In talking to retailers, I often hear of a desire for deeper engagement with customers, a richer and more consistent experience, increased customer loyalty, and more ‘wow’ in-store and online. All of these desires speak to what constitutes customer experience.

There is general sense of the need to deliver an inspiring experience along the customer journey. I had two distinct customer experiences recently while traveling to Dallas, Texas to visit family. Each had to do with the idea of customer experience and how companies from airlines to retail stores pursue it with variable success.

Excitement of the Wrong Kind

In order to visit my family, I first had to get from Los Angeles (LAX) to Dallas (DFW). Although the flight portion of a journey is relatively short, much goes into the complete customer experience of getting there. You have to come up with the date and schedule, compare prices, select the airline and get your preferred seating.

Then there’s the logistics of getting to the airport and securing parking or livery (especially tricky during peak travel periods.) Then printing or downloading boarding passes, checking-in of luggage, and going through security. We’re not done yet, you still have to find your unoccupied assigned seat (hopefully) and room to stow your carry-on (remember, just two).

All this and the flight hasn’t taken off. Yet these are all part of the ‘customer experience’ and journey. Surprises can lurk everywhere. Weather at origin or destination can wreak havoc on the flight; as does airline overbooking policies, mechanical troubles, flight crew availability, baggage handlers, and so on.

You guessed correctly, I should not have been surprised (but I really was!) that a direct three-hour flight from LAX to DFW can turn into a 13-hour marathon. It was full of cancelled flights, introduction of completely unanticipated airport transfers, surprise seating arrangements, plus a luggage-finding exercise (active RFID tag anyone?). The twists and turns were not just unexpected but also undesirable. It was a distinctly unsatisfying customer experience.

The Right Kind of ExcitementCentral-market-2

The second customer experience was at The Shops at Southlake (across from Southlake Town Square), a suburb of Dallas and Fort Worth. Your culinary tastes will not be disappointed with numerous choices in cuisine and price points (high and higher). You can find almost any specialty retailer here and many luxury brands are well represented. High expectations become the norm in this retail environment.

But I’ve been accustomed to tone down these expectations whenever I venture into grocery stores. These are not normally known as models of good customer experience. Although overly generalized, supermarkets are for the most part undifferentiated in layout (perishables along the perimeter and dry goods in center store) with the same packaged goods brands found up and down the aisles, and discount price tags flying prominently on every shelf.

Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Wegmans, and Publix are immediate exceptions that come to mind in food retailing. Each has differentiated the customer experience through multiple avenues. These include unique product assortment and range, private label program, and inspiring layout and visuals while generating excitement and emotional connection in a sensory wanderlust. Yes, these are retail stores engaging the aspirational culinary wants and needs of foodies and gourmet alike.

Enter: Central MarketCentral-Market-1

I had heard of H-E-B’s Central Market stores in Texas (total of nine as of 2012), and with one a stone’s throw from my sister’s house, I volunteered to help with the grocery shopping!

As soon as you enter and grab a shopping cart you notice a cheery person greeting you at the “Answers” desk (already gets you in right frame of mind). A layout of the store hangs next to the desk, the store is divided into several rooms and areas like multiple markets catering to your daily needs. Gone are the long center aisles replaced with intrigue around every corner. A promising start for a good customer experience.

Fruit and vegetables galore is the first “room” as you step through the threshold. The colors are brilliant, attractive, and welcoming. There was an amazing 26 types of apples on display, nine of which were organic! Coming from California, the prices were very reasonable, but I got the sense that you could do better at some competing stores; but I doubt they can match the variety and freshness.

At Central Market the customer weighs and tags their own produce and fruit using the many available scales. I saw one customer that was using her own re-usable bag and was sticking the labels on the outside of her bag for scanning at checkout.

