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You can have all of the technology in the world at your disposal – endless customer data, loyalty card stats, market data from Nielsen, IRI, NPD, etc., but nothing replaces firsthand knowledge of your customers using your own eyes and ears (in the case of prepared foods, perhaps your sense of smell, as well).
Case in point. Mike Avella, an industry friend of mine, opened up a store in August on the North Fork of Long Island called Love Lane Market. Its offerings tend to the gourmet and specialty – definitely hard-to-find, one-of-a-kind items, many of which are not available at any traditional chain grocers in N.Y.
I visited Mike last week, and as he gave me a tour of the store, I found it amazing just how much he knew about is customers’ likes and dislikes when it came to food. While he’s the first to say that he is new to the grocery business, and in fact feels like he’s far behind when it comes to learning the industry, not only did he know most of his customers by name, though he opened just this past August, but he could just about predict what they were coming in to buy, from my observations.
Yet Mike doesn’t have loyalty card data to sift through, nor does he subscribe to any syndicated market research. He has a much more powerful tool for gathering information about the food his customers like to eat.
He owns the restaurant next door to the market, and has been hands-on running it for the past seven years. By hands on I mean he chats with every customer, helps prepare and serve their meals, watches their reactions to the foods they eat, the wines they drink, what items they pair together for dinner, how a couple eats when they are alone versus when they bring in their kids, and so on. By the time he opened his grocery store, all of this data has become almost instinctive.
As much as technology can help us, there is nothing like firsthand experience for gathering strong customer data. Watch how they move through the store, pick up and touch the produce they squeeze, feel what they feel, smell what they smell. Talk to them. In a world of text messages and email, simple conversation is becoming a lost art. Those who do it well will reap the benefits.
You can even steal a line used often by many restaurateurs: “What would you like for dinner?”