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Training & Business Systems

Strategic Merchandising

This may seem too simple to even mention, but I’m going to say it anyway: The work that we do in our merchandising makes a significant contribution—for better and for worse—on the quality of the service experience our customers get from us. As you know if you’ve read many of my other columns, a positive customer experience is an incredibly important part of developing customers who are loyal for life.

Expanding your thinking about marketing and merchandising beyond sales figures can guide you to strategies that dramatically increase customer satisfaction. It can be as simple as changing the lettering on a package.

Building a Better Bread Bag

Let me give you a simple but meaningful example of what I’m talking about. Zingerman’s Mail Order sells a lot of bread—it’s the single largest shipping product category for us, plus it’s in many of our gift baskets and boxes. It doesn’t taste as great as if you came here to our Bakehouse to buy it, but traditionally made, hard-crusted loaves like those we bake actually hold up quite well in the shipping. And, fortunately, these traditional loaves are great candidates for what we call “double baking”—you just pop the breads back into the oven for about 20 minutes at about 350ºF and, even six or seven days out from the oven, the bread will be crusty, warm and delicious.

However, our regular Zingerman’s Bakehouse bread bag has only a small (say 3 inch square) spot on the side panel where we mention this double baking. That’s appropriate for those taking the bread home from the store, but many mail order customers (who were paying premium prices) never noticed it on the copy-heavy bag.

Result? While most people were happy, there were many complaints. We heard: “Too hard,” “stale,” “overpriced.” The customer’s experience was not the amazingly great one we wanted to deliver.

Our solution was simple and effective: We changed the bag. We emblazoned really big across the front of the bag the words, “HUNGRY RIGHT NOW? DON’T EAT THIS BREAD!” followed by “HEAT BEFORE YOU EAT” in slightly smaller but still prominent lettering. Around these warnings are our basic instructions for double baking/reviving our bread.

The result: A 70 percent drop in complaints and costs almost immediately. With that reduction we also gained a number of unmeasured, but nevertheless meaningful, upsides—staff stress levels went down and employees had more time to spend on rewarding things, like helping happy customers get happier. Actual cost to us? Very little—just a one-time expense of designing the new Mail Order bread bag.

The bread bag is just one of ways in which we’ve come to realize that our merchandising work stands to impact the quality of our customers’ experience. We got the same kind of great results when we started putting “Cake Care Stickers” on the boxes of our special cakes. We used to hear a lot of “your cake is dry or hard” complaints. Why? As Sara Richardson, who manages the Bakehouse’s marketing, explained, “A butter cake with butter cream frosting is firm when cold and it’s not a pleasant eating experience.” By simply putting a sticker on the outside of the box that politely instructs customers to serve the cake at room temperature, complaints again have been reduced radically. The cost to us is only a few cents per sale on cakes that cost anywhere from $30 to $75.

Getting the idea? The more we work on this overlap between customer experience quality and merchandising, the more obvious the benefits can be.

Evaluating Signs, Brochures and Menus

What we write in our marketing materials or on our signs can create either big benefits or persistent problems. An inaccurate product description will lead a customer to expect something that’s different from what they’re going to get. And guess what? When they get something different than what they were expecting, they’re understandably unhappy.

This happened a few months ago when we offered scallion pancakes as part of the Chinese New Year special at the Roadhouse. They were about a ¼-inch thick, sort of like flatbread, and quite tasty. The problem was that because it was called a scallion pancake, a lot of customers were expecting lacy thin pancakes and would complain that what we’d served was way too tough and chewy. The answer? Change the menu copy. We simply altered the description on the menu to read, “a thick, scallion-laced ‘pancake’” and complaints dropped way down.

An effective description will often get customers wanting to buy what we’re selling. But even if they never make a purchase, good copy delights, entertains and informs. I can’t tell you how many people have said that they love reading our catalog from cover to cover. In the process, our marketing work has added to the quality of our customers’ days—they smile, they learn something and they have a positive experience in the process. I’m pretty confident that that upbeat energy is going to result in good word of mouth, and ultimately—either directly and/or indirectly—in bigger sales.

Making Sure Accuracy Happens

When you look at the link between customer experience and marketing, don’t miss the simple but all too often overlooked connection between accuracy in written materials and the service experience. Nobody notices if the materials are accurate, but make a mistake in copy or photos and you’re going to hear about it. Most of this is simple stuff—incorrect times for classes, etc.—but it can mess up the guest’s experience.

It’s also critical that the visual images we use in print or on our websites look like the products we are mentioning. Out-of-date illustrations of labels or packages in a catalog make it, at best, frustrating for customers looking for the item on the shelf. At worst they’re angry or feel misled because what they received didn’t look at all like what we “showed” them.

Then there’s the low integrity that comes from typos and misstated facts. Ten years ago we put a map of the U.K. into our newsletter as part of our annual British promotion. Unfortunately, we forgot to mark Wales properly and it looked like what’s really Wales was part of England. A handful of Welsh customers got worked up about it, and I can’t really blame them—having one’s national identity “eradicated” on the page can’t feel good. And it was clearly not the impression we wanted to give the customer about Zingerman’s.

