We’ve Arrived at a Fork in the Road for Food Retail…

Become a resource about food, or be relegated to a source of product supply.

Many years ago when I lived in Seattle, I had a near-religious experience at a restaurant on Capitol Hill where I had just wrapped up a client lunch meeting. I ordered coffee at the close of the meal and when I tasted it, my jaw nearly dropped to the floor over the rich, deep flavor.

Hints of dark chocolate, beef roast, spice and earthiness filled my mouth. I had never encountered anything like it before — coffee being a bit of a meal-end ritual and nothing to write home about taste wise, I wasn’t expecting anything special.

I discovered the restaurant had switched suppliers and was now ordering from a coffee bean purveyor in the Pike Place Market — yes, it was Starbucks (before it became ubiquitous). I heard word about this place, but had never investigated. That weekend, I made a beeline for the store on Saturday morning — my intent to purchase the same coffee beans I had at the restaurant.

What I encountered there was truly remarkable and remains indelibly imprinted in my brain. This may be partially why I remain a devoted Starbucks bean buyer to this day. I told the counterman (baristas came later) my story and he gave me this knowing smile and launched into a detailed and fascinating tutorial: the beans, their origin, the tasting notes, the growing region characteristics, how they are roasted. Then, he went on to the steps of making a perfect cup of coffee. We tasted, we talked — he made an effort to teach me a bit of what he knew. I walked out of there with beans, grinder and a wealth of new knowledge and appreciation that coffee might be more like wine than, well, coffee. He probably did not know he helped create a lifelong customer but that’s what was going on.

Today, we see a resurgence of food and beverage specialists from fishmongers to butchers to farmers’ markets, where backstories and details behind the products are shared, along with tips related to preparation and serving.

  • The economics of food retail may have favored stores as product supply aggregators for decades. But the food world is changing in response to cultural shifts among consumers, whose tastes and interest in all things culinary continue to become more sophisticated.

The butcher at your local supermarket can be an order taker who wraps or a storyteller who raps.

There’s a small butcher shop near our weekend home in a rural area of southwest Michigan. The place is small but the quality is over the top. The owners, a father and son team, always begin with conversations about what they’ve tried lately just to whet your appetite, and once you get into selecting a cut of meat, the stories behind the sources, animal care and feeding begin in earnest.

Along with your selection you’ll also get preparation ideas, cooking hints and seasoning tips, maybe even a wine recommendation. Every visit is special because you learn something and the experience matches the quality of the protein. Prices by the way are in line with other grocery stores in the area.

Kevin Coupe of Morning News Beat had a similar experience in his neighborhood and made a video to share what happened:

Retail brand strategy guidance:

Gone are the days when competition is based solely on location, price and assortment. Retailers have an extraordinary opportunity to approach the customer relationship in a new way as educator, guide and coach.

Here’s what we know:

  1. While time remains a challenge, people are headed back into the kitchen where they can control and customize food preparation. They’re looking for ideas and timesaving advice.
  2. Food retail can be a temple to food experience or four-walled pantry. Experience now matters as much as the products themselves.
  3. Unique taste experiences and curated menu guidance are sought after and stores can step in to help make it happen.

Customer contact areas of food retail are an opportunity waiting to happen. Butcher shop, cheese shop, wine department, produce area, bakery, Deli — all are places where experience can match or even exceed the product quality.

Is it possible for supermarket staff to be trained beyond stocking and cashiering? Can there be a true love of food, so much so the shopper encounters a food-passionate employee in the aisles?

What is food about anyway? It’s a culinary adventure. Retailers who see themselves as facilitators and enablers of this journey have an opportunity to jump the perceptual barriers and engender a new kind of customer loyalty. A loyalty based on a personal retail experience enhanced by culinary guidance and customer service — going way beyond the product assortment.

  • With high staff turnover rates in most retail channels, how can you make the investment in training? It starts with a strategic mission and understanding about what kind of retail experience you’re trying to create.

So what’s the incentive to up your game? Commoditization is an insidious threat to every retail business, pushing in unrelenting fashion towards some combination of real estate gaming and price war as all things become more or less equal. The milquetoast middle is no place to be anymore.

We believe there is an enormous opportunity for food retail to insert moments of engagement into the store and in doing so, create a form of surprise and delight that transforms the emotional connection between the banner and customer.

Yes, training is required but the outcome and strengthening of the retail brand value proposition are well worth the investment. Not only in changing the paradigm of the shopping experience, but to begin creating the kind of work atmosphere that makes it more than a pay check for the employees.

What happened at Starbucks was an outcome of training and mission, which showed up in the passion, enthusiasm and knowledge of the counter associate and what he brought to an otherwise commodity type product.

The choice is here: become a coach, guide and resource, or remain a source of supply.