New Seasons does not judge you.
At this beloved Portland-based supermarket, most of the produce — arguably the finest available outside of a farmers market — is organic. Much of the beef comes from grass-fed cows, and the seafood display gives details on how and where every item was caught. The beer and wine selection skews heavily toward Pacific Northwest producers, and includes plenty of organic options. But head one aisle over and you’ll find Skippy peanut butter, Oreos, Coca-Cola and other familiar products of mass-market America. And most important, you’ll find staff who are equally enthusiastic about all of it.
This is not by accident. New Seasons is a business defined by an unwavering set of values since its first store opened in 1999, and everyone knows it. Founder Stan Amy describes the store’s philosophy as “interdependent prosperity”: the idea that monoculture is no more sustainable for a business than it is for a garden, and a diversity of options is ultimately healthier. In terms of service, this translates into stores and staff that value informed choice above all else. New Seasons is famous not only for transparency in labeling (indicating, in some cases, the exact farm that grew those tomatoes), but staff who can rattle off that information on the spot. They’re also exceptional at forging customer relationships based on that knowledge, and the interest they share in food.
Historically, “good service” has been a matter of diligence: if the store is laid out sensibly, returns are easy, and staff are required to go the extra mile, then service will be good. But increasingly these attributes are par for the course. Heightened competition, and customers who know all about those competitors, have raised the bar for service across the board.Today, the real differentiator is not “good service” but “true service” — a customer experience that reflects the brand philosophy of the company behind it.
In many ways, this is nothing new. Before the megamart came along, we bought fruit from the fruit seller, meat from the butcher, and bread from the baker. Each of these sellers were passionate, informed professionals who wouldn’t hesitate to tell you what they thought about everything they sold, and relished the chance to steer you toward the right purchase. It was great service because it reflected the beliefs of the business.
Somewhere along the line, this connection between purpose and action got lost. The butcher, baker and fruit seller got consumed by the supermarket, the supermarket grew, and the companies that owned them expanded and merged. The purpose-driven customer relationship was replaced by an efficiency-driven one, and “good service” in most supermarkets today boils down to fast checkout. These days, the quality of the service experience is primarily determined by how quickly it’s over.
A handful of retailers have successfully pushed against this trend, in the supermarket business and elsewhere. Nordstrom, the legendary department store, trains its associates to “use good judgement in all situations,” fostering a service culture of attention and responsiveness. The Apple Store encourages customers to touch and interact with technology, and deploys a legion of casual/smart employees to make discovery and purchase miraculously low-friction. Even Whole Foods’ abundant, slightly paternalistic shopping experience reflects a philosophy of high expectations and high ideals. Each company has a legion of loyal customers, who come back repeatedly not just for the products, but for the ability to interact with a brand that aligns with their own philosophy.
The key to getting “true service” right — and the imperative for customer-facing business of all types — is to be as transparent as possible about your values, and to never stop seeking new ways to convey them to the customer. For New Seasons, this can be felt the moment you walk into one of their stores. The signage, the labeling, the diversity of products, and the knowledgeable, engaging staff are all expressions of a coherent philosophy. It’s a philosophy that resonates particularly well with shoppers in the greater Portland area, but the underlying idea, that behavior should reflect ideals, is nearly universal.
That idea is both simple and revolutionary. It asks that companies make introspection a foundational part of their service design process, analyzing what makes them unique from other companies, and especially their competitors, before deciding what kind of good service makes the most sense. For some brands, it will be curt, efficient and thoroughly competent. For others, it will mean bending over backward to listen to every word the customer says, and acting as an empathetic host. These, and many other approaches, all have the potential to be great service. The trick for brands today is to decide which kind of “great” is right for them.