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Albertsons: Store-Level Workers Are Big Asset

“What makes a company effective at store level is the relationship between your employees and your guests." — Dan Sanders, president of the Southern California division of Albertsons  

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Despite the needs of a company like Supervalu to deal with a host of financial challenges, it is still important to let employees at store level know they are a valuable asset, Dan Sanders, president of the Southern California division of Supervalu-owned Albertsons, told an industry audience here.

“Clearly when you are in the situation Supervalu and Albertsons are in, it’s a tremendous distraction to management,” he told a session at the California Grocers Association annual convention here. “But it should not be a distraction to the people at the stores.

“What makes a company effective at store level is the relationship between your employees and your guests. We have 3 million guests a week that come to each Albertsons store, and they care about the store and the people there, and those relationships make a huge difference in terms of gaining traction.

“There will be a lot written and said about the strategic alternatives Albertsons and Supervalu face, but we have to make sure the people who work at the stores don’t let things beyond their control, control them.

“That approach will work for some employees, while others will worry about it or leave. But the folks who remain steadfast and think about the higher purpose of serving our guests will do what they need to do to keep those relationships going.”

Sanders spoke as part of a panel that also included Justin Jackson, chief operating officer of Andronico’s Community Markets, San Francisco, and Lori Raya, president of the Vons division of Plesanton, Calif.-based Safeway.

Jackson said the stress of Andronico’s bankruptcy was felt by the people at store level, “and before we emerged, we told them to control what they could control and focus on what they were doing and try to do it better.

“Concentrating on what they could do while the company was dealing with its financial problems meant focusing on what would be possible in the post-emergence period.  Some people left, but those who stayed and were really committed helped boost us out of bankruptcy.”

According to Raya, Vons spent “significant time” explaining its Just for U program to front-line employees “so they would embrace it and be able to communicate it with customers. We brought them in at the very beginning to understand it and use it to get savings first, and now they are champions of the effort.”

In a discussion about the importance of a business’ culture, Raya said that, as companies grow, “they don’t talk enough about the culture that created them.

“At Vons we try to talk about what the company was about when the Von der Ahe family started it in terms of what they did to help the communities they served.  So we have a program called Heart of Vons in which employees volunteer to make a difference in their communities.”

'A Desire to Do Meaningful Work'

Sanders said managements cannot impose a culture on their workforce. “But everyone has a desire to do meaningful work and a sense of a higher purpose, so the challenge is to help your workforce discover and build on that sense.

“For example, as I’ve talked to bakery managers over the years, there are some who simply bake cakes to order and others who see the process as an opportunity to experience the celebration.  Those are the ones who put extra effort into the cake, and it’s good for a company’s culture if you can create that way of thinking in deli, floral and every other store department.”

SN Infographic: Supervalu by the Numbers

However, the cultural concepts of collaboration and creativity often get lost as companies focus more on control and competitiveness, Sanders pointed out.

“As companies grow, the concepts of collaboration and creativity become lost arts.  That’s why we see more innovation among independents — because as family-owned businesses, they are collaborative, and as entrepreneurs, they are creative.  But as a company gets bigger, there’s a natural tendency to establish more standards and more controls and to focus more on profitability.”

According to Jackson, the new management team that helped pull Andronico’s out of Chapter 11 “had to make changes to get back in touch with the core business, so we had to think creatively and to become entrepreneurial again."

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