There is brand loyalty, brand love and then there is the quasi-religious fervor that Wegmans inspires in its devotees.
There are lots of stores consumers like of course — and for fairly articulable reasons. If one were to extensively interview the average Whole Foods shopper for example, the likely speech they would hear would involve the importance of sustainable eating, organic food and ethical shopping. A regular Walmart or Costco customer, on the other hand, would be more likely to discuss the importance of getting a good value. An Amazon Prime or Instacart devotee might talk more about convenience.
A Wegmans woman or man is going to talk about Wegmans, and the wonderful experience they typically enjoy while they are there.
And in the age where every physical retailer is trying to combat the plague of falling foot traffic over the last few years, a small regional retailer winning the hearts and minds of the American shopper one store opening at a time is certainly something to take notice of. "Building a better customer experience," has become the rallying call of the brick-and-mortar store for the last 18 months as the anecdote to the intuitive convenience of shopping online. How is Wegmans doing it so well?
The truth is mostly in practice. Though Wegmans has caught on pretty recently, they've been around for quite a while. As it turns out, a hundred or so years of growth that for the most part has been slow but steady has been a pretty good recipe for building that customer experience.
So what's the secret? Well ...
Employees As Assets
Employment in the retail sector rarely gets much in the way of high marks. There are the horror stories — for example software-based scheduling run-amok that had workers required to be constantly on call and always unsure of what hours or how many hours they would be working in a week — that make the rounds in the headlines from time to time.
But even beyond some extreme cases where HR policy seemed overly influence by the work of Charles Darwin, working in retail can be both tough and hard to love. "The customer is always right" can be a hard line to toe in any event, especially when one interfaces with customers constantly and for minimum wage.
Which is why Wegmans takes a different line on its employees than many employers in the retail sector where many have simply made their peace with high turnover.
“Our employees are our No. 1 asset, period,” Kevin Stickles, the company’s vice president for human resources, told The Atlantic in 2012. “The first question you ask is: ‘Is this the best thing for the employee?’ That’s a totally different model.”
And it's a model that has continued to work for the mid-Atlantic grocery chain, which today has 85 locations. It is not an entirely wage-based model. Incidentally, cashiers start out above the minimum wage in most places but below $10 an hour ($9.40). But the Wegmans model does involve building a better employee — a grocery expert of sorts. That includes some fairly out-of-the-box thinking, including shipping their butchers out to Colorado, Uruguay and Argentina for a better education in beef or sending forth deli managers to Wisconsin, Italy, Germany and France to learn about cheese. It's not a cheap effort, but it is an investment that Wegmans believes nets them maximum customer loyalty.
“When you think about employees first, the bottom line is better,” Stickles argued. “We want our employees to extend the brand to our customers.”
Plus knowledgable employees matter when you operate stores as large as Wegmans. Typical locations are 80,000 to 120,000 square feet - roughly doubling the square footage of the typical grocery store. And in that super-sized space is a super-sized product array, with 70,000 or so brands being offered on average.
It is also a mentality, Stickles notes, that Wegmans is able to maintain because they are privately traded, unlike many of their competitors in the marketplace. This means Wegmans has the flexibility to invest in their workforce, because they are more able to think about the long term and are less beholden to the the quarterly results.
"Some of that is that public mentality,” Stickles noted. “The first thing they think about is the quarter. The first thing is that you cut labor.”
The other big secret to Wegmans success is their continual expansion and updating of their offerings for their customers - and a focus on serving a diverse cross-section of needs while customers are already in the store.
That has meant a recent focus and push into health services, which recently has come to include the installation of higi health stations across their store locations.
The health stations can be used monitor blood pressure, BMI, weight and pulse – and will be installed throughout Wegmans' corporate locations and all retail outlets in Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia over the next few months.
"We are thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to Wegmans' success through our shared vision of making health and wellness part of the everyday lives of those who we touch," stated Jim Farrell, higi SVP partner sales, according to a press release. "higi looks forward to helping Wegmans further its legacy of innovation and customer service to make every Wegmans store a place to stay healthy, be social and have fun."
The integration of the higi health monitoring stations is a part of an overall move on the chain's part to encourage better health habits for its customers, though it is the first big technological push. The grocery chain has also instituted various health challenges around eating and nutrition to inspire and involve its customers, and a spokesperson confirmed they've seen "strong and growing" customer interest.
"Fitness is always better as a group goal," the spokesperson noted.
And for Wegmans it seems it is all about the group, specifically the group that defines itself primarily as Wegmans shoppers. Their challenges are notable; they run a big oversized shop in an era when everyone is trying to figure out how to get smaller, and they are regional chain in an environment that is all about going national.
But Wegmans isn't just winning fans so much as converts who want to shop with them, and only them. Which means something they are doing is working just fine.