Scrutinizing the Website

Your website is a great example of where the connection between customer experience and marketing work can be critical. When was the last time you sat down and worked your way through your site in detail? Not just the cover page, but also the stuff that’s sunk two, three, four layers down from the home page? If you’re like most of us, the answer is, not lately.

The problem is, for openers, our websites can quickly get stale—which is bad merchandising. And it’s not just that sites can feel or look blah. Often their content is downright wrong or outdated—and the customer experience that comes out of that isn’t going to be great. Solution? For us it’s been to establish a regimen that requires every one of us to take action in this area. Wednesday at Zingerman’s is now WEBnesday.

That means that every Wednesday each of us on the marketing team—about seven folks who work in our various businesses plus our central staff of six—spends five to ten minutes looking at their own website and one of our other ones (we have one for each of our businesses, plus our central intranet). All we do is write up a few notes of what we’ve seen, and then send them out to the rest of the group.

What’s great about WEBnesday is that it’s repetitive, self sustaining and easy. As I write, we’re eight weeks into it, and by my count we’ve invested about two hours a week total organizational time to do the work of looking at the websites and writing up the notes. I don’t count the work of making the changes because that’s work that we’re already supposed to be doing anyway. So let’s say we’ve spent 16 hours total time during those two months.

Does WEBnesday work? You tell me. For the 16 hours spent (and, fyi, that’s in the context of doing about $5 million in sales during the two months I’m talking about):

  • We’ve caught more than 70 errors on the website. Probably 80 percent of those or more were fixed within a day or so. It’s everything from inaccurate dates for holidays, out-of-date copy and lots of typos.
  • We’ve made more than 60 suggestions for improvement.
  • We’ve given more than 50 compliments to co-workers who write copy, design the sites, illustrate or source product. I didn’t even think about this part of the work when we got WEBnesday started. But it’s a nice thing. Fifty positive comments mean a lot of meaningful, well-deserved good energy flowing.

Improving the Point-of-Service Experience

The more you think about the merchandising and customer service connection, the more it becomes apparent that there are many ways to make guest experiences better. When we do this work well, sometimes the same small shift in P.O.S. and service process can actually increase sales, reduce staff stress and increase customer enjoyment all in one fell swoop. At the Roadhouse, we’ve long had an extensive list of oysters available every night. We have a nice signboard that hangs by the front door so that you can see the day’s offerings when you enter. Looked good, worked fine. If, that is, the customer happened to look at it, which unfortunately most didn’t. If they failed to see the board, we still hoped that the server made time to go over all the oysters we had in house. Good idea, happened sometimes, not always. The problem there was pretty simple and also understandable—we have a big menu and a lot of specials to keep up with

The solution to all of this was as simple as changing the Mail Order bread bag. Again, it was all in the merchandising. We now offer an oyster sheet listing the options with a one-line description of each oyster. Guests can then mark the type and quantity of oysters they’d like to order right off so that when their server gets there they can pick up the sheet and get the order moving more quickly. The results from this merchandising move? Oyster sales are up nearly 30 percent over last year. Staff stress is down because they no longer need to memorize new oyster options—which means more fun for the server, better sales and better tips for the staff, which likely leads to lower staff turnover. Which in turn is likely to improve customer experience, boost repeat business, enhance word of mouth in the community and so on. Cost to us? At most a couple of dollars a day to print the sheets.

Final Thoughts

We’re only at the beginning of the process of consciously tying our merchandising to the quality of the customer experience but as you can see the results are already tangible and positive. The more customers we shift into being what we call “promoters,” the more effective our word-of-mouth marketing is. Similarly, stats are showing that by reducing negative customer experiences, sales also go up.

Bottom line: The cost of doing this is small, the upside is huge. The shift is mostly mental. Pete Garner, who manages our marketing work, puts it this way: “We ask the simple question, ‘How can my work on this project radically increase the quality of the customer’s experience’” You have to step back and ask yourself that question about every project. Sometimes the answer is easy to implement, other times it makes more work but it’s worth it.

Four Ways to Improve Copy 

Here are a few things to be aware of when writing copy for any kind of marketing material:

  • USE “BEGINNER’S MIND.” Don’t assume that the reader is going to be familiar with what you’re writing about—effective copy is clear to everyone who’s going to read it, not just to someone with ten years of culinary experience. Copy that’s too technical for most of the audience reduces the quality of customers’ experience. It is likely to make them disengage, or at worst feel left out and angry.
  • WATCH OUT FOR UNINTENDED AFFRONTS. Running a bread class during Passover, having cheese made with animal rennet featured on a vegetarian special without marking it accordingly and so on are all ways that we in marketing can trip up if we’re not careful.
  • BEWARE OF COPY THAT SOUNDS TOO GENERIC. It sends the message that our products are generic as well. We put a particular emphasis on personalizing the copy in order to make it more engaging and to try to differentiate what we do from the rest of the marketplace.
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO OVERPROMISE. High-claims copy in our merchandising sets us up to overpromise and underdeliver. Saying that something we make is “the best in the country” or “better than your mother’s” is begging for trouble in merchandising work. I’m not saying one should never do it, but if you do, be aware of setting yourself up for a problem.