• Bill Leinweber

  • About Bill Leinweber

    Bill Leinweber's mission is to help businesses and organizations grow by combining efficient processes with great customer and employee experience.

    Bill is the Chief Experience Officer & Owner of Landmark Experience LLC, a consultancy, where he loves to help business leaders walk in their customers' shoes and devise memorable and meaningful experiences for both customers, guests, visitors, employees and business partners. After all, have you ever heard of customer loyalty and business growth without GREAT customer experience?

    Bill's 30 year career spans retail and office products distribution operations in both small, family-owned and global mega-businesses. He has managed customer service operations, sales support, customer on-boarding and business intelligence teams while also serving as an internal consultant and subject matter expert. Bill has helped his past employers improve their customer engagement processes and achieve their goals of customer experience excellence and loyalty.

    Bill loves to talk and speak about customer experience as well, so don't be afraid to ask!

    Bill Leinweber
    Landmark Experience
    513-227-9037
    www.LandmarkExperience.com

What Are You Doing to Your Customer’s Memory?

A Drive Down Dogwood Lane

I grew up on a great street in Mentor, Ohio, about 25 miles east of Cleveland. My parents picked a terrific location to raise six kids. Our street was exactly a half-mile long with long straight-a-ways and a couple of serpentine curves. Back then, we used to say it was a “dead end” street. The houses weren’t very fancy by today’s standards, three bedrooms and two baths for eight people.

The cool thing was that our house was fourth from the end of the street so the only people driving past our house were the Martinson’s, the Phelp’s, the Staebler’s, the senior and junior Douglass’s and Mr. Hockenbrach. Mr. H drove pretty fast but otherwise, for a kid on a bike the traffic was practically nonexistent. It was awesome when they re-paved our street into a smooth, asphalt “raceway.” Our lot was one of the few that didn’t border woods or a fence in back. Our backyard was like a meadow, blending seamlessly into the neighbor’s yard on the street behind us. Beyond the cul-de-sac were our elementary and junior high schools, playgrounds, football stadium and a big woods with a pond. There were tons of other kids in the neighborhood of all ages.  At the corner of our backyard was the biggest maple tree around, well over a hundred years old. And you could see it from the end of the street, even from the school yard. I have very fond memories of growing up on Dogwood Lane and I can still remember the smell of the grass, aromas of dinner from open windows, the breeze, and the feeling of safety, although at the time, I didn’t know I felt safe. I just did.

Memory Shock

About six years ago I was visiting my family in Cleveland and decided to take a drive down good ‘ole Dogwood Lane. It was nothing like I remembered. My mind’s eye contained frozen snapshots of time. But on Dogwood Lane, life marched on as it has everywhere. The trees and shrubs had grown unbelievably, to the point where once exposed houses are now totally hidden. The houses no longer looked new and fresh. In fact, some were pretty run down. One driveway had a car up on blocks. Revisiting Dogwood Lane was a shock to my system. My “memory self” was out of alignment with my current “experiencing self.” I regretted taking that drive. Maybe Dogwood Lane was never as great as I remembered.

The reminiscing drive down Dogwood Lane made me realize how different the experience may be from our memory of it. Truth is, there’s the experience and then there’s the memory of the experience and they’re not necessarily the same.

How does this translate to customer experience?

You often hear me say that the best customer experience is memorable and meaningful. Memorable. That’s critical.

Now, I get it. A single customer interaction isn’t going to etch a memory the same as 18 years of growing up on Dogwood Lane. However, THAT a customer remembers the experience at all is as important as WHAT the customer remembers about the experience.

If you have time, here’s a wonderful 15-minute TED talk by Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman about happiness (“experience”) vs. memory.

WordPress:

Customer Memory In Your Business

Here are 3 things to consider about the customer experience and memory in your business:

1) Design: When you design and shape your customer’s experience, are you asking yourself, “What will the customer remember?” And as part of the design of the experience, are you deliberately creating a memory at all?

Example:

At my local grocery store, they have a little “mini clinic” inside the store. You can get flu shots, have minor injuries checked, and other non-emergency treatments. Today when I walked into the store, there were several very ill patients, heads in their hands, waiting for treatment. This is not particularly something I want to see when I first walk into the store to buy my food! I couldn’t get the image out of my head. Unpleasant memory.

