Valuable Information From A Deli Consumer

A consumer sent us a thoughtful letter about her impressions with her local supermarket. I’ve edited out personal details and company names and posted the letter at for you to read the whole text. I didn’t include any store names mostly because it was an anecdotal complaint, not a study, and it would be unfair to assume it to be representative of any one chain. Yet the letter dealt with common complaints and frustrations and is broadly relevant. Our consumer, who is married with a young daughter and works part-time, identified many areas worth focusing on.

Location: One lesson is the degree to which success depends on things out of the reach of the deli director. This shopper is unhappy with the store, unhappy with the deli, willing and able to buy at specialty shops, warehouse clubs, etc., and still shopping at a supermarket she dislikes. Why? Location. Convenience counts for so much. Of course, if she is giving even 20 percent of her business to other venues, that is a big price for a supermarket to pay because it can’t satisfy its shoppers.

Effort: Treating consumer complaints with high priority takes a lot of effort, but even this jaded consumer was wowed that this chain is willing to spend time looking at security tapes to figure out what happens when a consumer complains of bad service. That is pretty impressive. Do you take consumer complaints this seriously or do you ignore them or send an apology letter without really trying to solve the problem?

Delicate Matters: We are dealing with food, which means we would like everything to be appetizing. This consumer questions the employment of an extremely obese woman at the service deli counter — a tricky matter. For the most part, employers are prohibited from placing physical requirements on jobs unless necessary to do the job. There is some discretion in hiring and stores can transfer people to other departments; still, this is an important area, right at the intersection of the store and the customer and yet also an area in which stores must tread carefully.

Company Policies: Another issue our consumer raised is a direct outgrowth of company policy. She points out this woman’s hairnet is always ripped — which we take to mean she always wears the same ripped hairnet. Issues such as this are a direct outgrowth of company policy. Hairnets are a symbol to the consumer of concern for food safety and quality, so company policy has to be set up to prevent ripped hairnets from ever being more than a short-term fluke.

Labor Schedule, Technology and Priority: The crux of this consumer’s frustration relates to labor: not enough people in the deli at what she identifies as “crunch” times, such as after 5 pm on a weekday, and employees being too slow and often off doing other tasks — cleaning, etc. — and not helping shoppers. This raises four issues: First, is the store doing appropriate studies of labor hours and productivity? Maybe the store is understaffed at these times. Second, does the store have tested productivity standards for service employees? Although you can’t fire people for seemingly being slow, you can have a standardized test of how long it takes a counter clerk to slice a pound of roast beef, a half-pound of ham, etc.; you can also test whether company policies, such as offering a sample slice or asking how the customer would like it sliced, are followed. Third, is technology being used to lessen the consumer frustration and maintain labor productivity? Can a consumer drop off an order at the service deli and then go grocery shopping? Can customers text in an order? Can they order via a computer screen? Fourth, does your store make customer service a priority? In many stores, the cleaner doesn’t stop cleaning because the deli has to close in an hour and no overtime is authorized.

Marketing: The deli is often under-marketed, and our consumer complains about daily specials not looking appetizing. The number of stores where a special is announced by a magic marker on a paper plate taped to the deli case still astonishes. It is important to remember marketing basics such as the difference between a feature and a benefit. Selling ham at half price is selling an ingredient. What you want to sell is the conviviality of friends enjoying ham and cheese roll-ups and a beer, or children who love Mom’s special turkey sandwich.

Décor: With the growth of national brands and national retail chains, there is a danger of homogenization. Yet the most successful food operations present a pleasant sense of place. Is your deli a nice place to be? Would you want to hang out there and grab a sandwich?

Magic Words: We teach our children that “magic words,” such as please and thank you, make things happen. You can sense this consumer exhaling when a clerk apologized. Mary Tyler Moore famously got her job working for Lou Grant because when she came for an interview and accidentally bumped into a desk, she apologized to it. One wonders how many people in charge of hiring would recognize an apology is the best qualification you could possibly get for a customer-service job.