Katherine Rich: Store culture matters

1/12/2013

A Kiwi supermarket – as with the Cook Strait ferry, the local library, and the council swimming pool – is a great societal leveler. Everyone is on an equal footing.  There is no Koru Club, or Business Class, no separate checkouts for different sorts of customers. The only difference is the supermarket we choose, be it a Pak’nSave, a Countdown, or a New World.

So I’m sure there will be unanimous agreement within our sector that once a person steps inside any one of the hundreds of supermarkets up and down New Zealand, everyone – and I mean everyone – should be treated with respect.  All in agreement? Excellent.

I make this point because over the past few months I’ve fielded some disturbing reports from members of the Food & Grocery Council about the poor treatment of sales representatives and merchandisers in-store. I will emphasise that it’s a handful of stores, and it’s not the norm.  

Some of these reports I have raised directly with the supermarket chain concerned.

Now, I’m not talking about the odd failure to maintain business courtesies in-store. I’m talking about rather big failures, the “OMG your mother would be embarrassed if she could see you now” sort of tantrums.

The worst case reported to the FGC office this year was a Pak’nSave store buyer whose verbal abuse and outrageous behaviour on a number of occasions (and in front of competitors) left more than one rep crying in the car park.  The reports, from more than one member company, included reports of reps having documents thrown at them in front of their peers, and verbal abuse being hurled from the buyer to even the Managing Director.  It was clear that this store needed to lift its game. I understand it has done so since FGC’s complaint to Foodstuffs North Island, which was swiftly dealt with. 

Store managers, owners, and particularly store buyers should be aware that maintaining a positive business culture in-store will be one of FGC’s interests in 2014. The FGC office has always been a collection point for complaints, but next year we will be keeping an even more watchful eye by surveying our members to get better feedback on the treatment of all their people in stores.

This will include our members’ reports on a store’s approach to health and safety. This issue has already been a focus of FGC’s, particularly following the investigation into the appalling Pak’nSave Taupo forklift accident in February last year. Of course, all in-store accidents are noteworthy, but this one had a particularly chilling effect on the supply community.  The accident was horrific and completely unnecessary, and resulted in a prosecution and fine of $22,000 with reparations of $15,000. Of course, all cold comfort to the poor merchandiser who had a foot crushed and two toes severed.  

But back to the issue of everyday exchanges. In some stores, improvement can come simply by concentrating on how our FGC members are treated and spoken to. It doesn’t affect a supermarket’s profitability for a store buyer (or other relevant staff) to be pleasant and professional.  It’s also the non-verbal communication that is important. We all know that supermarkets are busy places , and even with the best time management things can occur that require changes to appointments. But leaving a rep sitting in a waiting room for hours on end without the courtesy of an acknowledgement (goodness forbid an apology) isn’t good business practice – it’s just rude.

So, what can be done? Well, it doesn’t take a lot to make improvements. The culture in-store generally comes from the top down. If a store leader gives the impression that treating reps and merchandisers rudely is okay, then staff get the impression that they can do it too.  If a store leader has a reputation of being “tough, but fair”, staff generally reflect this culture in their dealings.  Likewise, if a store buyer ends up being described in writing as “a bit of a bully and very arrogant” (an example of some feedback this year) then one wonders what it is about that store’s environment that creates that impression that treating suppliers badly is appropriate. 

I’ve always been a big fan of the Albert Einstein approach. He said “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”  Sam Morgan, formerly owner of TradeMe, had a different way of summing up business conduct, and this survives as core to the company’s values to this day.  In the company’s last annual report in black and white was TradeMe value No 7: “Don't be a dick. This means what it says. It’s all about treating people with respect, being responsible and keeping a sense of humour.” Sam Morgan said this on TV, and it has stuck with the company ever since. It’s not the way we’d say things in the grocery industry but we all understand his message about business conduct.