2) The Ending: We’re most likely to remember the very end of the experience and that memory will shade the entire experience. In your customer’s experience, what is the ending like?

Example:

At the end of her voice mail greeting, my colleague Melissa doesn’t say, “Have a nice day.” She doesn’t say “Have a good day.” Melissa says, “I hope you’re having a splendid day.” Now splendid is not a word you probably hear every day, or even every week! But Melissa came up with a way to express her wishes in a unique way that stands out. It’s different and that makes it memorable. So, you’re not  comfortable with the word ‘splendid.’ No problem, come up with something else.

3) Service Recovery: How you handle customer issues when something goes wrong cannot be understated. Whether it’s your customer service department, your sales rep, technical support or other customer-facing staff, the customer will surely remember this “ending” interaction. Here’s a hint: Better to have the memory of the bad experience fade and the customer left with the great memory of how you resolved the issue.

Example:

My colleague’s web hosting company accidentally wiped out his About Me page – and couldn’t recover the content! He had to reconstruct the content and re-load it into his website. Aside from a humble apology, the hosting company gave him a generous credit toward his next renewal which just happened to be later that week. Small cost for the vendor and left the customer with an upbeat memory.

I regularly preach that a distinguishing customer experience doesn’t have to cost a lot. Sometimes by just making the experience different, you make it memorable and better.  Just ask yourself, “When this interaction is over, what will the customer remember?”

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I help business owners improve customer service, create memorable customer experience and engage employees, through evaluation, benchmarking and training. If you have a business problem you’re trying to solve, let’s talk.

Bill Leinweber
Bill@LandmarkExperience.com
(513) 227-9037

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Don’t kid yourself – Creating great customer experience takes effort

I read two blog posts this past week that sort of ticked me off. Not because the posts were emotionally charged or offensive in any way. After all, the election is over. The blog posts ticked me off because they mislead the reader. The posts suggest that creating a fantastic, memorable, exciting, loyalty-building customer experience that delights customers is really simple and doesn’t cost a lot of money. Just do these easy steps – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and you’re done.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles & FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The thing is, if this were actually true, we’d all be having amazing customer experiences every day and everywhere we go. But that’s not the case, is it? Both blogs are written by VERY smart gals and I plan to continue reading them because, well, like I said, they’re really smart. But hopefully neither will mind if I poke a little fun at their stories.

Fido and the Pet Store

In the first post, the writer compared her pet food shopping experience, first at a big-box pet store chain and then at a local, independent mom-and-pop pet store. Guess where she had the better, more personal, warm and fuzzy, loyalty-building experience? Of course – at the small independent pet store.  The clerk at the big box pet store was polite and helpful but didn’t offer to take the extra steps to get the special dog food the customer needed. It was a policy-driven experience. The clerk at the neighborhood pet store bent over backwards to help the customer.

I’m willing to bet the local pet shop owner’s heartbeat is only steps away from the customer. In fact, the blog post writer may have actually been dealing with the store owner. When the owner of a business is that close to the customer, the likelihood that you’ll have a more attentive, personal experience is much greater. On the other hand, the shareholders of the big-box pet store chain are wa-a-a-ay far away from the customer. So are the CEO, the executive team and all the “steering committees.” Is it possible to create a personal, attentive, warm and fuzzy customer experience in a big box chain store? Yes, it is possible. But it may not be the intent of the company. The intent of the company might be to become number one in market share by serving the most customers at the lowest prices. Second, if a large company wants to create a super-awesome customer experience, it’s gonna cost ‘em! I probably can’t tell too much to a local store owner that she doesn’t already know about taking good care of customers. But a medium to large business where the customer is “further away” from company leaders – now, that’s where I can help big time.

Starbucks and Big Bucks

The second blog post talked about how delighting customers doesn’t have to cost big bucks and in fact, can be hugely profitable. The post sites as an example, a Starbucks barista who carried on a flirtatious exchange with a customer by writing notes on her coffee cups over a period of months. It’s a cute story about how the customer’s co-worker would take the empty cup back to Starbucks with the customer’s responses. This back and forth cup dialogue went on for several months until the customer herself went into the Starbucks and met her cup-pal for the first time. No, they didn’t get married and live happily ever after but the experience made for lots of great postings on the customer’s own marketing blog. I wouldn’t be surprised if Starbucks encourages their baristas to put little smiley faces on the cups and otherwise make the beverage buying experience feel personal. And it obviously works. But the Barista Romeo example was a bit over the top. It’s a great one-off example of personalizing an experience. But not a good example to hold up to businesses and say, “hey, you should do this.”

