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Adventures in retail: The story of a super market

May 8, 2012

Freshfully, Jen Barnett, Wade Kwon

Freshfully co-founder Jen Barnett, with Wade Kwon

Some 23 years ago, I held my only job at a supermarket, as a part-time bagger. It was great: The work was easy, and the money I saved went to buying my first Mac.

Great … until I came down with meningitis. Thus ended my short career (and very nearly short life) in groceries.

Last week, that other path had a brief resurgence, as I stepped in as a volunteer for the new Freshfully market in Birmingham. One of the co-founders is Birmingham Blogging Academy co-conspirator Jen Barnett.

I have relied on Jen’s expertise in marketing for many years, so it was a pleasure to take part in the grand opening celebration of her new grocery store in Avondale. In the full week I worked, we saw a steady stream of happy customers and well-wishers from all parts of town. It is the culmination of years of hard work by her and her business partner, Sam Brasseale.

Being back in the retail sector, even for this brief period, reminded me of how important it is to be open with the community and the customers. I saw old friends and made new ones just opening the door over and over for people entering or exiting.

I quickly noted what items were flying off the shelves, and which ones needed a nudge. My brain lit up with all kinds of ways to promote the store, whether through a personal recommendation or an ad campaign.

And I saw the power of stories again and again. No matter how crazy busy the shop became, the story essentially remained the same: Happy people selling local food.

Your business needs a great story. With it, almost anything is possible.

1. Great stories dig deep into content. Freshfully shares a little bit of its story every day. And it’s an amazing story.

You can find new chapters on its blog, its Facebook page, its Twitter page, its Pinterest page, its Instagram photos and in person at the shop. This is a crash course in content marketing.

Fans learn when peaches arrive, when tomatoes are about to run out (or have run out), who Farmers James and Wayne are, how to prepare kale and how the ground beef came to be. The more I worked, the more stories I learned to share with people browsing the aisles: We sold 250 pounds of tomatoes yesterday, but more are on the way; those squash arrived an hour ago; that cooler has box lunches made this morning at Chez Lulu.

Ask a question about an item, and you’ll hear a tale of who made it and why it was picked for sale.

Takeaway: Know your company, your products and your services, and turn it into an interesting narrative for fans, customers and strangers.

2. Great stories get covered by the media. Jen and Sam won a contest to start its Freshfully website. They won a second contest to earn the retail location with 6 months’ free rent. They opened the store in barely a month.

Any one of those items is a great story unto itself. And all of them have been covered thoroughly by television, radio, newspapers, magazines and blogs.

Freshfully sends out media releases on a regular basis, but the company does not need to work nearly as hard as other companies to get coverage. Waves of publicity send curious people to the door, who told me how they learned about the new grocery store.

They might not have purchased a single thing that day, but they left knowing what was available, how much it cost and when to come back (10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 7 days a week).

Takeaway: Tell the media (including bloggers!) regularly about the latest scoops inside your walls. And when they call, always answer: Reporters love business owners who help them on deadline.

3. Great stories are shared by the people. See someone taking a photo or a video in a store, and the clerks might become suspicious. At Freshfully, those nosy shoppers are the cheerleaders and the respected peers who help make the store a little more open, a little more trusted.

I wrote about my first day on the job at Wade on Birmingham using Storify, a tool that makes it easy to find and curate what people are sharing online. That includes photos, blog posts, Foursquare check-ins, videos, Facebook updates and albums, tweets and RSS feeds.

That post includes 16 photos taken by Birminghamians, shooting to share for their own audiences, not for a magazine or a newspaper or a book. These lovely shots of lettuce, Wickles Relish, cookies, eggs and the ribbon cutting were all part of the Thursday’s stream of information.

And they represent a fraction of all the updates shared, but collectively they, too, tell the story as seen through the eyes of moms, reporters, neighbors, vendors and office workers. It’s not a question of if people are sharing your story on social media, but how thoroughly they are and if you’re rewarding them. (Though some of you are getting no online love at all.)

Takeaway: Listen carefully to what people are saying about you and to you, whether in person or online. And then, respond graciously and kindly, even to the most scornful of the lot.

4. Great stories have twists and turns. Opening week of any store is fraught with peril …

  • No produce has arrived, and the doors open in 20 minutes.
  • A staffer is in tremendous pain and can’t make it in this morning.
  • The receipt printer is lagging some 20 minutes behind actual checkout.
  • Some guy is wandering around with what appears to be a duck puppet (the other clerks swore this happened while I was there).
  • The salsa lady arrives for her demo right after all the jars have been sold.
  • Two TV camera crews and a newspaper photographer arrive around the same time.
  • Shoppers are flooding the store, and we’re out of half the produce, all the box lunches and most of the quarters.

Freshfully’s opening week went smoothly, because it has a great staff and a great attitude about helping people. But that doesn’t mean everything went without problems big and small. It happens.

What is the most important difference between companies that succeed or fail when each one faces these setbacks?

The organizations leading the revolution are slavishly devoted to people. They care so deeply that they’ll invite them to help write the story. Several cyclists who dropped by requested a bike rack (and one even suggested where to find one locally). A small spiral notebook and a pen are on the checkout counter, asking visitors what items Freshfully should carry next.

Children receive stickers and hugs with a giant stuffed carrot. Fans ask questions and share suggestions on the Facebook wall. Lost diners are pointed in the direction of the still unmarked Saw’s Soul Kitchen across the street.

It is ultimately the customers who decide how this story ends. Retailers can either shut their eyes and plug their ears, or they can hand out pens and paper with a smile.

Takeaway: The great brands aren’t ones that make zero mistakes. The great brands show how their mistakes lead to better products, stronger customer service and an outstanding experience. Don’t just share your story — share control of your story with your customers.

A great story can make a company profitable, can help it stand out among competitors, can inspire people to spread the word. Build something fantastic, tell that story, and make it easy for others to chime in.

Freshfully may look like an ordinary website and a grocery store, but those who’ve “read the book” are already immersed in its page-turning, thrilling adventure.

Photo: Jessica Bush

• • •

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and the media? Contact me today for a free consultation.

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