Saving to Serve: Turning Time Savings Into Customer Care

By Tim McKenzie, president and COO, Vestcom International

Today, we have automated payment and delivery systems for almost every consumer product under the sun. With mechanical and digital improvements to ensure reliable operations and security, consumers regularly pump their own gas, buy airline tickets online, perform routine banking transactions via ATM machines, register themselves at hotel kiosks, and check out their own groceries at the supermarket.

Automation has caught on because it is a good idea for both the retailer and the consumer. For retailers, it reduces overhead by eliminating the cost of human labor - or at least significantly reducing it. And the bottom line is customers like automation. Anyone who's waited 20 minutes in a supermarket check-out line to buy a loaf of bread can appreciate the simplicity and directness of doing-it-yourself through the self-check-out line. Some human interaction is lost in this, but often overall customer satisfaction isn't affected because customers are actively engaged in getting themselves through the purchase process, rather than simply standing there wondering why a simple errand takes so much time.

More Than Bread Alone
While automation has brought significant advantages, it also has some recognizable drawbacks. For example, the big-box retailers have been able to offer discount pricing by selling in volume at no-frills warehouse-style stores. They use automation to keep their internal operations lean, while shifting other traditional costs to the consumer.

How then does a small to mid-size retailer compete? Certainly not on price alone. Creating an in-store, customer care marketing plan (CCM) holds the unique power to precisely guide, advise, and direct the shopper in his/her final moment of decision. At the heart of effective CCM plan lays the capacity to respect and connect to your customer base while growing your revenue. Providing shoppers with an in-store experience based on friendliness, helpfulness, and clarity that stays with them after they leave the store can foster customer loyalty that is priceless. This can be done in a number of ways, including developing a niche or a specialty, such as organic foods, a wide variety of wines, or exotic offerings like buffalo meat or ethnic foods.

Wegmans, a regional supermarket chain in the northeastern U.S., has raised these ideas to a science, with employees who specialize in cheeses from around the world, wines and liquors, seafood, and more. The store regularly publishes 'Menu' magazine and has chefs on staff who prepare meals that can be eaten in the store or taken home.

Some retailers may not wish to provide what Wegmans calls its near telepathic level of customer service, as they may not have a receptive local market for these types of services. However, the central idea is sound: setting your store apart by going the extra mile to provide services your customers will appreciate and that generates a sense of store loyalty. It's a re-investment that is certain to show positive returns in goodwill and customer loyalty.

It is important for retailers to rethink the customer-care roles their employees play in the store. If more automated processes free up their time, training them to be customer service representatives and product specialists rather than generic clerks and shelf stockers can certainly be a strong part of the marketing plan.

Tim McKenzie is President and COO of Vestcom International. His creative, problem-solving efforts have helped increase sales and decrease operational costs for retailers. He can be reached at [email protected].
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