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles & FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Reality Check

It’s true; companies who focus on delighting the customer can be and are enormously profitable. However, it’s neither as easy as 1-2-3 nor is it cheap. Deciding to delight your customers is easy. Institutionalizing it is another story.

It will cost any company in recruiting and hiring the right people who naturally want to deliver a great customer experience. It will cost the company in new hire and ongoing training, performance assessment, recognition and incentives. It will cost the company by creating a culture where employees feel valued, stick around, and understand how and why they should create a great customer experience. You’ll need great leadership, a commitment to the long-term and a belief in what you’re doing. The per-interaction cost of delivering great customer service is very low. Getting to that point where hundreds or thousands of employees are delivering a great customer experience every day – that is a significant investment in time, money and effort.

Can you do it? You bet! The time, money and effort spent is a good investment in your business. But don’t let anyone fool you into believing you can decide to delight your customers on Monday and git er done by Friday.

Is it worth the effort? Absolutely!

Who’s Your Objective Outsider?

Photo by estimmel

I think every business needs an objective outsider. Or two, or three. What’s an objective outsider? I mean someone from outside the company, who doesn’t live the day-to-day of your business but who can give you, the business owner a fresh perspective from another vantage point. Many times, the people in the business are just too close to the business to notice, to see, or even to hear what’s wrong.

We’ve heard recently about all the changes going on at JCPenney. First, they’re doing away with coupons and confusing pricing. Now their makeover is getting a makeover. Everyone is ticked off at the CEO. Customers are confused. Then JCP announces that by 2014 they’ll do away with the checkout counters and cashiers and move to mobile check out options using Wi-Fi and radio-frequency technology. I applaud all the reinvention. However, I offer this – they’re forgetting to feel what it’s like to actually be inside the store.

I stopped by a JCPenney today to buy some socks. Mundane, yes but I needed socks and was driving by JCP so there you have it. About half way to the men’s department, a bellowing voice came over the loud-speaker system barking out a page of some kind. “MARIE, CALL EXTENSION 227. MARIE, 227 PLEASE.” I actually don’t recall what the announcement was but it was something along those lines. I can tell you this. The volume of that loud-speaker system was so loud, the sound was actually distorted. It was difficult to make out the actual words. Once the announcement stopped, the speakers went back to playing background music at a very low, barely audible level. Then another page, “BOB, PLEASE COME TO COSMETICS, BOB TO COSMETICS.” Again, I don’t recall exactly what was said. Nonetheless, I’m standing there thinking, could I really be the only person noticing that those speakers are turned up way too loud? Do any of the employees notice? Doesn’t the manager or assistant manager notice?  Do they usually have jack-hammers or buzz saws running in the store that these speakers have to be so loud?

Next, as I’m looking through the sock choices, a polite sales clerk approaches me asking if I needed assistance. Hanging from his belt loop is some sort of walkie-talkie phone communication device. As I’m chatting with this gentleman, his phone speaker is blurting out a conversation between other  employees, “TERRY, DO YOU HAVE THE TIMESHEETS?” “NO SUE, I’M IN WILL CALL.” “HAS ANGELA HAD HER BREAK YET?” And again, the volume on the phone was ALL THE WAY UP. When the sales clerk walked away to resume his conversation with two female employees in the aisle, I noticed that all three had these two-way radio devices hanging from their waists, each one barking out the conversations taking place between employees. I frankly got distracted wondering if Angela would ever get her break and where the heck were the timesheets? Now, I’m all in favor of giving employees technology to make their job and the customer’s experience better, easier, more efficient. But this is technology being mis-used and ill-executed.

I couldn’t wait to get out of JCPenney. I wondered if it would ever occur to a manager or employee that the high decibel announcements over the loud-speaker and the banal employee conversations blurting from radio speakers in the aisles just make for a downright unpleasant shopping experience? In a store like JCPenney, wouldn’t you want customers to be relaxed and take their time browsing? I would think so but no way. My nerves were shot from all the noise. The real question is, how does it go unnoticed?

