PG Web Extra: Like One of the Family


When it comes to customer service, "nothing works without the basics," asserts Rick Makely, manager of the Giant Food store in McLean, Va. That means a clean store and a great selection of products at good prices.

But beyond that, it's about making shoppers feel at home.

"We have a lot of senior associates who treat customers like part of the family," Makely says. "It's about talking to them and giving them what they want. We don't overpromise; we deliver on their experience, every day."

That includes the in-store Starbucks coffee stand, where photos hang of loyal customers and their families. "They don't just know your drink," Makely says of the baristas. "They know your name."

Regular store meetings with associates reinforce that commitment. "People looking to spend their money will go to a place they're appreciated," Makely says. "The associates know the customers –- we have regular customers who appreciate that consistency … [it] makes a difference to the start of most people's day."

That extends to community involvement as well, Makely says, describing one associate who's "loading cars, doing bagging, but he's also helping at the food bank down the street."

Many store associates live in the neighborhood, so they're "talking to the customers and letting us know their needs … we hear about things from our associates before the [nonprofit] groups come to us.

"We enjoy successful business, and we understand that means giving back," Makely continues. "It means being involved, being seen, being active and helping our customers -- being there when sometimes nobody else is."

As such, residents have come to expect Giant to play an active role in the community, Makely says. "From education initiatives like A+ School Rewards, which raises funds for area schools, to hunger alleviation programs such as the Good Neighbor Food and Funds Drive and September's Hunger Action Month, to health-and-wellness programs raising capital for pediatric cancer research and investing in in-store nutritionists, Giant is honored to give back to the community that has supported us for so many years," he says.

Giant also takes part in a community coalition known as Play it Safe, which helps at-risk youth. One past participant, now an assistant manager, works at Makely's store, mentoring new kids moving through the program.

"These things are so much more real than just handing out a gift card –- it’s really getting involved with the community," Makely says.

The emphasis is on "local," and each store is empowered to respond to needs in their individual communities and prioritize their responses. "If we can communicate the local focus of these charities, that's what makes the rest of the community want to come in" and support them, Makely says.

This, in turn, benefits the grocer. In addition to sponsoring 10 to 12 major food drives each year, Makely's store hosted a charity carwash during which volunteers washed customers' cars while they shopped. With no set charge, donations averaged $20 per person, who each also spent money in the store, Makely notes.

The most successful campaign, he says, has been Stuff the Bus, a joint venture that also included other retailers in a public-private partnership to shuttle seniors and others with special needs. The initiative included "stuffing the bus" parked outside the store with donated food for those in need, much of it through $10 bags of most-wanted items made up by the store for easy purchase. "All our fundraisers are built on this model and have been very successful," Makely says.

According to Makely, he's most proud of the fact that his associates "see themselves as part of the community, and the community is part of their extended family." The store's relationship to shoppers is one in which, "if they think something's wrong, they come to us," he says. "We're not perfect, but we resolve things in a way [that] customers respect us –- that makes me feel good every day."

Makely continues: "We have the opportunity to see and experience people's lives; we know their life stories and are part of it to some degree. Coming to the store is part of their daily lives, and if someone doesn't show up for a few days, we're making a call."

For example, a store chef once noticed a regular customer hadn't been coming in, and found out the woman was vision-impaired and could no longer drive to the store to do her own shopping. He shopped for her and delivered groceries to her home for four years, until she passed away.

"He never said a word" about it, Makely says, even when the story was covered in Washingtonian magazine.

A four-decade company veteran, Makely was born about four miles away from the store where he has worked for the past eight years. "Not a lot of people get to enjoy what they do at work –- I do," says the store manager, whose parents were both Giant associates, too. "It's in my blood."

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