The Big Box That Could’ve, But Didn’t.

By: Gordon Conner

I have a story to tell. Every day I read about how companies try to do all the right things to build their brand and improve their attachment to their customers. I read about logos and taglines, and content, and blog posts, and advertising, and about how to make the customer’s experience special. Well, today I have a story of a situation that happened to me just last week. A brand that I was doing business with had the opportunity to deeply entrench their brand with me, but they blew it!


Here’s what happened. I had just come from my morning gym workout, and as I often do, I dropped into the local Kroger store to pick up a few miscellaneous items. I made my way through the store quickly and headed for the checkout line. I noticed the express line was empty, so I naturally went for the fastest exit. After unloading the few items from my cart (approximately $20 worth), I reached for my debit card, which is all I carry when I go to the gym.


Whoa! No debit card!


I panicked. “Where could it be? Had I dropped it at the gym? Had I left it at home?” And it hit me-I had totally forgotten everything that morning, except my car keys. I was stunned! What to do? The clerk was just about to ring up my items, when I yelled, “STOP! I don’t have any money!”


I explained that I just came from the gym and realized I left my debit card at home. Then I offered a heart-felt apology to the clerk, who I had dealt with for several years. He said “No problem” (one of my least favorite expressions) and proceeded to remove the items from the belt and cancelled the transaction, with no further comment. So I left with my head between my legs.


What just happened here?

Kroger is a big organization. They didn’t get that way by giving away food. They are highly respected, have great market share in the Richmond market, and get the highest customer satisfaction ratings. They are my favorite grocery store chain these days, just like they were in my childhood back in Roanoke, before they, or I, ever came to Richmond.


Now, let’s go back in time about ten years. I had a similar incident happen to me in a Ukrop’s store, also here in Richmond. My wife and I were doing our weekly shopping, but this time we had a full market basket (maybe $200 worth). The same situation occurred, except we were completely rung up and ready to pay, when I realized I had forgotten my wallet. I was obviously extremely embarrassed and offered my deepest apology again. Well this time was a little different. The clerk summoned her superior and explained the situation. The superior offered to let us leave with the groceries and they would hold the receipt at customer service until we could return to take care of it. We were obviously very appreciative of the Ukrop’s approach to this situation and returned within the hour to pay for the purchase. We had been loyal Ukrops customers and the store employees knew it. They knew that they could trust us to make good on the receipt. As the result of this occurrence, we obviously remained loyal Ukrop’s customers until Martin’s bought them. It hasn’t been the same since.


And the lesson is?

So what did we learn from this exchange. I was a loyal customer of both stores. The situation was the same at both. But the outcome was totally different. I have no complaint against Kroger. They are a great grocery chain and have grown tremendously over the years. It’s a real pleasure to shop in their stores and their customer service is typically very acceptable, as far as grocery stores go. But Kroger is no Ukrop’s. Sure they are much bigger. But bigger isn’t better for many people. Many of us want the kind of service that only a local business can offer. We want to be treated like a friend, a neighbor. Most of us don’t want to fight the sameness of the big box stores any more than we have to. Kroger had the opportunity to make me a loyal customer for life. If the Kroger outcome had been more like Ukrop’s, they could have entrenched their brand with me forever. I’m sure this isn’t indicative of the Kroger customer service philosophy, and better employee brand training could have made all the difference. But now, if I have the opportunity to get what I need from a Ukrop’s-like merchant, with Ukrop’s-like service, I’ll have to think about it.


About the Author

 Gordon at St. John

Gordon Conner is a Branding Consultant/Coach and Copywriter who helps build killer brands for small local businesses. He has been providing advertising, marketing, branding and copywriting services for 39 years and lives in Midlothian, Virginia. He can be reached at, or

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