So who do you use as your objective outsider? Someone who will tell you, “Hey bud, the volume is way to loud on that. You’re bothering your customers.” Or, “Just between you and me, your customers really don’t need or want to hear about timesheets or breaks. Just ask Disney, the nuts and bolts are underground and only the Magic is visible on Main Street, USA.” If the management and employees at JCPenney are deaf to all the unnecessary in store noise then what are you and your employees too close to? Are you too close to notice?

When Service Failures Collide

My experience last Sunday at Red Lobster reminded me of how service failures can snowball. It was a classic case of breaking one tenet of customer service after another:

Set Accurate Expectations

When you set expectations properly, you give your customer the freedom to make informed decisions. Period. Under promise and over deliver isn’t the cliché it is for no reason. If you over promise and under deliver, you’ve failed the customer experience.

The host at Red Lobster greeted me with pained interest, took our name, handed me a pager and said the wait time would be about 15 minutes. The wait time ended up being 35 minutes. Lucky for us, friends of ours arrived before us and were also waiting for a table. I was able to strike up conversation with our friends and pass the time. That said, I would much prefer the host had accurately stated the wait time. Then I can make an informed decision as to whether or not I wish to wait. Another couple I didn’t know asked me, “What did they tell you the wait time was?” “15 minutes,” I replied. “Yeah, that’s what they told us too. It’s already been 30 minutes, we’re leaving.” The couple left and so did several other guests.

Manage Perceptions

The customer’s perception is their reality so instinctively put yourself in the customer’s shoes and ask yourself, “How does this look? How will our customers perceive this?”

As 25 or so guests waited for available tables, in plain view of all of us were 3 booths and one 4 square sitting empty. We continued to wait and wait and wait and the table and booths continued to be empty of diners. A rumble of undertone passed around the waiting area. Why weren’t they seating anyone at open stations?

I approached the host desk and asked for the manager. When the manager approached, I asked her why guests weren’t being seated at the available booths? She explained that the server handling that section also had a table of 16 and couldn’t handle the additional tables. Wow. Bad planning or lousy contingency plans – or both? Hard to believe that is their Plan B.

Customers don’t care about your drama. Manage it. And manage what customers see and hear.

Harmful Damage Control

If you decide to compensate a customer for a service failure, make sure that comp doesn’t cause further damage.

The Red Lobster Manager offered my guest and I a complimentary appetizer in consideration of our longer than expected wait time. The comp was properly communicated to our waiter and was subtracted from our bill without any intervention from me. However, the appetizer we ordered tasted like it had been sitting under a heat lamp for hours.

Mind the Beginning and the End

Customers typically remember more clearly the very beginning of an experience and the very end. Pay very close attention to how a customer’s journey begins with your product or service and to the last thing they’ll remember.

In a restaurant, the guest arrival, greeting and seating functions are the beginning of your customer’s on site journey. If you botch up this part of the experience, you’re quite possibly sabotaging the rest of the experience. The customer is likely to remember mostly what went wrong in the beginning, regardless of how you tried to recover.

Check for Consistency

Your company may have separate unique brands and trade names. Customers may not be aware that your brands are all part of the same company. Nevertheless, if customer experience inconsistency exits across your brands, your could be setting yourself up to “brand damage” your entire organization.

It may not be known to all that Red Lobster is part of the same restaurant family as Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse. Ironically, this was not my first bad experience at Red Lobster. However, after a year of boycotting the chain, I thought I’d give them another chance to see if things had improved. They haven’t. Yet, I regularly have great experiences at Olive Garden and good experience at Longhorn. So why the inconsistency within the same parent company?

One can only speculate that best practices are not shared, brands are not held to the same standard, head office politics – who knows. At any rate, best in class eludes them.

What’s Your Definition of Expectations?

The other day I was ironing a shirt. The label in the collar read “Easy Care.” So that got me thinking about expectations and meanings, as in “that depends on what you mean by ‘Easy Care.'”

I’ve been asked a lot lately about how to properly set customer expectations, a concept that is so important in managing a great customer experience. Yet, customer disappointments continue to plague businesses.

