Service at 1,000+ Supermarkets vs. a Pair of Bread Boutiques

May 5th, 2009

Categories: Attitude, Courtesy, Customer Service, Food, Manners, Retail, Service, Service Personality, Staffing

Off the bat, I’d guess that the service at an upscale Manhattan bread boutique with one branch would be a gazillion times better than in a supermarket with over a thousand outlets.

Not true.

According to Timothy W. Martin in “May I Help You?” an April 22nd Wall Street Journal article about the Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix supermarkets, the service in these groceries is superb. This is in contrast with my experience at a high-priced city bakery.

Martin wrote that one day the Publix president, Todd Jones, noticed a missing bagger in a St. Augustine branch. Like a great maitre d’ in a top restaurant, who picks up and delivers plates if need be, Jones pinch-hit for the bagger until a replacement arrived. And, Martin reports, in this economy the chain is maintaining its staffing and lowering prices to please current customers and attract new ones.

Back to New York City, I tried to buy a loaf of bread from an Upper East Side bread and muffin bakery and after waiting in line for what seemed a long time, noticed that the customers behind me were being helped. So after a salesperson had finished with his customer, I asked him about one of the breads in the window. He answered and walked away, mumbling, “I will be right back.”

He was gone. I was still waiting.

The next free salesperson, a woman, called out, “who is next?” and turned to the man behind me, asking him what he wanted. I said that I was next and she snapped, “Let me finish with him first.” He hadn’t ordered a thing–she hadn’t yet reached for a crust or crumb on his behalf.

But I’d had it. I stormed out of the store without a word. The customer she’d tapped called after me, “Ma’am, Ma’am,” but by then, I was beyond wanting to spend $4.00 for a small loaf of bread and to feel unhappy and angry at the same time. The bread was no longer a treat.

Got back to the office, looked at the bread boutique’s web site, found an e-mail address and dashed off a note describing my experience.  That was four days ago. I haven’t heard a peep.

Something tells me that Mr. Jones from Publix, with millions of customers, wouldn’t let an angry customer slip through his fingers as quickly as this bakery has.

I find it fascinating that a bigger retail operation can out-service a two-horse boutique. Can it be a regional issue? Some might blame a New York City attitude. I was born, brought up, live and conduct business here. I don’t treat people that way nor do I expect this kind of treatment from anyone at any price.

In a future post I plan to ask some experts to address how an operation with more than one branch assures good service. I’ve always been fascinated by how it’s done. The owners can’t be in two or a thousand places at once. What are your theories?

14 Responses to “Service at 1,000+ Supermarkets vs. a Pair of Bread Boutiques”

  1. Catherine Carlozzi Said:

    It’s not a matter of big or small but of training employees to go the extra mile. I live in a town with a large number of upscale boutiques and I’ve experience all levels of service in them. Our local baker went the extra mile when I ordered 2 doz. scones and decided to buy the “fixins” from her other business instead of Whole Foods. She gave me a discount and threw in some extra scones. We have two Whole Foods and the level of service depends on the individual employee. The floral manager in one goes out of her way but forget the seafood dept. One day, I had a question in the produce dept. and the manager couldn’t be bothered to get an answer but a shy employee sidled up to me and quietly did. Sometimes it comes down to whether you’re dealing with the proprietor or an employee, but good proprietors select employees in their mold — people who are personable and service-oriented.

  2. PJS Said:

    I had to respond to this comment for two reasons: 1. I lived in northern Fla for 13 years where Publix was the grocery store in my town–they truly provide quality customer service; so much so that you hardly notice–it’s just how it’s done, no problem. Even the manager recognizes you by name. This went for ALL Publix stores. 2. Yes, all this politeness is a southern thing

  3. KF Said:

    Ditto for the kudos for Publix. As you know we spent over a month with our cousin in Naples, FL. The only supermarket there is Publix, so they have a monopoly. Yet, their service is outstanding. Sales help practically take you by the hand to find the item you’re looking for and with a smile, not a frown. We went to a few different locations, and in each case, the friendliness was there. Sure wish they’d come north.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Training, that Catherine addresses, is a big part of the answer. So is management’s approach. I’ve not met the owners of the bakery and they may be gracious, charming and helpful–but I tend to doubt it.

    What makes me wonder is that they go to tremendous trouble to produce an excellent product and then let the ball drop in mid-swing. Details, details–always essential.

    I happen to know that PJS now lives in California and KF in the New York metropolitan area–two firsthand, long distance, recommendations for Publix!

  5. CF Said:

    I would have walked out of the bread bakery too :). It never makes you feel better when you make a ruckus! It just keeps you in the moment longer. We have to believe they noticed they lost a sale as a figurative point was made.

  6. RP Said:

    The founder of Publix (George W. Jenkins) was the force behind the Publix culture which is to be a servent to the customer…It was passed down from generation to generation. Today, the focus has not changed it is still talked about everyday, in every store in the company. Associates at Publix also because of Mr. George (as he is known) have a vested interest, the company issues stock in the company to associates every year. So in the truest sense of the word, the associate who serves you actually is an owner of the company.

  7. Simon Carr Said:


    You and your readers may have a point about training, I admit. But there is a lot more than that to it. I believe smallness is the key. Small towns have less crime. Good managers who hands on manage small stores have a better chance of delivering better results.

    I haven’t been in a Publix in almost decade, and I also admit that in the one I was last in, in Ponte Vedra, Florida, everyone was very nice. At the time, I wrote off the “niceness” as being a “Southern” phenomena. On the other hand, their bread was that ghastly routine pasty sliced white. My Italian uncle refused to eat it.

