Connecting with Grocery Customers: The Renzullo Lessons – part 2

Why [do] 75% of marketers question their ability to reach in-market consumers?

This is a question brought to us by Dosh, a US firm providing a cash-back app for the retail sector. I can answer this and it has nothing to do with digital, cash, or apps, and everything to with the human touch.

Part 2 of the Renzullo lessons is my pet subject – the real way for big grocery stores to connect with their customers.

When I ask consumers my question I can see their lights go on. They get it because big grocery stores are the only retail outlet where the staff don’t have to know about what they sell. Figure that one out.

My question is always a version of this: Why don’t mainstream grocery store floor staff have an interest in food? 

Short answer – they’re not required to. This staff are hired for their pleasantness (for which I am grateful), their youth, and their brawn.

My observation is largely focused on the centre of the store, the grocery aisles. The workers on the edge of store – the bakery, deli, meat, fish and produce – often know their business. But the grocery section is a wasteland of food knowledge.

Curious isn’t it? You wouldn’t find a fix-it challenged person like me selling at Home Depot.

But at Renzullo’s, the very small Vancouver Italian specialty food store where I work part time, the staff care about food. Being curious (which is what caring is) means we can answer most of the customers’ questions, help customers select if they want help, and – this is huge – ask them food questions (we learn more). If we can’t help, we know other staff that can.

It works for the big ones, too (Whole Foods, anyone?). Staff talking food with the customers is good for business. Employees don’t have to know all the many products, they just have to care about what they sell. Which is food.

Here are the Renzullo expectations that big grocery can do:

Be Interested

Genuinely so. As customers in a big grocery store we all know that we can ask where something is because the staff on the floor stock it so they usually know. But wouldn’t it be something if, when a staff member took us to our destination (standard in customer service), they asked us what we’re going to use the ingredient for. I wish they would; shopping is social, food is social, yet somehow shopping for food is not. To think that staff would be interested in me and my cooking would instantly change my feeling about that store. It would also put staff in a better position to sell me other products I can use.  


What if a customer could get an answer about what the difference is between pomace and extra virgin olive oil? Or if that new ketchup will satisfy their eight year old’s Heinz expectations (probably not but go ahead; for $5.00 you can start expanding the kid’s palate – cheap education). Or the difference between the many kinds of rice on the shelf? Or if the locally-made salad dressing will shake up to look like Kraft French Dressing? These are the thoughts that go through a customer’s brain as they stand there choosing – or not choosing. Help them. They will be so grateful. And (probably) buy more.

Build Real Relationships

Make your customer feel special. One easy way is to use their name. This would be unexpected.

At Renzullo’s, Mirella and Franco (the owners) know everyone by name and if they don’t, they ask. Not having a large clientele is definitely an advantage to being small (and sadly not everyone is a Carmen like at Donald’s Market either). Just a few names is a good start. If it’s authentic (and that’s key) it works every time.

Why would a big store use a customer’s name (okay, so probably not a Great Canadian Superstore, a Loblaws company designed to be a warehouse full of food but not staff)?

  • It means the staff care about making the experience personal. Regulars feel special and every customer in earshot notices. Then they want that kind of treatment, which means they’ll become regulars.
  • Connecting releases dopamine, which makes the employee feel good. If staff feel good, they are more invested in the store’s success. An invested employee is more likely to stay. High staff retention is less costly than the cost of training new people. Less trouble, too.
  • Naming people is respectful. Showing respect is an essential life skill and one your staff will always be grateful for. Go ahead, be a great employer.

Staff Empowerment

Staff want to be smart. They are smart! It doesn’t matter if they are working part time while learning to be a dental hygienist or stocking shelves waiting for their break as an actor. They have smarts. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t hire them. Right?

When a customer asks an employee a question, but the employee can’t answer it because they don’t know, the employee feels stupid. Who wants to feel stupid? No one. Let your staff be experts. Let them be proud. These feelings are worth more than a raise.

Be the One

There is only one reason a customer is in a grocery store and that’s to buy food, but the one they go to is a very personal choice. So, be the one people want to be in. Renzullo’s does.

Part 1 is here