Beyond the Checklist

Susser, The Pantry reap rewards from new-store standards programs

[The following is the final installment of a three-part series on participants of the 2010 CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop.] CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS & CARY, N.C. -- Consistently clean stores, excellent customer service and flawless facing belie the hard work that the industry's leading retailers put into the performance. And for two chains participating in the 2010 CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop, it goes way beyond checklists.

"We had a system, very traditionalgoals set, targets against performancethat was very much a checklist, and very typical for [image-nocss] the industry," Steve DeSutter, president and CEO of Susser Holdings Corp., Corpus Christi, Texas, told CSP Daily News. The company's Stripes stores ranked fifth in merchandising among the nine brands participating in the 2010 mystery shop.

Then, in 2009, Susser launched Operations Excellence, a closed-loop program that addresses five key areas of the store experience: the customer experience; a hot/fresh/delicious foodservice program; people excellence; cleanliness; and safety and security.

A team of operations specialists review each Stripes store from each of these angles on a quarterly basis "from curb to back room," and conduct monthly image surveys. The specialists create a record of each store's performance, track changes and work with store employees and management to help raise the level of execution.

"The Operations Excellence program goes way beyond the checklist into a much deeper dive into the business, a more granular discussion between the store manager, team members and specialists," said DeSutter.

He cited the continuous training aspect of the program. "Once a quarter, we will do a review of the store, and when we find an opportunity where someone was not following cleanliness or customer-service standard procedure, we coach to it right then," he said. "We're effectively continuously training year-round in the store.

In addition, once a quarter, a specially trained operations specialist walks each Stripes store with the store manager in a four-hour "Shoulder to Shoulder" review, examining the presentation of the site from a customer's perspective. Findings are imported into the Web-based tool; the store operator has 90 days to responds to any shortcomings, and must specify how they resolved the issue and how they will prevent it in the future.

"The outcome of that is it doesn't feel like an inspection; it actually feels like an educational, positive event," DeSutter said. "When [store employees] get a positive response, they take the initiative to affect change, as opposed to thinking they got caught or are in trouble."

The improvements thus far are impressive: Stockroom, restroom and floor and ceiling cleanliness, which were once cited as "an opportunity" for improvement at 36% of store reviews during fourth-quarter 2009, dropped to 24% by first-quarter 2010. Under customer experience, shoppers did not receive greetings 30% of the time during the fourth-quarter review; by first-quarter 2010, 19% of reviews noted inadequate greetings.

"We know 20% of the time, we're still not getting greeting right," said DeSutter. "I think that's quite impressive for a mystery-shop program, although our goal is 100%. We know we're 30% better than we were last quarter 2009, and we'll continue to get better now that can track it and manage against the target."

For mystery-shop participant The Pantry Inc., Cary, N.C., its Kangaroo CARES program aims at honing the company's ability to create a fast, friendly and clean environment for customers visiting any of its 1,649 stores across 11 states, mostly under the Kangaroo Express Banner.

Kangaroo CARES, launched in October 2009, stands for: Customers greeted, thanked and treated as guests; Always in-stock; Restrooms clean and properly supplied; Exceptional store conditions; and Speed of service. Based on the recent CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop results, in which The Pantry placed within a few percentage points of the contest leaders in areas of cleanliness (inside the store and out) and employee appearance, the Kangaroo CARES program seems to be having an impact.

"In order to ensure these standards are maintained, we developed a store visit form that our field management completes on a monthly basis in every store," said Brad Williams, senior vice president of operations for The Pantry. "At our corporate headquarters, it is also critically important to make sure that we support the stores in delivering the CARES standards, so we look at every project and task through that filter and commit only to the ones that help support fast, friendly and clean."

It's not as if cleanliness and an overall hospitable store environment are alien concepts to The Pantry, Williams assures. The CARES program merely creates more specific guidelines for improvement or, in some cases, drafted new procedures. For example, The Pantry's restroom-supply company provides training to stores initially, and will continue to do so quarterly to make sure standards are maintained.

"We also communicated new maintenance standards to every store and expedited response time, meaning they'll have a quicker response time for all issues that affect our guests," Williams said. For example, a lighting issue that, in the past, may have lingered for up to three days is now addressed within 24 hours. The retailer also increased its team of 30 in-house technicians.

"It creates pride in ownership, and we have experienced a cost savings as well," said Williams. The comments we've received early on through our own mystery-shop program show that our guests have noticed a change."

[For more on best practices from participants of the 2010 CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop, check out the August issue of CSP magazine.]