At Stew Leonard’s Deciding Who to Serve First

I had a fascinating trip recently to Stew Leonard’s where I witnessed employees having a conversation about customer service. If you aren’t familiar, “Stews” as we affectionately call it started in 1969 and is a huge grocery store in TMC’s home town of Norwalk, CT which features a small zoo, ice cream area and loads of mechanical creatures singing and dancing to entertain the kids while the parents spend, spend and spend. They part with so much of their money in fact that the store was in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1992 for having the most sales per unit area of any single food store in the US. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! deemed it “The World’s Largest Dairy.”


TMC even gave the company an award for awesome customer service some years back. How serious is the company’s commitment to customers? At the front of the store there is a 6,000 pound piece of granite with this carving:

  • Rule #1: The customer is always right!
  • Rule #2 If the customer is ever wrong, reread rule #1.


Here are some stats from an article I wrote about the company in March of 2000 – the exact month of the internet bubble burst which isn’t related to this entry but puts some perspective on the timing.

  1. Over 100,000 shoppers visit each week
  2. They have been written up in the Guinness Book of World Records for selling more orange juice than any other store in the world
  3. The products at Stew Leonards are sold 7 to 10 times faster than other grocery stores
  4. Many shoppers come from more than 50 miles away to shop at Stews.

Apparently the buzz I overheard in the store had to do with Stew Leonard JR. (pictured above) the charismatic son of the founder of the grocery store who came to work and saw a line. He hates lines it seems. So a worker had to determine whether to serve him or the people in line. I’ve been fortunate enough to be out to dinner at a restaurant where a few tables away Stew Junior was having a meeting with his workers and getting them revved up. He is really good at motivating based on my 30-45 minutes of listening to the man pitch the company and why it’s a great place to work.

But getting back to the workers – there was a discussion about what you do in this situation… Do you serve the owner or do you serve the customers in line. One person said you serve the customers while another said you ALWAYS serve Stew first.

And this got me thinking – obviously the reason Stew and in fact every other company is in business is because of customers. Rarely do companies deem they have too many people purchasing from them – especially in this economy. So the correct answer to me is you serve the customers first, clear out the line and then get to founder’s son.

For a company which is as customer-focused as Stew’s this seems like a no-brainer.

And more importantly this discussion reminds us of the value of our customers – the importance of servicing them quickly and the need to ensure they are always treated so well they want to come back for more.

As more business moves online, we have to remember that sometimes the intangibles like having a stone in front of your store which makes customers feel good don’t easily translate to the web. This is why we need to be sure to come up with new and innovative ways to ensure customers know we care about them – even as more interactions are automated.

So maybe now is a good time to reexamine your CRM strategy and how you interact with customers in your contact center, on Twitter and Facebook. After all, when the customer feels welcome and they are treated like royalty, Stew Leonard’s amazing success reminds us they have no problem emptying their wallets to purchase loyally from you.

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