Product Managers Take Steps To Protect Their Customers

Product managers have to adjust to dealing with customers who pose a risk
Product managers have to adjust to dealing with customers who pose a risk
Image Credit: Dean Terry

Product managers know that making our customers fall in love with our stores, our staff, and our brand is a critical part of our ability to be successful. This is why over the past few years there has been a big push by product managers to find ways to pamper our customers. With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, we now have to take a step back, change our product development definition, and find ways to keep our staff safe while still trying to connect with our customers.

The Wegmans Product Management Problem

A good example of what I’m talking about is going on over at Wegmans. Wegmans became a well-known grocery store chains by pampering its customers with lots of cooking demonstrations, restaurants and movie nights. Now their product managers have to view every customer as a potential risk to their staff. The store’s food bars, which sell everything from pizza to sushi, had to be closed. Its free samples are gone. It has removed varieties of pasta sauce, yogurt and butter as instead Wegmans loaded up on basic staples. Its stores now feature plexiglass dividers at cash registers and more security guards to make customers behave themselves.

The problem that Wegman’s is facing is not unique to them. It’s a core problem for many businesses that constructed a culture around indulging the customer. Walt Disney Co., known for taking care of its customers at its theme parks with an extreme attention to cleanliness and order, plans to reopen Disney World with mandatory temperature screenings, a “social-distancing squad” that will encourage visitors to stay 6 feet apart and no meet-and-greets with favorite Disney characters. On the other hand, Nordstrom Inc., a department-store chain famous for its personal styling, is warning customers that specialized services like alterations, skin care and beauty makeovers may be unavailable as it reopens certain locations.

The businesses that might have an easier time of this transition are those that refrained from overpampering when times were good. Warehouse style retailers like Costco Wholesale Corp. and Home Depot Inc. long ago designed their stores to be more utilitarian. Before the pandemic started Wegmans had one of the strongest customer followings of any supermarket in the country. Its most loyal shoppers turned up for store openings. It generates nearly $10 billion in annual sales and employs 52,000 employees.

How To Treat Customers Well While Holding Them At A Distance

Product managers saw that their loyalty among customers and workers was tested as the pandemic spread. At Wegmans this culminated in shoppers buying loads of nonperishable foods and household products, clearing the shelves while fresh food sections remained quiet. Wegmans executives realized then that the grocer would have to reorganize its business – immediately. The company closed the large on-site restaurants which comprise roughly 10% of its sales. In-house chefs have been redeployed to work registers, run sanitation and manage carts in parking lots. Seafood departments stopped displaying fish on ice and deli counters stopped slicing deli meats to order.

Wegmans lowered the number of shoppers and workers in its stores to a 15-20% capacity. It also introduced job-protected voluntary leave to part-time and full-time employees at stores and warehouses. Customers were required to wear masks, and stores closed their doors if lines at checkout went more than two deep. To ensure distancing between customers and cashiers, Wegmans taped indicators throughout stores and placed plexiglass dividers at cash registers.

Wegmans also made several moves to get products to its stores faster. As customers panic-bought canned goods, pasta, paper and cleaning products in March, the grocer sent trucks more frequently to its warehouses and the trucks left 70% filled rather than the typical 90%. Instead of receiving packaged chicken cuts ready to be sold, Wegmans took loose chicken pieces and wrapped them in the store to speed up the movement of supplies. Restaurant suppliers saw their orders vanish as restaurants closed, and Wegmans saw an opportunity to move those bulk products directly to consumers who were stockpiling at home. The grocer began selling bulk-sized items like 10-pound bags of pasta and restaurant-sized quantities of frozen vegetables, rice and tuna.

The product managers are learning that shoppers will accept fewer options and they are thinking carefully about the level of assortment they will need in the future. Product managers see long-term opportunities with prepared family meals, as people cook more lunches and dinners at home. If they can get this right it will end up looking good on their product manager resume. Wegmans will focus on affordability and ways to bring services online. The grocer continues to add more room on its floors by removing displays or making them smaller. New customer behavior is materializing, too, as shoppers visit stores less but buy more. Saturday and Sunday were historically Wegmans’s busiest days; traffic is now more evenly distributed throughout the week.


What All Of This Means For You

In order to better serve their customers, product managers have been working very hard to develop close relationships with their customers. The good news is that we have been very successful at doing this. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything. All of sudden we need to view our customers as being a potential threat to both our employees and to other customers. This was never on anyone’s product manager job description. How are product managers going to maintain their relationships with customers when they have to keep them at a distance?

A good example of the product managers who find themselves in this situation can be found at the grocery story Wegmans. This was a store that did a lot for their customers with cooking demos and food bars. Now all of that has had to be taken away. Other companies such as Walt Disney and Nordstroms are facing the same problems. Interestingly enough, the companies where the product managers didn’t focus on taking care of their customers may do better during the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, the product managers at Wegmans took immediate action and repurposed workers and stopped doing a number of things. Wegmans has also reduced the number of shoppers in their stores and they have changed the products that they offer to better meet the pandemic needs of their customers.

Times have changed. What product managers used to be doing, developing close ties to their customers, was working. The pandemic has turned everything on its head and now we need to come up with a new game plan. Product managers need to find ways to keep their staff safe while still inviting their customers to still shop at their stores. This can be done, we just need to find the right way to go about doing it.


– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™


Question For You: How can product managers keep their customers close while keeping their staff safe?


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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So what’s up with your customers? Why are they so touchy? It sure seems like customers can very quickly become upset about something that wasn’t covered in your product development, definition and then fly off the handle and be in the streets waving signs and talking with television stations about how bad you are all in the space of a couple of hours. It has become clear that we product managers are now living in a different age and time than we used to. What we need to learn how to do is to deal with customers who have for some reason become very, very angry with either our product or our company. When this happens, just exactly what is a product manager supposed to do?

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