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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Stay close to home

    A retail guru urges retailers to focus inward to make their greatest gains.

    Industry leader Chuck Coonradt has some valuable advice to share with independent supermarket owners: Train your department managers and employees to focus on the customers across the aisle, and don't worry about the ones who are across town.

    Through his popular management development program, The Game of Work, Coonradt has during the past 31 years guided company presidents, managers and supervisors, sales personnel, and human resource executives to keep their focus where it belongs -- on their own customers.

    Boasting an impressive list of food industry clients including Clemens Family Markets, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Wild Oats Markets, Ralphs, IGA, Hy-Vee, and Coors Brewing Co., Coonradt encourages supermarket operators striving to be profitable and productive in today's hostile food environment to focus inward.

    "Too often we're focused on the competition and who's doing what down the street, and we're blind to the opportunities that exist within our own stores," says Coonradt. "The real key to increasing sales and profits in a competitive market is to engage every one of the 15,000 to 20,000 customers who walk through the front door of your supermarket each week."

    He explains: "Our studies indicate that on average a store's top managers, department managers, and employees, excluding cashiers, converse with just 10 percent of all customers. What does it mean to engage the customer? No. 1, it involves talking to them. It involves inviting them into an exciting department, sampling products, and introducing them to new items that have just hit the shelves. Quite simply, engaging the customer means doing what we do, incredibly well."

    Coonradt cites Walt Disney and Sam Walton as perhaps two of the greatest merchants of all time -- and both made customers their central focus. "Disney himself was the retail equivalent to an innkeeper. He treated customers as guests and lived by his abiding statement, 'We will do what we do so well that the people who see it will want to see it again -- and bring their friends.' And Walton started out as a single-store operator who was battling Woolworth's and the five-and-dime stores. He listened intently to the customer and sold them what they wanted, on their terms. Every great mega-organization was started by a merchant who connected with the customer and focused on selling."

    According to Coonradt, that execution starts with the attitude and commitment of the person in command. "The store manager must demonstrate a 'be of service' attitude and make merchanting a top priority every single day. Additionally, he or she must provide a way for department managers and their associates to measure their merchanting success."

    His suggestion: "Develop daily scorecards to measure and reward department frequency, increases in the average transaction size per customer, and the number of customers served per labor hour."

    Winning the game

    Certainly those who have followed Coonradt's suggestions are winning the supermarket game. According to Mark Batenic, e.v.p. of Kulpsville, Pa.-based Clemens Family Markets, "By focusing on selling through creating exciting displays and interacting with individual customers, work has become more fun for our associates. The Game of Work has helped all of our associates to better understand how the big picture works -- and what their individual performance means to the picture."

    "Today's store managers can't afford to run the show from the upstairs office," says Coonradt. "They must be actively involved with employees and must model and reinforce behaviors they wish to have repeated. That sometimes means taking on the role of the bagger at the front end to improve the service level."

    He concludes: "Too often we measure how employees wear their hair, what they eat for lunch, or what time they like to go home. It makes much more sense to focus on increasing sales, customer satisfaction and frequency within each department, and productivity. Managing by measuring is facing the truth. It takes away the language and thinking of noncommitment."

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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