New Seasons: Lessons Learned From the Retail World



This is not another post about how you need to design your library and library services after the bookstore world.  We are not bookstores.  Heck, most of our stuff is free!  But, we can learn from the retail sector.

If you are ever in Portland, go into New Seasons Market (grocery) wander around, ask for help, buy something.  I guarantee you that your shopping experience will be unlike most other grocery shopping experiences that you’ve had.  I think their tag line is something like “the friendliest store” and it really is true.  And it’s not the fake kind of friendly where they place underpaid, under insured worker at the front door to greet you.  These workers actually seems happy.  They are always willing to help you even if it is “outside” their area.  A deli worker will gladly take you to frozen food and point out all of their favorite dairy free ice cream flavors.  When you checkout, the cashiers are pleasant and chatty and it is not forced.  I think that they are not only treated well by the company; but, they are allowed to be themselves and it shows.  One of my coworkers at Powells went to New Seasons, filled up his cart, checked out and then realized he forgot his wallet at home.  Guess what the checker did.  She didn’t call management to ask for permission.  She didn’t make him run home to get his wallet.  She didn’t role her eyes and call someone to void his sale.  She told him to go home, with his groceries and to call in with the transaction number and his credit card.  Can you believe it?  They trust their customers and it pays off.  For every person that might stiff them in this scenario they create thousands of loyal, rabid fans.

One thing I’ve really decided on is my place in libraries.  It’s all about the patron and by that I don’t mean the patron is always right because there are numerous instances when they are not right.  What I mean is that I’m continually asking myself the question: is this providing better service?  How can I make this easier for patrons?  What are patrons most interested in? Do we have to say no?  It doesn’t really matter if your specialty is kids, technology, programming, reference.  We are all there to provide the best service possible.  Some of us, in addition to serving the public, serve our coworkers.

I just happen to work in a library with an outstanding IT department.  These are two of the most friendly, patient and helpful guys you could want on your team.  I have seen them sit with patrons and reconfigure their laptop so they could use our wifi.  They have come out to reference a million times to troubleshoot printing problems we should probably be able to fix ourselves.  If they kvetch about us, they do it privately and are always, always helpful and patient.  I’ve never, not once heard either one of them utter the words: that’s not my job.

I don’t live in Portland anymore and I truly miss the people that I befriended there.  And I miss New Seasons.  I miss the most pleasant grocery shopping experience I have ever encountered.  New Seasons is a place where you are never afraid to ask a question, always feel welcome approaching a worker and where 99.99999% of the time it is going to be a pleasant, positive experience.  I have never had a negative experience at New Seasons, though I did once (and only once) observe a worker get slightly grouchy with a customer; but, we all have off days.

I have heard that New Seasons puts all of their employees through an extensive customer service training program and they empower their frontline worker to make decisions so they are not calling managers (and making customers wait) to perform routine tasks such as voids, returns, etc.  These are excellent lessons for us to take back to our libraries.  Does your library have a statement or philosophy about service?  Are you training and being trained?  Are you empowered to make decisions?

Sometimes, I think I want to live in Portland just to be near the most extraordinary consumer staples: New Seasons and Powells (though, Powells leaves a lot to be desired in the customer service department).

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