Sunday, December 25, 2005

Local Giant -- Poor Usability Leads to a Poor Customer Experience (or why I love John Mackey)

I recently moved into a new apartment in the Columbia Heights area of Washington, DC. It's a great apartment, with a view overlooking the city, and a clear line of sight to the Washington Monument. No doubt about it, it's the best apartment I've lived in since I moved here 6 years ago.

One thing that came up recently, though, was grocery shopping. I've been fortunate to live within a 5 minute walk to a Whole Foods for the past 3 years, something I always appreciated. Nowadays, in my new apartment, I have two choices. I can walk 15 minutes to the new Columbia Heights Giant, or I can make a slightly longer jaunt down to my old stomping grounds and hit the Whole Foods in Logan Circle.

Well, yesterday, after deciding I needed a few more groceries for today, I decided to swing by the new Giant, which I really hadn't been to much since it opened. Plus, I figured, moving into the neighborhood, I had better get acquainted with it.

I have to say, it was one of the most unpleasant shopping experiences I've had in awhile. A quick list of bad encounters and other observations:

  • Store Entry. There's one entrance to the entire store, and it actually doubles as the stores only exit. To make matters worse, not only do you have street traffic coming in, but you also have people getting on/off the elevator. This leads to a high level of congestion, and carts clangin', etc. The paranoid part of me speculates that this was actually a conscious decision by management in order to more easily catch/trap shoplifters since store resides in an "up and coming" neighborhood.
  • Store Aisles. One thing Giant seems to take a bit of pride in promoting about the new store is the vast selection, and overall size. However, from a usability standpoint, they've created aisles with no mid-way breakpoint, and the signs hanging at the end of each aisle are hung fairly high, with a relatively small print (at least it seems small when reading from the other end of the aisle).
  • Employee Hiring: This is just one thing that I've noticed, and it's certainly not the fault of the employees, but it's worth noting in my opinion. One of the reasons I love shopping at WholeFoods is that they really seem to employ a sort of "behavorial hiring" practice. If you're not familiar with that term, it's pretty popular these days in the service industry, and it basically just means hiring people who are naturally well suited to customer service positions. I actually believe I'm one of those people, as any technical support position I've ever had, most of the success came because customers really enjoyed the natural people person approach. To bring this back to Giant, they seem to have no sense of what it means to hire customer focused employees. That's not to say that the Giant employees are all unpleasant to deal with, but none of them seem to enjoy interacting with customers, and it comes through.

The next few things are not so much a usability issue, per se, just small annoyances. However, they stick in my craw ;-) :

  • Floors are generally dirtier.
  • On prior visits I have seen customers snacking from the produce section, this last time I saw an employee stick her hand into the prepared food section to grab and eat a couple of french fries.
  • Bombarded with advertisements. Okay, look, I'm already in your store, I'm likely buying quite a bit of groceries, or at least as much as I believe I need. I don't need the Giant spokeswoman selling me additional goods through a recording on a loudspeaker as walk through the store.
Also, and this is again a personal issue, but as I walked through yesterday, I couldn't help but gain a sense that the entire experience was unnatural. The produce section is great, and varied, but they seemingly get produce that is likely not grown in the DC area, or even the east coast! How does it get here? Is it fresh? What sort of chemicals are they growing it with?

Simarly, walking out of the produce section, and into the meat section, everything's wrapped in skin tight plastic, in order to keep it as fresh as possible, as long as possible. No thanks, I'll take my meat as naturally as possible, and I'll likely buy it the day I need it, possibly up to two days in advance.

Finally, if you compare the aisles of your local WholeFoods or other organic markets against those of Giant/Safeway/(insert traditional supermarket), I think you'll notice something. In attempt to make sure product stands out as much as possible on already crowded shelves, the people who supply to Giant/Safeway/etc make these horribly bright and garish packages to sell they're goods. I've found on my last few trips to Giant, that this has actually made the whole experience that much more unpleasant. If I were one to be prone to random headaches, I'm pretty sure a trip to Giant would induce one.

All of this brings me to one last comment. The new Giant was built(half-assedly so) to compete with the likes of Whole Foods, and to a lesser(but growing) degree, Wegmans. I'm of the opinion now that Whole Foods is pretty much unstoppable, and here to stay. As someone who loves food, and believes that it has the power to not only sustain, but also heal, as well as bring friends and families together, I can only ask that John Mackey and the rest of Whole Foods continues forward in their success. While Giant has stumbled with their location in Columbia Heights, at least it was a stumble in the right direction. Something we probably all need to do a little more often.

Happy Holidays

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