Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The NEW Giant: "You talk. We listen."

As all of my friends know, I have a love/hate relationship with Giant Foods. I want to love them. They are the closest grocery store to both work and home. But every time I go shopping there, I end up frustrated, with new reasons to hate them. I could fill up pages of rants, but I have generally held myself back as it seemed like it might be monotonous for non-Giant shoppers to read.

But with their parent company's -- Royal Ahold's -- rollout last week of new branding for Giant and Stop&Shop, and the new tagline, "You talk. We listen." prominently displayed on the front of their websites, the game is on.

I started by chatting informally with some of my friends at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). They of course want all food-related retailers/wholesales to thrive, but like me have a vested interest in local chains like Giant that they themselves shop.

Apparently, Ahold is rebranding all US holdings the same way, to get some economies of scale. I see no issues with that. The more they save on marketing, the more they can invest in other more pressing needs. The new Giant logo is generating some decent buzz in Washington DC, and the rollout itself has been decently coordinated given the scale.

We all raced out the first day and first weekend of the announcement, to see the new stores. Here's the recap of what we found.

Let's start with the Good ...
  • The new logo offers a lot of possibilities and the TV ads the ran the last week of the Beijing Olympics get a big thumbs up.
  • The new logo was immediately on the registers and receipts. That was well coordinated.
  • Apparently one store -- the main Landover one -- had the new signage on the outside. None of us expected that would be done at the same time. That is very hard to coordinate. [Heck, decades have passed in this area since American Telephone & Telegraph become C&P, which became Bell Atlantic, which become Verizon and some building STILL say American Telephone & Telegraph on them.]
Now let's move to the changes that can't totally be categorized as "good" at this point ...
  • It appears that part of the long-term plan may be to get new carts. Great. But apparently some of the stores seem to have gotten rid of a bunch of their old cards BEFORE the new ones arrived. My friend Sue went to her local store the weekend of the change, early in the AM, when hardly anyone was in the store and could not get a cart. She said they just were gone; only a handful remained. A huge crowd was gathering, trying to get carts to go shopping. She asked a store employee what was going on, but this person just 'muttered incoherently' and so she left after 20 minutes and went to their competitor, Safeway.
  • The point of sale area has changed. There is less 'crap' piled up around them, offering a better line of sight (Good). But the lines to the registers are also now curved. This is great if you are coming from the 'correct' direction, but really not so great if you're coming from the other way as those carts aren't known for their ability to 'turn on a dime,' so to speak.
  • The aisles seem to have lower shelves. This is great if you are short, but this is definitely bad for breadth and quantity of inventory (see more on this topic, below).
  • Some of the stores have been rearranged. They did change the signs in the aisles, and the changes are very obvious because the new parts of the sign don't quite match the old parts. (I doubt this was intentional, but it is helpful.) However, here is the problem, their big, new, useless 'Markety' signs block the vital 'What the heck is in this Aisle' signs. Perhaps this is on purpose, so you have to walk down every aisle, but let's hope not.
  • The new low price tags on the shelves (I believe they are branding them as 'Real Deals'), give the impression that the item is on sale. But it is not. My friend Sue already witnessed one argument at checkout between a woman who felt that the item should be on sale and the poor clerk.

  • Their new reusable bags are much more prominently placed and they seem to have renewed their commitment to this concept. However, the bags weren't in all stores on that first weekend, and that was poor planning. It is too bad that they don't seem to be made from recycled plastic (which is the newest trend), or if they are it is not advertised on the bag (which is a mistake). But I will give them credit for creating something quite unmistakably vivid.
  • The new website is really attractive, although there were some technical load issues those first few days. One oversight; they are missing the coding to stop the 'old logo to new logo' movie from playing every single time you go to the home page. They need to add that.
  • New uniforms are coming, but they weren't in stock the first day, at least at most of the stores. That's too bad; that would have made a big impact. We'll be waiting for those to appear.

In general, given the size of the task, we felt that the rollout went as well as to be expected. Here are the major gaps I'm worried about ...

The new opening message on the website is relatively surface:
With delicious prepared foods, savings on the things you need, and a fresh new look in our stores, we're working to make a difference in your lives every day. And we're just getting started.

The customer pledge shows more promise:
We pledge to make a difference in our customers' lives every day with great food, low prices, and friendly helpful service.

But neither one really makes me feel that Giant is aware of it two core issues*** and is taking action to correct them.

Core Issue #1: Category/Inventory Management and Quality of Merchandise

They must improve in this area. I could fill up pages with the issues I've had in these areas. Their garlic is ALWAYS rotten. Some weeks, they have 3 shelves of chicken stock, some weeks they have none. You have to get there before Noon on delivery day to get a Perdue Oven Roaster Chicken. Roll a die to find out if they have Kalamata olives on the day you are shopping.

Core Issue #2: Employee training, customer service and morale

I would estimate that at least 90% of the Giant employees with whom I have had any interaction with have a huge morale issue. They seemed resigned to their fate of sitting somewhere on the scale between hating the customer and just not caring. I could fill up pages with my rants on this, as well, but that is water under the bridge, right? This is NEW Giant. They are turning a new page. There will now be "friendly helpful service," right?

It's up to YOU, Giant!

Like I said earlier in my post, I want them to succeed. And I'll be following their progress. I've added a 'Giant' tag to my blog, and I'll be reporting on what happens in the coming weeks/months as the rollout continues. I'll be basing most of my observations on the stores in Alexandria and Springfield, Virginia, so stay tuned!

***Footnote: I want to put one big caveat on the two core issues. These might only be the core issues in the metro DC area. I visited the Giant near my parents, near Walkersville, Maryland, three months ago. That store was amazing. The staff were friendly and helpful. The store was big and well-stocked. The produce was amazing. I had to walk outside to confirm I was really in Giant.

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