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Flying Seraph

Most Retail Is Not Good Enough For Carol


Alec Baldwin appeared on ‘Letterman’ a few years back. When asked about his 80 year-old Mum, Carol, he told Letterman of her reluctance to move from Camillus – a small town in the coldest part of New York State. (Average high in January, minus 1°C)

The brothers Baldwin wanted her to move to be closer to Billy in sunny California.

Her response: ‘And leave my Wegmans?’

So I ask you: like Carol, do you love any retailer enough that you’d stay put in 3m snow in an average year?

Wegmans – the grocer – is absolutely magic. But it’s confined to the North-East of the US.

If you’ve never seen a Wegmans store, you’re missing one of the ultimate grocery experiences in the world. Actually, one of the most impressive retail experiences you’ll encounter anywhere.

Wegmans does a bunch of things brilliantly.

Their employees are highly motivated and superior in training, longevity, and ability to execute. For example, any employee – regardless of rank – has $50 discretionary spend to make sure a customer is happy. Without having to ask a superior for permission.

True story: A distraught young newlywed had bought a turkey for Thanksgiving but it was too big for her oven. One of Wegmans in-store chefs took it from her, cooked it and delivered it just before her in-laws turned up for their first Thanksgiving dinner with the new couple.

John Rand – my friend and Retail analyst who counsels manufacturers on their relationships with retailers – walked me through the then newly opened store just outside Boston. He had permission for us to linger – he knew the Wegman family personally.

His summation of what they do that’s great is like this (for those technically minded about retail):

“Wegmans offers a superior food experience that mates with a value-oriented, shelf-stable, center store EDLP pricing system. The fresh side provides high margin, world-class service, and jaw-dropping range, the EDLP/center store side creates value and expands the basket. They are careful not to confuse the two. It is like two very different stores under the same roof. Both are executed well and they are an harmonious whole even though they are really two complementary business models.”

Now I adore retailing. Enough to devote 4 years of my life to researching a post-grad thesis on Retail Strategy.

The penny dropped for me. And I could see by contrast where most of today’s retailers are getting it wrong. And why very few will ever enjoy the emotional loyalty Carol Baldwin felt for Wegmans.

The greatest mistake a retailer makes is starting to rely on real estate instead of merchandising.

When you think you’re in the business of selling space – either floor space or catalogue space to suppliers.

And you forget that great retail is about great theatre: buying with imagination and merchandising with flair. Inspiring and stimulating people.

Not being satisfied with the relatively low bar of ‘surprise and delight’ but shooting for devotion, instead.

A level of devotion that causes people to put up with bitter cold and life away from their children.

So retailers, who among you is good enough to earn Carol Baldwin’s love?

Follow Mark Sareff’s series here.

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