So how do you best set expectations with customers and avoid disappointments? Well first, don’t call a shirt “Easy Care” when it clearly requires ironing out of the dryer! My definition of Easy Care does not include an ironing board. That said, here are a few tips on the subject:

1) Deliver the News Up Front
People seem to be afraid to set parameters up front, especially if they feel they can’t deliver on a particular requirement exactly as requested. It is much better to set the expectations at the beginning and avoid disappointment later. Your customer will appreciate the honesty and your ability to accurately forecast what you can deliver and when. If the customer asks for the Sun, Moon and Stars and you can provide only the Sun and Moon, say so. Some folks might call this “under promise and over deliver” but I disagree. Accurately promise and then do what you said you would do, or more.

2) Be Clear About Time
Customers will fill in the blanks, so don’t leave any. If the shirt says “Easy Care,” make sure it’s a no-iron shirt! Don’t say, “I’ll get back to you next week.” Instead, say “I’ll get back to you on Wednesday” or “no later than next Friday.” Be specific, then confirm the time frame is acceptable to your customer. Next week has both a Monday and a Friday and there’s a world of difference between the two. Be specific so the expectations are aligned with both parties.

3) Notify Customers Immediately of Any Service Challenges
If you can’t meet a deadline or need more time, notify your customer immediately. Customers appreciate being kept informed rather than left to wonder. A call saying, “I’m still working on your question/issue and I expect to have resolution by Friday” goes a long way.

4) Use Technology to Help Set Expectations
If you’re frequently on the road or out of the office, use your voice mail and email auto-responder to set the expectation on when the customer will hear back from you. “Thanks for calling. Please leave your detailed message. I return calls daily at ten, two and four.”

5) Don’t Try to Be Everything to Everyone
It’s tempting to try to accept every opportunity to make a sale and not let any opportunity slip away. However, that approach beckons a very broad spectrum of customer expectations and increases the chances for inconsistency and potential disappointment. Focus on a target market where you can most consistently meet customer expectations. To some degree, standardize processes and minimize exceptions.

The Language of Customer Experience

Watch your language.”  In my mind’s ear, I can hear my mother’s voice speaking those words if, as kids, we got a little too rambunctious with our vocabulary.  Mom also had a great way of making sure we could imagine being in the other person’s shoes.  That’s probably why, in part, I have such a heightened sense of the spoken and written language in the spectrum of customer experience.

I often wonder if people actually stop to think about the meaning of the words they’ve chosen when addressing customers.  The nuances are subtle. (Is that redundant? Can you have an obvious nuance)?  Let’s put a bit more thought into the language we use with customers, shall we?

A phrase comes to mind, spoken by Queen Marie of France in the movie Ever After – A Cinderella Story. Choose your words wisely, Madame, for they may be your last.”  The Queen is speaking to Rodmilla (played by Angelica Huston), as she stands before the court after Rodmilla’s lies and deceit have been exposed.  Okay, it’s true that customer experience isn’t usually that dramatic a life or death situation.  However, the Queen’s point is that words elicit emotions within the listener.  So in customer experience, shouldn’t we choose our words wisely and positively touch the customer emotionally?  It may be our last chance to impress them.

I’ve gathered a couple of examples for your consideration.  However, before I get to those examples, after reading this please don’t go writing my sponsors about “Bill’s total disregard for colloquial speech,” —  Y’all.  I do also understand that different regions and parts of the country and the world have their own unique words and phrases but, let’s set that aside for a moment.

I’m Sorry to Hear

The scenario for my first example is this.  You’ve just received a shipment for something you ordered online.  The contents of your shipping container were poorly packaged and the product got smashed to smithereens in transit.  You call the vendor and, to the customer service agent, you explain both the unfortunate situation as well as your total displeasure that the product has been rendered useless to you on the very day you had hoped to begin using it.  The customer service person says, “I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had a problem…”

Do they actually regret that you had a bad experience OR are they just sorry to hear about it?  Is that agent saying they wished someone else had heard about it?  I don’t like “sorry to hear.”  Either be sorry, or be regretful or be apologetic but don’t be sorry that you heard that my carton got smashed in transit.  If you hadn’t heard of my malady, you wouldn’t be able to help me resolve it, right?  Now, I’ve heard some people claim that you shouldn’t say you’re “sorry” unless you were deliberately responsible for causing the mishap but I think that’s hogwash.  (Is hogwash the solution prepared in advance to wash the hogs or the runoff afterwards?  My money is on the runoff.)  A better response is, “I’m sorry your order arrived damaged…” or “I regret that you had this bad experience…

You get my drift.  Show a little sincere empathy.

