I would like to say that customer service can make or break a company, but the truth is that, in most cases, price ultimately wins out when it comes to where people buy their goods. During the early days of our marriage, Jennifer and I lived in Brentwood, TN, and we shopped at 3 different grocery stores (Kroger, Publix and Harris Teeter) near our apartment every week, taking advantage of the different sales and coupons at each store. Several years (and homes) later, we live in Jennifer’s hometown of Guntersville, AL, and while our selection of grocery stores is different than it was 8 years ago, I still shop at multiple grocery stores each week, largely based on prices.
Now that I am the primary grocery-shopper for our family, I have developed a weekly routine of first going to Walmart to buy the bulk of our groceries and household necessities, and then I stop at Publix to grab sale items, along with some produce and meats that are simply better quality at Publix. There are a couple other local grocery stores here in our small town, but I try to keep things simple by just going to 2 stores, as I do not want to be gone all day grocery shopping.
I have bounced between these 2 stores enough times to know them both very well. When it comes to everyday prices, Walmart hands down wins that battle. For most items, it is not even close. However, Walmart’s prices rarely change, and sales are not a major part of their pricing strategy. The only “sale” items I usually get at Walmart are beef and chicken that are on manager’s special because they need to be used or frozen within the next 2 days.
Publix on the other hand has great sales, particularly their B1G1 (Buy 1 Get 1 Free) sales. It is common for me to stock up on our favorite cookies, crackers, chips, etc. when they are B1G1 at Publix. Also, after years out of the couponing game, Publix has brought me back in recently. Not only do they have coupon dispensers around the store with manufacturer’s coupons, but Publix also has paper coupon inserts (with in-store coupons) available at the front of the store right next to their weekly ads. Jennifer also told me about Publix digital coupons (Download the Publix App for iOS.), where you just enter your phone number at the register. The key to getting really spectacular deals at Publix is finding the perfect combination of digital coupons, manufacturer coupons, in-store coupons and B1G1 sales.
Walmart has no digital coupons, coupon dispensers or in-store coupons. However, the Walmart app (Get the app for iOS.) does have a great feature called “Savings Catcher.” You scan in your receipt, and Walmart price checks your entire order against locally advertised competitor prices. If Walmart finds any lower prices, they credit the difference to your Savings Catcher account, which can be loaded onto a Walmart gift card.
A few days ago I was having a great shopping day, racking up on amazing deals at Publix, and when I had some questions about their sales policies, I realized how easy it was to get answers and friendly service at Publix. When I was checking out I continued to notice how great their service was, which got me thinking about just how vast the difference is between the two stores when it comes to customer service.
FINDING ITEMS AT WALMART
Have you ever had trouble finding an item at Walmart? The average Walmart Supercenter stocks about 142,000 items, so it is not surprising that everytime I need help finding something, the Walmart employees usually have no idea where to find the item. Some Walmart employees do know their small area of the store well, but how can any employee possibly know all 142,000 items? You would think that with an inventory that large, they would organize the store in a way that is really simple and straightforward, but all too often Walmart intentionally hides items in some random corner, far away from similar items, forcing you to walk all over the store on a pseudo-scavenger hunt. I honestly believe Walmart’s theory is that the more you walk the store, the more random junk you pick up along the way. When it comes to these hidden items, employees are just as confused as the customers, and it is usually more trouble than its worth to even ask for help. At Walmart, you are usually better off going it alone, and I think Walmart wants it that way so they do not have to spend as much money on well-trained customer service representatives. This is also a reason that I buy so much stuff on Amazon that I used to buy at Walmart. It is easier to search and click on what I need from Amazon then to waste 20 minutes walking down every aisle of Walmart looking for milkshake straws.
FINDING ITEMS AT PUBLIX
Publix is generally better at keeping items stocked in a logical manner, with a few exceptions. For example, I spent quite awhile looking for sweet tea at Publix, only to finally find it in a very small fridge by the fresh deli meat, nowhere near any of the other refrigerated drinks in the store. Hawaiian Sweet Rolls are also hidden in the deli section, instead of on the bread aisle. A key difference is that Publix employees know where these items are located, and it seems that every Publix employee knows the whole store very well. Not only do they know the store well, but they are friendly and usually eager to point you in the right direction. You do not have to be afraid to ask for help at Publix. The customer service counter at Publix really is a place for customer service, not just a place to wait in a long line to make returns like it is at Walmart.
