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What business are we (really) in?

If we simply consider ourselves to be in the grocery distribution business, we can take a bow for doing a fine job and let it go at that. After all, products move through our channels with great and growing precision. Our methods and efficiency are unsurpassed. Our competence enables Americans to spend far less of their disposable income for food than consumers anywhere else in the world. For our skill in handling and moving merchandise, we derserve the highest praise.

Why, then, aren't we showered with compliments? How come customers never seem to be entirely satisfied? Maybe the reason is that we are not just in the grocery distribution business. That definition is too restricted. It covers only part of our function. In the broadest sense, as Bill Stewart, CEO of Red Food Stores, has pointed out, we are in the people pleasing business. Sometimes we tend to lose sight of this fact, and that's when we run into trouble.

In recent years, with computers playing a steadily increasing role in operations, it has been easy to be captivated by the promise of electronic contributions. And computer-driven information systems have, in fact, proved very beneficial. They have triggered highly effective cost saving programs, sparked more knowledgeable merchandising activities, and paved the way for productivity gains up and down the line. Concentration on the technological side of the business is certainly understandable. For competitive reasons alone, no one can afford to ignore potential operating improvements. Further, to the extend that those improvements make food an even better bargain, they could be viewed as the best way to gratify consumers.

It turns out, however, the consumers aren't particularly gratified.

There are no signs that they perceive, far less applaud, our industry's accomplishments in holding down the cost of food. Grumbling and griping are as widespread as ever.

Apparently, while we have become much more adept as grocery distributors, we have not made comparable progress as people pleasers. If we are, indeed, in the people pleasing business, this should be recognized as a major present problem.

In all likelihood, we will continue to move ever more purposefully into computerization during the year ahead. Our mechanical efficiency will no doubt be increased as a result. And, if that's all we achieve, our standing with consumers is not apt to change. They will be no happier than before.

We must therefore guard against a purely mechanistic orientation. True, the electronic equipment at our disposal demands attention. It is complicated and hard to fathom. But so are the people with whom we deal. Necessary as it si to comprehend our intricate machinery, we should give at least proportionate thought to understanding our equally complex customers. Coming to grips with computers should not take precedence over coming to terms with consumers.

The important lesson we have had to learn is that outstanding logistical performance--even as it translates into rock-bottom prices--is not enough to please the majority of people. The answer may be to rehumanize our operations, rather than to further dehumanize them.

In any event, with another intensely competitive year in prospect, grocers who consider themselves to be in the people pleasing business will remember that success depends on how we handle customers, not how we handle products.
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Author:Walzer, Edgar B.
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Article Type:editorial
Date:Jan 1, 1985
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