At My/Our Earliest Convenience

In this next example, you happen to be calling your janitorial service to compliment them on the great job they’re doing and you reach their general voice mail after hours.  You listen to the recorded greeting before leaving your message and you hear, “Thanks for calling ABC Janitorial Service.  The office is now closed.  Please leave your message after the tone and we’ll return your call at our earliest convenience.”  A variation on this theme would be, you’re calling “Mary” and Mary’s greeting says, “I’ll call you back at my earliest convenience.

So, you’ll call the customer back when you’re good and ready?  You’ll return the customer’s call at a time that is most convenient to you?  Shouldn’t convenience be on the customer’s terms?  Of course it should.  This is a distortion of the message you, as a caller, would leave on the customer-recipient’s voice mail such as, “Hi Mary.  It’s Bill Leinweber calling.  I’m sorry I missed you but I would love to discuss your responses to our recent customer survey.  Please call me at your earliest convenience.  My number is…

Defer your messaging to the customer’s convenience for the optimum customer experience.

You doing okay?

We were in a restaurant the other day and had just each taken a couple bites of our food.  The restaurant manager started making his way, table by table, across the dining room and when he arrived at our table he said, “You guys doing okay?

I’m willing to bet this restaurant chain’s management training program has a half-day module where they tell the managers how important it is to get out on the floor every hour or so, greet guests and schmooze and make guests feel welcomed.  On the surface, it’s a great idea.  Here’s the restaurant’s chance to have yet another positive, face to face interaction with a guest.  But if “You doing okay” is the best the manager can muster, they have a huge opportunity here.  “How are your meals, gentlemen” or “Have we made you feel welcomed and comfortable” or “Is there anything else we can bring to you?”  I can think of a hundred things better to say than “You doing okay?

Coach your managers and supervisors on what to say then let them personalize the message to their own personalities.

Your Call Is Important To Us

You’ve probably heard me talk about this one before because it is a pet peeve and I cringe every single time I hear it.  I’m not sure which call center industry prodigy coined this phrase and why it seems every business on planet earth has copied it.  “Your call is important to us” is both condescending to the customer and unimaginative.  I cringe further when “Your call is important to us” is followed by “Your wait time is approximately 7 minutes…”  If your customer’s call is truly important to your business, then don’t just say it is important – demonstrate it! At what point, after how many minutes on hold, does the customer begin to believe despite the claims, that their call is in fact unimportant?

The customer assumes their call is important to you.  Otherwise, why would they even be doing business with you in the first place?  Simple rule here – don’t say stupid things to customers.  Instead, say something like, “We’re glad you called us today” because aren’t you really glad the customer called you and not your competition?  Or “We’re looking forward to speaking with you shortly” or even “An agent will be available soon.”

What are you saying to your customers?

Re-read what you’ve written.  Listen to the words you’re choosing when speaking to your customers.  Of course, you should be doing more listening to customers than talking.  But when you do speak, the words you use are an important part of the customer’s experience.

Now, (as my mom would say) I can get off my high horse.

The Shopping Cart – The Design is Largely Unchanged but the Experience Keeps Getting Reinvented

Goldman's Basic Design

Just about every retail experience involves a shopping cart.  I don’t mean the “Click here to add to cart.” I mean the brick and mortar basket on wheels. The shopping cart is over 70 years old and hasn’t changed all that much.  However, retail chains still struggle to innovate an efficient method used to get the cart into the consumers hands.  First a little background.

Folding Chair to Shopping Cart

The shopping cart as we know it today is largely attributed to Sylvan Goldman and Orla Watson.  Goldman was a grocery pioneer (Humpty Dumpty chain in Oklahoma) and Watson was a machinist and inventor.  In 1936, Goldman wondered how he could get shoppers to buy more groceries.  A folding wooden chair gave him an idea.  He placed a couple of baskets and wheels on the chair and – voila’, the shopping cart is invented!  The drawback of Goldman’s original patented design was that the carts had to be disassembled to be folded and stored.  Watson came up with the telescoping shopping cart design in 1946, which allowed the carts to nest into one another and required no disassembly for storage.  Goldman and Watson squabbled a bit over their respective patents until Goldman stopped

Orla Watson Cart

contesting Watson’s patent in exchange for licensing rights.