These are the real difference-makers at Publix. I should say the combination of cashiers and front service clerks (baggers) makes the difference. Think about the quality of Chick-Fil-A service (at nearly every Chick-Fil-A everywhere) compared to the typical fast-food service at many Wendy’s and Burger Kings. A similar comparison can be made between the service you receive when checking out at Publix vs Walmart. It is not necessarily that the service you receive at Wendy’s, Burger King or Walmart is awful (although it occasionally can be), but it is that the level of customer service you receive at Chick-Fil-A and Publix is often extraordinary. Here is an example of my experience last week checking out at Walmart and Publix about 45 minutes apart.
CHECKING OUT AT WALMART
My shopping cart was filled to the top on this very expensive trip to Walmart. I had more groceries than would fit on the conveyor belt at the register, but the cashier (working alone) filled up all the bags on her rotating bag loading device before I could get my shopping cart completely empty.
At this point another Walmart associate (who was literally just standing nearby doing nothing) came over to help. Kudos to her for helping (doing her job). She removed filled bags from the rotating bag loading device as I simultaneously continued unloading my shopping cart onto the conveyor belt. As she removed the filled grocery bags, she placed them in the empty area of my shopping cart, and after she moved a few bags, I had finished unloading the rest of my groceries onto the conveyor belt. There were obviously going to be many more bags to load into the shopping cart, but literally as soon as I was done placing items on the conveyor belt, this Walmart associate stopped helping with the bags. She immediately went back to standing nearby doing nothing.
Walmart cashiers bag your groceries after scanning them, but they do not place the bags in your shopping cart for you. They expect the customer to do this step, and the fact that a 2nd Walmart associate came over to assist, even just for a minute, was an oddity. Honestly I am used to putting my own bags in my shopping cart, and at the time I did not think much about it. However, placing these expectations on the customers means that if there is a line of customers with filled shopping carts, the speed at which customers move through the line (and the rate at which people become impatient) is not only dependent on the expediency of the cashier, but it is also dependent on the speed at which other customers load bags back into their shopping carts. Now add young, wild kids to the scenario, and this situation could quickly escalate from annoying to unbearable for a parent trying to grocery shop with kids. Having a trained, efficient bagger could really make all the difference in this scenario. In my particular example, why did the 2nd associate stop helping as soon as I was available to load the bags into the cart myself? This associate literally went back to standing 5 feet away doing nothing while I took over the bags, so why didn’t she just finish the job?
CHECKING OUT AT PUBLIX
I went straight from Walmart to Publix, where I quickly loaded up on some exciting B1G1’s. On this day I learned (at the Customer Service Counter) that if a Publix sale ad says “Limited Quantities Per Household” or something along those lines, it means that there is a quantity limit of 10 of that particular item per transaction. My kids LOVE jumbo pretzels, so I bought 10 boxes B1G1. I had enough deals that my shopping cart was full, and what happened at the register was quite different from the same scenario at Walmart 45 minutes earlier.
The Publix cashier was cheerful and friendly. The front service clerk was also very nice as he bagged my groceries and put the bags in my cart for me. After I paid the front service clerk offered to push my cart out to my car and load my groceries into my car for me. I almost always get this offer at Publix, but I always decline. Perhaps I do not want to feel ashamed when the Publix employee sees that my car is already loaded down with groceries from Walmart, so I unload my own grocery cart into my car. While this service is typical at Publix, this was not a typical day. It was 40º and pouring rain. Even in cold rain, the front service clerk at Publix was willing to cheerfully take my groceries to my car for me, while at Walmart an associate would rather stand 5 feet away staring at the wall than to load my grocery bags from the register into my cart (not to mention the idea of taking my cart to my car and unloading the bags in the rain).
I happened to be shopping child-free on this particular day, so while the immense differences in customer service did not go unnoticed or unappreciated, it did not affect me as much as it could have if I had the kids with me. What if this had been Christmas break? What if I had to get out in the cold rain with 3 young kids to buy groceries? The difference in these 2 scenes would have been multiplied if that were the case, and it would make me consider very hard about whether it is worth it to just spend a little extra and buy all my groceries at Publix. If we were wealthy and had more flexibility in our budget, then I would probably do all my grocery shopping at Publix just because of the customer service, and to avoid going to multiple stores, but for now price still wins.