Les Petits Contes

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A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Friday, March 22, 2002

Lessons from a grocer

You can learn valuable lessons from anyone. Never turn up your nose at “old-economy” businesses or low-tech ones.

I now work for an IT company. Before that I was with a well-known MNC, a 150-year old financial institution. Then, whenever I felt like quitting, I kept telling myself that my next job would not be in retail, cosmetics, F & B, fashion….

But yesterday I learnt the meaning of customer service and the benefits of technology, from a grocer. A “small” grocer at that – not a Tesco, nor a Wal-Mart, nor a Carrefour.

But from an Irish Mr Feargal Quinn, who, in 1960, started from a small shop and now owns 19 supermarkets (SuperQuinn) and 8 shopping centres across Ireland, and enjoys a
20% market share in Dublin.

I recall a few years back when I was still in M1 and was interviewed by giant Dutch supermarket chain Royal Ahold for a senior position. He asked if I would be able to adapt from a very happening, hi tech industry like telecoms, to a “boring” industry like supermarket.

Then late last year while talking to a colleague from SLP Infoware, a company specialising in modern smart marketing like CRM, I gave the analogy of how supermarkets can use this to retain shoppers’ loyalty (hey! I heard this analogy from a speaker at a smart cards seminar in Sydney!). He looked at me aghast at my housewife-ly example, and said, as patiently and politely as he could, “er…no Janet, SLP specialises in CRM only for telecoms business.”

Ask yourself – in any business/ industry, who pays your salary? Even though I am dealing with corporate customers (B to B) and supermarkets deal with mass consumers, the principles of good business practice are the same.

Feargal Quinn shared with us his boomerang principle – of bringing customers back to you, and not merely profiteering from a one-time purchase. Of actively listening and responding to customers’ needs and wants. Of long-term, customer-oriented approach, rather than focused, bottom-line driven business strategies.

He talked about the beauty of being “small” and being privately-run, as opposed to a public company accountable to shareholders and zooming in on raising share prices.

It’s really all “back to basic”, cliched as it might sound.

We all marvel at the speed vending machines spit out instant coffee. But I long for personal service, like being able to walk into my favourite coffee shop and having the owner remember how I like my coffee.

Quinn and his management team hold meetings on-site (at the supermarkets), walk the shopfloors and even serve customers regularly to observe and understand them better. He introduced play-rooms for kids (so that parents can shop in peace) despite his accountant’s protest that it would not make more money for the supermarkets but add to the expenditures.

He used technology to extend his reach to customers, not to replace staff. For example, when the motorised meat saw was introduced, it reduced the meat-cutting time of his butchers and his competitors took the opportunity to cut manpower. But he sent his butchers to cooking school instead so that they can add value by recommending ways of cooking the meat for the various parts of the meat, and by suggesting certain wines to go with the dish.

He borrowed a Dutch supermarket’s idea of self check-out with a scanner. The Dutch introduced it to reduce check-out counters and cut labour cost of cashiers. But Quinn used it to relieve the stress of shoppers, as checking out at the cashiers was found to be the most stressful part of supermarket shopping (the Q’s, the congestion, etc).

Today, he is not as big as the giants of supermarkets in terms of turnover or number of outlets. But he clearly has earned repeat (loyal) customers and he rewards them. He rewards, not achieve customer loyalty, he tried to stress the difference.

He also highlighted the difference between a privately owned company like his, compared to a public listed one. The former can take a long-term approach/ investment to winning and retaining customers; the latter is always under pressure to make more profit to drive share price up.

In today’s world of insuppressible appetite, Quinn has clearly chosen the former. And he is clearly a happy man.

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