“Carts Are Provided For Our Shoppers Convenience”

Convenience?  Let’s be honest.  Shopping carts are provided with the hopes that you will fill them to the brim before making your way to the checkout!  As an aficionado of ingenious process efficiency, I’m intrigued by the ongoing innovations retailers devise for putting the shopping cart at your fingertips as you begin your shopping experience.  The superstore is about 50 years old and the shopping cart 73, and yet shopping cart logistics continue to evolve.  Think for a moment.  The last time you used a shopping cart, was it an awkward wrestling match to get one or a smooth and easy exercise?  Truth is, if the process was efficient, you probably didn’t pay much attention to it.

Who’s Doing it Well?

Shopping cart logistics can be tricky and expensive.  As a consumer, you want the cart right there where you need one.  You wheel the cart through the store and checkout and usually out to your car.  The store then has to pay employees to fetch the carts and bring them back into the store.  One exception is Aldi where you have to pay 25c to get a cart.  When you’re finished shopping at Aldi and return your cart to the queue, you get your quarter back.  The ideal scenario has the carts in a queue, with the consumer pulling carts off one end of the queue while the retrieved carts are fed into the other end of the queue.  Newer Lowe’s and Walmart stores have mastered this design with the cart queues turned parallel with the front of the store.  As you walk into the front doors, you pull a cart off the leading edge of the queue.  Employees return carts to the queue through special ‘mini’ doors on the sides of the entrance and away from shopper traffic.

Our newest Target uses a slightly different design.  The cart queue doors are in the center of the bank of front doors so you’re walking alongside the carts as you enter the store.  Carts are fed into the doors at the entrance and the shopper pulls their cart off the other end of the queue after they enter.  This is clearly the most convenient for the shopper except that both shoppers and carts are co-mingling outside the main entrance.

Not surprising IKEA has shopping carts down to a science.  After all, they’re experts at getting that bookcase or chair to fit into a box the size of an overnight bag.  The traditional carts are at the ready as you descend the stairs into the IKEA Marketplace.  These are traditional European style carts with all four swivel wheels and can be a challenge for Americans who aren’t used to them.  IKEA also has flatbed carts in the warehouse for furniture and larger items.  These carts are fed into a mechanical queuing system from the loading area at the front of the store.  As shoppers enter the warehouse inside the store, they pull carts off the end of the queue and the mechanism advances the queue so the next cart is ready.

Classic Process Inefficiency

The retailer that surprises me the most is Meijer.  Meijer is largely credited with pioneering the super store concept in the early 1960’s so you would think shopping cart logistics would be part of the mastery of their business.  Not so.  The Meijer nearest me is an older store but I can’t believe all the money and effort they spend on an extremely inefficient model.  The majority of carts are lined up outside the front of the store.  A small sign instructs shoppers, “Meijer guests, Please select a cart before entering the store. Thank you”  Really?  Not the best customer experience in inclement weather.  The carts that are inside are all pushed into a “corral.”  Shoppers have to enter the corral, grab a cart, then walk backwards pulling the cart out of the corral and backing-up into the next shopper trying to get their cart.  It’s even worse for the employees who fetch carts from the parking lot.  They bring the carts in via the same entrance doors the shoppers use, then have to make a sharp left and then a sharp right to get the carts into the corral.  I can’t believe Meijer hasn’t spent a couple thousand dollars at this store to redesign their cart logistics rather than subject their customers to and pay employees for such an inefficient experience.  Most Kroger stores I’ve been too are only slightly better.

So What’s Taking So Long?

So after 50 years of super stores and 70+ years of shopping carts, why are retailers still reinventing their shopping cart process?  You would think by now most retailers would have the whole shopping cart logistics thing figured out.  And why do so many stores have a such a shopping cart mess?  I’m guessing many retailers have only recently recognized that a shopping cart is part of the TOTAL customer experience and they are finally evaluating the experience (and efficiency) from beginning to end – cart to car and back.  In addition, a lot of upper management just isn’t accustomed to seeing things through the customers’ eyes.

So here’s a lesson for your business – Want to save money?  Take a look at repetitive processes that occur over and over and over each day.  One small improvement in efficiency, when multiplied by the number of times the process is executed, can save you big bucks over time.