Coming around the corner I found my day’s destination: the fish market. From my list, I found Atlantic Salmon and Hawaiian Kona Kampachi fish. The store associates were of course knowledgeable as to taste, texture, and cooking ideas. They were also helpful in explaining about how the Kampachi was farmed (offshore in deeper waters, were not genetically modified, and without antibiotics or hormones).

And without even asking, they added some ice to keep the fish fresh until we finished shopping and the drive home. I added exemplary customer service and knowledgeable employees to my list for a good customer experience.

Having made my ‘assigned’ purchase, I was primarily tagging along with other family members as I explored the store. I found some handy “short-cuts” between rooms if you wanted to make a quick exit to the checkout counters. So despite a room-type of layout, customers weren’t forced to navigate these if in a hurry. I spent some time in the bulk nuts and candy area and was delighted that I can make my own fresh peanut or almond butter at the press of a button (and knowing that it’s 100% peanuts or almonds).

I found the bakery astounding in the variety and the hub bub of activity behind the counters late in the day. The cheese department was another busy area with lots of choices. I picked up some feta cheese, only to discover they carried not one but five different varieties. The olive bar was extensive and the deli hot foods make for convenient and healthy alternative to cooking for time-starved shoppers. I added unexpected excitement and choices to my list for memorable customer experience.

Many people would be surprised not to find a lot of “major” national brands on the shelves. Instead you’ll notice lots of private label goods with smaller brands and some from overseas. This was reminiscent of Trader Joe’s (carrying almost exclusively all private label goods) strategy or Wegmans. With those two retailers, it’s about trusting the store brand for quality, taste, and value. It’s also about trusting the skilled workers in the stores to know their products and to make timely and relevant suggestions. So something similar must be happening at Central Market. Trust made it into the customer experience bag.

My Take AwayCentral-Market-3

The folks at Central Market found a way to make for a memorable customer experience out of buying groceries. The layout, the products, the store personnel, the smells, the visuals were all fantastic. I wouldn’t go there to fill up on my cleaning supplies and paper products necessarily, but for that unique meal that is sure to impress, Central Market hits the spot. There wasn’t the usual push and shove of carts, but a more casual and friendly strolling for culinary ideas. Customers chatted with each other and with the store associates.

Shopping wasn’t a painful event, these customers appeared to enjoy being at Central Market! They turned customer experience into desired customer behavior (exuberant fans). So what happened here? What did Central Market do that was different? I think there are a few key themes that helped Central Market redefine the value for money formula in their market:

  • Simplify her life. Reduce shopping complexity for your customers. Planning a meal can be a complex activity, especially for the hurried working couple or busy mom. Store layout with meal ideas and associated items in same proximity make it easier to find what you need. Now couple that with knowledgeable store employees, and you’re ready to be chef for a day.
  • Trust and consistency. Central Market earned the trust of their customers by delivering consistently on value (quality, taste, price) using private label, unique products, and a store full of helpful employees. Central Market also shared that trust by letting customers weigh their own produce, bulk nuts, etc. Together these build a “shopping culture” of trust.
  • Excitement. There’s a genuine and contagious excitement about food in empowered store employees. Everywhere you turn you can find evocative food visuals that invite you to try new foods, find answers, share opinions. There’s a sense of energy as you move around the store. It’s infectious!

To make this happen, design (really experience) how a customer engages with the company throughout her purchase journey. Customers want their specific needs met, they desire convenience and a personalized experience. This journey is not linear and for grocery, discovery and decision can happen very quickly. Your store employees have influence along the way.

This customer journey pushes and challenges how you traditionally plan and market as well as sell and service your customers. It necessitates a fresh approach of design thinking that takes a customer perspective to all interactions and supporting processes. It requires that the organization builds the right capabilities, trains and empowers their employees while investing in the right set of technologies to deliver on the design and the brand promise. The customer experience is at the heart of it all and it is not limited to affluent customers only.

Do you know your customers’ experience with your brand?

A modified version of this post originally appeared on the SAP Community Network and has been republished here with permission.