Grocery retailing is a rational business.
The focus is on such rational elements as price, promotion, assortment, quality and service, as they fight to attract and keep customers, in the face of stiff competition.
However, when you explore with loyal customers why they shop where they do, you find it's driven by emotion - by how a particular shop makes them feel.
Some stores, for example, make them feel "comfortable". This is the heartland of the best supermarkets: they're dependable, and take the worry out of shopping. Other stores make them feel "smart" for shopping there, that they're doing a good job for their family. This is the secret of successful discount retailers, such as Costco or Target, which gives them a broader appeal. And then there are those that make their customers feel "excited" or "special", Trader Joe's and Whole Foods being the leading examples.
Engaging customers around such emotions can often be seen as the role of advertising, and its agencies. While everybody sees the benefit, the language of emotions feels disconnected from the day to day operations of the business.
However, in reality, how customers feel about a store is largely driven by their experience of its shopping trip.
In part, of course, this is an outcome of the rational elements. They shape and evoke emotions. For example, if customers can always get the products they want from a particular store, then it will feel dependable. If they can get good quality products much cheaper than elsewhere, it will feel a smart choice. Or if they discover interesting products that they can't find anywhere else, it will evoke a sense of excitement.
But it's also driven by behaviors. If customers always find the best deals out of stock or hidden away, it will create anxiety rather than comfort. If a store is always dirty or untidy, customers will feel disadvantaged rather than smart. And if the employees are unfriendly, customers will feel unappreciated rather than special.
To evoke a strong, positive feeling among customers, what the store has to offer and how it behaves must work together, to create a coherent whole.
But how do you go about achieving this? The shopping trip, after all, is a living, breathing, multi-dimensional animal. And with the spread of digital and mobile technologies, touch points are multiplying all the time.
Yet if you look at the likes of Wegmans, Costco, or Trader Joe's, their shopping trips feel pretty coherent - and they evoke strong, positive emotions among their customers.
In my experience, it comes down to 3 basic steps:
- Be clear what you stand for, a core purpose that's grounded in improving customers lives in some way. This will determine what kind of emotional connection you're likely to achieve.
- Flow this core purpose through everything that the business has to offer. Ask yourself how every element of the shopping trip, as well as all other touch points, support it.
- Embed the core purpose in the culture of the business, so that everybody understands it, and lives and breathes it everyday.
This is how Tesco was transformed in the UK. It embraced an "every little helps" philosophy, which was about improving people's lives. It identified what that meant for each element of the shopping trip, and set about improving it year after year. And it gave everybody a role in delivering it, right down to the most junior employee in the store. It became the supermarket of choice that everybody could depend on, and built a huge, loyal customer base over the course of a decade.
Of course, such an approach takes time. It's not a quick fix, or a clever marketing campaign, as it goes right to the heart of what a company stands for, and how it behaves.
But in an ever more competitive world, what could be more important than evoking such positive feelings among your customers...?
Or more powerful...?