthusiastic and knowledgeable team there, and I attribute that, at least in part, to our ongoing training and to the tour," Karet said.

On their return, the groups gave two-hour presentations, including lots of slides, to the chain's top management. Karet said she was captivated by those sessions.

"Those folks got up in front of senior executives, talking with such heartfelt passion about what they had learned, and seen, and how they felt about it -- you couldn't avoid being swept away by the energy. It was exhilarating, one of the best two hours I've spent in my professional life. I wish I had gone on the trip."

Giant Eagle's director of human resources, Vicki Clites, also was impressed by the groups' enthusiasm and she said it has obviously filtered down to all the store's front-liners.

"It certainly was worth the investment, judging from what I've personally experienced and by the compliments we're getting from customers. When I go into that store, and I don't have a name tag on, I'm greeted and [store-level associates] do a lot of suggestive selling. They're so comfortable talking about their products," Clites said.

She went on to describe some specifics.

"We sell three different types of salmon in that store, and the [seafood associates] are quick to tell you about them, about ways to prepare salmon, the sauces you can put on it, and other products that go well with it. I ask a lot of questions and I get them all answered."

One tour participant, Carol Faraci, the store's events planning manager, said she knows the store is winning new customers with the increased attention paid to them.

"One customer said that after coming in here once, she'd seen how nice the store is and how nice our people are. She said she definitely would be back," she said.

Another tour participant, Mike Bishara, the store's frozen-foods manager, said customers tell him they like the place so much they tell their friends about it and then, sure enough, the friends come in and introduce themselves to him.

"They know they'll get good service. [The tour participants] were given the opportunity to get better at what we do, and we're building a foundation with that."

The extent to which Giant Eagle went in providing its people with the experience is unusual in the industry, sources have told SN.

"I've never seen any supermarket take this kind of interest in educating its store-level people in this way. It was a big investment for Giant Eagle. There was no financial support, to the best of my knowledge, coming from any suppliers. Giant Eagle paid all their people's expenses, the travel, the accommodations, the meals, the tour buses, our fee -- everything," said Howard Solganik, president, Solganik & Associates.

Product knowledge was a major part of the effort, but participants also told SN that just as valuable was the exposure to people who obviously had a passion for their jobs.

"For instance, at Marcel & Henri [a San Francisco pate manufacturer], they were so generous with their product, and they talked about it. They didn't spread it thinly on crackers. They put big pieces (on the crackers.) They really wanted us to taste it, to enjoy it," said Ron Lesak, dairy manager.

Solganik & Associates' vice president, Carin Solganik, who led the New York/New England trip, said her tour group took special note of the enthusiasm shown by retailers and manufacturers they visited.

"It stood out to them that it was the people that made the difference. From wineries to bakeries to cheese manufacturers to the restaurants we went to, the people there were all passionate about what they were doing. That impressed [the Giant Eagle group]. It came home to them that it is they, too, who will make the difference at their own store," Solganik said.

She and her brother, Howard, who led the West Coast tour, made the eight- to 10-day trips truly a 12-hour-a-day learning experience, participants told SN. The buses were outfitted with small conference tables and laptops where photos would be downloaded and discussed by the group.

"After we'd tour a place, we'd get back on the bus and talk about it right away. That helped us retain things. And then when we went to places -- Andronico's [an upscale independent on the West Coast], for instance -- and everybody was looking at something different in the store. When we talked together, we all got a picture of the whole store. It was helpful, too, to have a food professional like Howard set up these things. The people who showed us their stores and facilities went way above and beyond what they needed to," Lesak said.

He said the experience has made his job more enjoyable.

"I really take pride in putting things together now. Like suggesting a wine to go with a particular cheese or walking the customer over to the seafood department, talking as we go. I enjoy the look in the customer's eyes. They're not expecting a grocery manager to do something like that."

Bonding with each other on the trip was an added bonus for participants and for Giant Eagle.

To Giant Eagle's events planning manager, that was one of the most important pieces of the program.

"We were on the road every day at 7 in the morning and sometimes didn't get back to the hotel until 10 at night. It was an experience that we'll probably never have again in our lifetime. The bonding was great, and the passion for what we saw, we shared. We know we can count on each other," Faraci said.

In fact, tour participants gave credit to the Passion for Food tour for fostering better cooperation between departments as well as heightening morale.

Store Director Mike Maraldo said what he learned on the trip has made it easier for him to deal with customers.

"I was always running from one place to another. Now I understand how important this [customer service] is. It's one thing to say, 'Hello,' and another thing to say, 'Hello,' and mean it. We're not just running by anymore. Instead, we stop and ask if they've found everything they need, ask what we can do to help. That's a new step and that comes with confidence."

Being task-oriented is common in a supermarket setting because there's always something that needs to be done, one department manager said. Since he returned from the tour, he said he starts his department's daily work lists off with, "Take care of your customers."

The tours did not come cheap and tour participants expressed, almost with awe, their gratitude that Giant Eagle would invest so much money and faith in them.

"You know, it's very easy for an organization to say it has customer service, but Laura [Karet] and the rest of top management put their money where their mouth is. They gave us the tools we needed," Maraldo said.

And that's not the end of it.

"We will do it again," Karet said.

In fact, more Passion for Food tours are planned for this year. The next trip will involve groups of store-level people from a Pittsburgh Giant Eagle unit that's undergoing major remodeling.

THE TOUR'S ROI

In developing the educational and tour program, Giant Eagle executives were curious to see how the experience could influence the nuts-and-bolts effort of selling food, once the store-level participants returned. One department manager has come to embrace the concept of sampling.

When Mike Bishara, frozen foods manager at Giant Eagle's newest store in Ohio, returned from the chain's Passion for Food tour, he acted on his zeal for a brand of all-natural, frozen French fry he was introduced to on the trip.

"Seeing new things I could bring to my department interested me the most. I found Alexia fries in Lee's Market in the Boston area, and I loved them. When I got back, I got them authorized and pushed them hard. By my category manager's figures, I sold 2,800 bags in a month," Bishara said.

And that was not at a special price, Bishara pointed out. He just sampled the product every day and talked it up in the aisle and over the public address system.

"I learned on the tour that it doesn't have to be a sale item for you to push it. I personally liked the fries and I knew if customers tasted them, they'd buy them. I sample a lot now. We went to places [on the tour] where they just literally gave everything to us. They might give $5 or $10 worth of free samples away -- they do that with their customers -- but they know it'll come back tenfold or a hundredfold in future sales. I just took the theory and used it. If I have a customer now who says she's not sure she'll like Key lime pie, guess what? I'll give her one. I give her a $5.99 pie, and now she spends $100 a week with us."

Bishara said the trip has also eased his reluctance to use the PA system, and he now employs it as an important outreach tool.

"In the past, I've had people who just hate to get on the PA system, but I don't have that problem anymore," added store director Mike Maraldo. "Not at this store."

Such confidence was bolstered by the Passion for Food tour, there's no doubt, but it's also instilled by upper management's attitude, Bishara and other department managers said. In fact, it's reflected in comments that Laura Karet, Giant Eagle's senior vice president, retail operations, made in an interview with SN.

"We want our [store-level] people to be creative. They then take more pride and ownership in what they do. They're the ones battling it out every day, they know their customers better than anyone else, so they should be able to make those decisions. I think that in general if you put the right people in the right roles and give them the right tools, the best thing you can do is get out of their way," Karet said.