    Would Publix have ordered real bread to satisfy one customer? I doubt it. However, when I go to my “hole-in-the wall” fish store, it’s a pleasurable experience and I get good fish.


  8. Iris Bell Said:

    One of the techniques in retail is to teach every person in the business to imagine a number on the forehead of each customer.

    The number is the amount of money they’ll spend, on average, with the company over their lifetime. This prospective customer may be here to buy a $4 bread, but the company assures the clerk that the average person will spend thousands of dollars–even a quarter of a million dollars–in the shop over their lifetime.

    So picture that dollar amount on their forehead and treat them accordingly. And the managers and owners must be seen doing that anytime they’re in the store.

  9. Ray Pursifull Said:

    I had the pleasure to work at Publix for 38 years, and I can honestly say I loved every day of it…When I started to have some health issues about 3 years ago I did everything I could to try to rehabilitate myself so I could continue working at Publix and with my fellow Associates and customers who I loved so much.

    It was not to be, but the real story is that so many of my co-workers stay in touch on a weekly basis….you see once you’re in The Publix Family you’re always a family member.

    Recently I mustered enough energy to attend a new store “open house” close to my home. While there CEO Ed Crenshaw, who makes it his business to attend these events, saw me and made a bee line across the store to greet me and inquire how I was and then he thanked me for attending that evening……Publix and all the leadership and associates are truly unique, I don’t believe it will or ever could be duplicated but many have tried….. I am just blessed to have been a part of it all….thanks to “Mr. George”!

    Many years ago Publix had a President, whose name was Joe Blanton. He followed Mr. George as the company President. You might have guessed, we called him “Mr.Joe”…We were a small company back then, under 150 stores only in Florida.

    Mr. Joe had a real ability to remember names. One day he was visiting the store where I was working so I took off my name tag as he approached me and I asked him, “how can you remember all of our names?” His answer was classic. He said, “Well Ray, I remember them because it’s important to me.”

    I never forgot that and I did my best to try to remember everyone’s name from that day forward….Just a postscript to this story, at the time I was just out of high school, attending college, and my job description was “bag boy”, yep, he even knew my name…..I think that was the day I decided that Publix was my home. –Ray Pursifull, retired Publix district manager

  10. SCL Said:

    I want to tell Simon Carr that Publix sells the best olive bread—it’s our favorite. There are two stores near where we live in South Carolina, the “old” one that been here one or two years and a new one.

    We went to the most convenient one and discovered that they were out of olive bread which we needed for a party the next day! They asked what time our guests were coming, we said we were having a brunch, and they had a loaf for us at 8 a.m.

    When we used to visit my Mom in Florida, one of the first things she’d suggest we do is go with her to Publix. She’d introduce my husband to the staff and she knew their names—I remember Margine in produce–and they knew hers. The young people were wonderful to her.

    My husband had a PET scan the other day. It lasted 3 hours and the technician told him not to go near pregnant women because he’d been injected with so much radiation. “Don’t tell me I can’t pay a visit to Publix,” is precisely what he said. It’s such a pleasure shopping there–it’s a highlight of anyone’s day.

  11. PJS Said:

    Wow, this could really turn into region vs. region.

    Of course the Italian bread is better in NY; biscuits would be ghastly in NY– they are a southern phenomena. Would a baker in a northern grocery order up some nice angel biscuits for a customer? I think a good customer service response would be to empathize with the customer—“sorry, I don’t think we have that here. I’ll bet you really miss that (fill in the blank). Would you like to try our…?” Publix is a huge grocery chain–they provide good service within those confines.

    ACK!! I must be a Miss Scarlett reincarnated!!

  12. RP Said:


    My mother’s family is also from Italy and they prefer bread baked, let me say “well done” ….but as you may know every area of the world wants bread baked in a way that they remember from their homeland.

    However at Publix if you let them know how you want it done….they will bend over backwards to please you, trust me….

    Ray Pursifull
    Publix Super Markets (Retired)

  13. Simon Carr Said:

    This one is for Jeanne and Ray. It goes under the heading to quote Bernard Shaw, “You Never Can Tell.”

    Ray — I once worked for a CEO who was absolutely charming, knew everyone’s name, and exuded “caring.” He had only one identifiable flaw. He was ethics impaired. His key employee was his very smart lawyer, whom he consulted about every corner he wanted to cut, and cut it he did as long as his lawyer told him he could get away with it.

    But I do agree with you that it makes all the difference when you have a tough job to do, if you work for a supportive boss.

    Jeanne – I stopped by a bread boutique at the Grand Central market last night, perhaps a branch of the one you went to, to buy a loaf of bread. The place was jammed with people elbowing each other out in classic New York fashion.

    I caught the eye of a thin sour-looking woman with a hard-bitten, prematurely aged face, and feared for the worst, but then I caught a glimmer of an Italian accent as I asked about what to buy and let slip a couple of Italian words.

    Suddenly that tough face broke out into a radiant smile, which knocked a couple decades away and made her look almost pretty. She turned to ask me, “Ma lei parla Italiano?” We exchanged just a few quick words. The place was really busy. However, she had made my day, and the bread was delicious.


  14. RP Said:

    Simon, I sure understand your thoughts about CEO’s and for all the bad press these days about CEO’s not all are bad or without ethics…I’m sure you have a well founded reason to have a bad tast in your mouth based on your experence.

    I can tell you that at Publix we were so blessed to have had outstanding CEO’s but we truly operate differently since we are an Employee Owned Company. Just think about that, the CEO truly does work for the workers who are the stockholders. We all pull together, cause we are all in the same boat. We don’t have this us against them going on. No wonder Publix has been so successful, thanks to our founder George W. Jenkins who set it up this way.

    Ray Pursifull
    District Manager (Retired)

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