A Grocer That Watched and Listen to Moms
Just over 40 years ago, Stew Leonard Sr. saw the pain firsthand when he accompanied his sister (a mother of eleven children!) on her weekly grocery trip. Normally positive and upbeat, he witnessed her left reeling and complaining from the experience. At that moment he was inspired to create a grocery store that would transcend its category by not only providing quality products and services at a good price but also an entertaining environment. With its Disney-style singing and dancing anthropomorphic characters alongside live animals and fresh produce (often locally sourced), Stew Leonard’s soon came to be regarded as a local attraction, a fun activity for families to enjoy together.
In the design of his shopping experience, Stew Leonard let himself be further influenced by the other women in his family: his wife and mother of his four children, Marianne Leonard, and daughters, Beth Leonard Hollis and Jill Leonard Tavello. Described as the “backbone of the business,” Mrs. Leonard refused to allow her husband to run the store like “all the others” and was instrumental in Stew’s no quibble return policy. Some years later, Beth, having recently returned from apprenticing in a bakery in France, suggested to her father that the store needed its own in-house bakery where all baked goods would eventually be prepared from scratch. The young Beth was given free reign to develop the department—despite the wishes of the middle-aged male advisors that had Mr. Leonard’s ear—and today the bakery is one of the biggest draws for customers.
Beth, along with other family members who now constitute the management team, have followed on from their father’s lead and spend much of their time listening (and responding) to the needs, wants and concerns of their shoppers: “You cant be in an office and know what the customer thinks.” She spends a lot of time walking the floor talking to both customers and staff to identify opportunities and trends. Recent research led innovations at the store, including new and planned gluten-free baked goods and the introduction of an interactive kiosk to allow customers to pre-order from the service deli.
Reducing Waste to Pass Savings on to the Customer
The public at large is becoming increasingly aware of both the economic and environmental cost of food wastage. With an estimated 40 percent of the U.S. food supply ending up as waste, and a large part of that attributable to supermarkets, it’s worth drawing attention to the many waste-reducing (and, ultimately, cost saving) initiatives Stew Leonard’s has in place:
- All of Stew Leonard’s fresh food is made in-house so the company has a lot of control over its inventory. If customer traffic is slowing due to bad weather, they reduce or even stop production. Similarly, if a batch of bananas in the produce department is on the verge of over-ripening, it’s dispatched to the bakery to make banana bread.
- You won’t see two ketchups at Stew Leonard’s. The store only carries 2,000 items (compared to around 30,000 for a traditional supermarket) and is committed to selling only what sells, again avoiding wastage. In addition, as these “best of the best” products are sourced from vendors “by the truckload,” Stew has considerable clout when negotiating wholesale prices.
- Free samples at every turn, often prepared in full view. If the shopper feels comfortable about how to prepare a product or recipe and, more importantly, their child is found to like it, the likelihood of the food going to waste at home is reduced.
Another thing shoppers notice is the caliber of Stew’s staff. The store only hires nice people: “You can train people to use the cash register or make a bagel but you can’t be trained to genuinely care for people.” In addition, Stew Leonard’s does a great job of creating an entrepreneurial spirit. Employees are encouraged to suggest new products to carry as well as use their own judgment when it comes to responding to situations in the store. There is no rulebook. If a child drops their ice cream, it’s ok to give them another one; or if a disabled customer is having trouble negotiating one of the displays, it’s ok to move it. Examples of exceptional customer service are applauded at weekly team meetings, in the monthly newsletters and through the award of “Moo Notes” that translates to a free lunch.
A Loyal and Influential Fan Base
Stew Leonard’s has attained an enviable position with a loyal, broad and influential fan base. The store attracts many celebrity chef book signings, and when Stew Leonard’s announced the launch of its new “crogel” (a cross between a croissant and a bagel) via its Facebook page, the news was picked up and covered by a large number of bloggers. Staff and customers view the regular film crews operating in the store as another “part of the Stew experience.”
A Slow Growth Strategy
Bad news for moms and dads outside of the Connecticut area, however, as Stew Leonard’s is not planning a national expansion any time soon. With three stores based in the Connecticut area and one in Yonkers, NY, the company’s slow growth strategy is a conscious effort not to dilute the integrity of its relationships and brand.