Timely Leadership Lessons Working in a Grocery Story

I had a unique experience this weekend.

My daughter is part of her school’s student council (go Beecher-Dunbar-Pembine School District!) and my wife oversees the group. This weekend they had a fundraiser to raise monies for their group for teacher appreciation, school projects, as well as community outreach.

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This year, their fundraiser took place at a local grocery story. They needed an additional person and so I volunteered to be part of the morning shift. Most of the group worked at the multiple checkout counters bagging groceries for customers. At the exit, there was a student council sign with a kettle so people would have the opportunity to donate cash to the cause if they desired.

I was assigned to work with another student and stand at the entrance, smile, greet customers, hand out flyers, and give the spiel for why we were there.

“Good morning!” (with a chipper smile proudly wearing my Pembine t-shirt) “Our student council is bagging groceries today to raise funds for their special projects.” 

Some stared at me like I had just said, “Hi! I am going to follow you around the store and have awkward conversations with you!” But the vast majority smiled, took the flyer, and said “Thank you!”

Prior to us serving, there was a bit of training for our group led by a couple of managers and a store worker. Though I typically do not shop at this particular grocery store, I learned a lot about the culture of this organization and I was impressed. To be honest, I went in not thinking much about the training or any pre-conversations that were to be had with the group.

Though the training was not difficult, it was what was emphasized that caught be attention and caused me to remember it for later. These are transferable concepts, meaning that they can easily transfer to any leadership setting and overlay many different situations.

It is easy to get settled into a vocation and take for granted principles that should be emphasized with frequency. That was the case for me this past weekend. I came away with reminders that caused me to ponder how I was using them in my own setting.

Fresh ideas from a grocery store

And so here they are: leadership lessons I learned working in a grocery store.

Don’t trip up your customers

The manger was very clear with us that by working in their store, we were representing the store and their school. This applied to what we could and could not wear on the floor, to not chewing gum, to keeping cell phones in the back room, to keeping our hands out of our pockets when we were not busy.

In other words, doing these things did not make me a good employee, but they did clear roadblocks for how people perceived us in their store.

Good perceptions often lead to good experiences.

Is this not what we are to be in this world? Salt and light? And though my actions are ultimately not going to cause someone to be a believer in the Gospel, actions are able to clear roadblocks for people in how they perceive the Gospel. This is important because I never want my poor actions to so cloud people’s minds that the message of the Gospel is dull and lifeless because my life is a stumbling block to them.

One big happy family

Our interactions with customers were important to the manager because of family. And he was not just referring to all of the staff being family – he looked at all the customers as family as well. And as family, we (as workers) were to create an environment that made the customer want to hang out in the store with other family.

No request is too big; no question is too irritating. We “go big” for family.

This is an important principle of leadership – that a single interaction can be the cause of engagement to come back or a single interaction can be the cause of never coming back. There are no wasted conversations, meaningless interactions, or irrelevant encounters. Act as if every interaction is with family.

I go the extra mile for family and serve them gladly.

Anticipate needs

One of the ladies that trained our group was a worker at the store and my guess was she was one of their longstanding and valued employees. She had probably worked many years at the check out and bagging stations and took her role seriously.

And her management noticed it.

And one of the key points that I heard emphasized was to anticipate the needs of the customer. Give them what they want even before they know that they want it. And this comes about by paying attention and listening to both instructions and comments.

Think about the last time that a customer service agent actually anticipated your needs instead of you having to remind them that you are a customer and have needs.

I recently spoke with a customer service agent about switching my cable to their company. The price was lower, but what stood out was the way that this gentleman anticipated what he thought I might need based on listening to my conversation. In allowing me to speak, in choosing to listen, he made me feel valued. And by the end of the conversation, he had hooked me.

Look to create an amazing experience

To be honest, as I was listening to the training, I was thinking “what is the big deal? Paper, plastic? How we bag?”

But the more I listened, what the manager and his employee were telling us were ways to create an amazing experience for the customer. I was reminded of three principles:

  • The little details matter – they always matter
  • Expressing gratitude should be a core value of any person who serves another
  • You have a brief encounter with another person – make it count

Our training was very meticulous, down to what size bag to use for what types of items, to how we bag meals from the deli, to the precautions we take when bagging fruit with other items. And she was intense about the fact that we say “Thank you” to every single customer and do it with a smile.

Why did these things matter? Because this local grocery store was about creating an amazing experience for their customer. Every small and positive interaction resulted an overall experience.

And it impressed me the way that these employees understood the value of the amazing experience. How often am I looking for every interaction in my day to be of this nature?

Lessons beyond just the store

These four lessons go way beyond the doors of a grocery story. They are valuable lessons about people and how we use our vocation to serve others. I just finished a most intriguing book a couple of weeks ago. It is John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life.

This was a very thought-provoking read for me, but of the more impacting sections was why we should do our work well. Why should I create a people-centered culture, have a family atmosphere, anticipate needs, and look to create an amazing experience? Many would say because it builds good business and that is true. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with working for profit.

But as it relates to the Gospel, there is a much more valuable lesson for why our work matters – it is because people matter.

So the third way we make much of God in our secular work is by having such high standards of excellence and such integrity and such manifest goodwill that we put no obstacles in the way of the Gospel but rather call attention to the all-satisfying beauty of Christ. When we adorn the Gospel with our work, we are not wasting our lives. And when we call to mind that the adornment itself (our God-dependent, God-shaped, God-exalting work) was purchased for us by the blood of Christ, and that the beauty we adorn is itself the Gospel of Christ’s death, then all our tender adornment becomes a boasting in the cross.

Does this statement not help shape your view of the people with whom you cross paths in your work? All of these areas listed above, from the culture we create to the way we anticipate needs, all our ways to adorn the Gospel with our work.

It was a good day serving with my daughter’s student council, and the group came away with over $700 in donations, but it was the intentionality of how this business served their people that made the biggest impact on me that day.

Valuable takeaway from a grocery store.

I’d love to hear from you — please leave a reply below if you have any thoughts to add to the conversation.

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