I waited in line behind a mom paying with food stamps. It showed me how our grocery chains have lost their way

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(David is a C-Suite financial executive who also provides coaching and inspiration to the next generation of leaders. He likes to turn mundane tasks like grocery shopping into learning opportunities.)

I recently had an experience that made me realize that maybe our Charlotte grocery stores shouldn’t be fighting over me.

In fact, I believe these grocery store chains have lost their way – blinded by the rabid effort to take one more shopper away from their rivals.

I was in line at one of the big stores in south Charlotte on a Sunday afternoon (naming them/shaming them is not the purpose of this story). A lady in front of me had two young children and was paying for her rather full cart. She did have some fruits and vegetables on the conveyor behind a divider, so I assumed she was going to pay for those separately. I was very content – hardly in a rush, so what looked like a short line seemed perfect for my Sunday grocery run.

In reality, she was “paying” for her food with what looked like a combination of checks and debit cards. I surmised they were somehow related to North Carolina’s version of food stamps.

After the big run of groceries, she proceeded to purchase six quart-sized bottles of baby formula – each one “paid” for with a check looking document, and each one rung up separately by the cashier who appeared to have to go through 15 steps each time.

The fruit was actually a separate type of document, and the cashier again had to struggle through a series of steps to ring it up correctly.

This obviously was taking some time, and the manager responded by opening another register. However, my stuff was already on the belt, in a particular order that I wanted it bagged (heavy stuff first, bread and eggs last). I was in no hurry, and I certainly was not angry. If anything, I was interested in how this whole system worked and why this grocery store did not program their registers to deal with it. Mostly though I was just chilling out –looking at gossip magazines and recipes, and checking my phone for fantasy football updates.

Finally, the mother was finished, and she turned to thank me for my patience.

It was certainly no problem from my perspective and I complemented her children for really being the patient ones.

As she departed the cashier told me she needed to complete one or two more pieces of paperwork before ringing me up. What could I say except, “take your time”?

At that moment, the store manager apologized for my delay and presented me with a $20 gift card for my troubles.

He said he “cringed” when he saw the number of transactions and realized I was “trapped” behind her.

Honestly I didn’t feel trapped, as I certainly could have reloaded my cart and gone to another register. It struck me as unnecessary but thoughtful that the manager was paying attention. My ego was stroked and I was a happy customer.

This is where I realized that the grocery store wars have created a “customer experience” mindset that is so frothed up the stores forget that we are there to just buy some groceries and get through the week.

The manager felt like he was doing the right thing, and by all standards of customer service he was.

I put the gift card in my pocket, paid for my groceries with my chip enabled credit card – a speedy process.

Then, in the parking lot I again ran into the mother and her two children. If anyone in this story could really use a $20 gift card it was her, so I gladly gave it to her. I just hope it does not complicate her checkout the next time she has to buy groceries.

What the store manager could have done was help his cashier speed up the process.

Food stamps or whatever program she was using should not take multiple steps and layers of paperwork. These transactions should be prompt and dignified, just like everyone else.

If the store manage gave her the $20 gift card because she was “trapped” by their systems, then I would have witnessed that kind act with a lasting impression that beats any other attempt at customer service.

The manager is a good soldier in these Charlotte grocery wars over my food dollars.

However, after being wooed by at least six different store brands, I have decided I really have no loyalty to any of them.

The simple model of clean stores, fresh food and reasonable prices works for me. Gift cards, cart escorts, free coffee – not so much.

Most of all, I am going to pay attention to who treats a food stamp recipient with respect, and as someone worthy of their service. I may even be giving out a few gift cards myself…

Cover image via 1Flatworld (Flickr)

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