Mr Gippert, you operate three REWE stores as well as – together with another retailer – three nahkauf and two REWE locations in the Göttingen metropolitan area of northern Germany. You call your customers by their first names. That is hardly an everyday practise in the food retail sector. What started it?
About two years ago, one of our employees suggested that we stop using the formal titles of Mr and Ms and simply use people’s first names. He also suggested that we should do so both in our interaction with one another and with our customers. I was sceptical at first. But I am sold on the idea now. Ever since we started, all employees wear name tags displaying their first names. I now go by “Sven” and not “Mr Gippert”. Interaction in the store is much more relaxed now. We can give it a try in this interview if you want.
Sure, Sven. How have employees and customers reacted to this new form of address?
Not every employee was so excited about the idea in the beginning. But, today, they do not want to do anything else. They have seen how the use of Mr and Ms creates a certain distance between people. Of course, we have customers who are not exactly thrilled about being addressed so informally. In such cases, we will be happy to use Mr or Ms once again. But most people like to be called by their first names.
It’s something that creates a feeling of closeness between two people. Why is this so important in everyday life in the store?
If you want to develop a relationship with customers, you have to make sure that they feel at home in the store. It all starts by speaking to them in a friendly, personal way. This is why I want my employees to notice customers and speak to them in the appropriate way. The job of establishing direct contact with customers and taking time for them is tremendously important, particularly in smaller stores and locations that have fewer casual customers than regular customers. This gives customers a reason to come back. They enjoy seeing familiar faces when they go shopping. For this reason, keeping employee turnover in stores down as much as possible is another top priority.
Retailers who are particularly close to their customers and understand their needs are generally very successful. How do you think such a close relationship can be created? Simply using customers’ first name will not be enough.
No. A range of steps has to mesh with one another. Things like the composition of the product range. I have noticed that customers like to buy products from their home region, particularly those made by producers whose names they know and whom they may actually know personally. This creates trust. So I began to offer regional products in my stores years ago – back before this idea became a trend.
I started with eggs, it must have been about 10 years ago. A farmer in the region wanted to buy a hen mobile. This was a trailer on a pasture and the animals were free to roam about and were given organic feed. Before long, my customers were crazy about the organic, free-range eggs from the neighbourhood.
What other regional products can customers buy in your stores?
Vegetables, flowers, cheese, sausage, honey – I am constantly expanding my regional product range. One apple farmer has devoted one section of his farm to growing fruit exclusively for us. He calls it the Gippert Plantation. Most producers personally come to the stores and deliver their products so that customers can see them as well. We also organise visits to farms on occasion. Such visits give our customers an opportunity to have a first-hand look at the farms where we get our products.
Sven Gippert, REWE and nahkauf retailer“Vegetables, flowers, cheese, sausage, honey – I am constantly expanding my regional product range. One apple farmer has devoted one section of his farm to growing fruit exclusively for us. He calls it the Gippert Plantation.”
How do you find the right suppliers for your stores?
We constantly look for them. We frequently visit weekly farmers’ markets and talk with the producers there. Some are hesitant because they do not know whether a partnership with a supermarket can actually turn out well. But as time passes, they see that this sales channel works. You gain new customers as a result. Some of them even advertise the fact that they offer their products exclusively to us. The relationship with many suppliers has become so close that they take part in other activities as well. Things like our recent sticker-collection album campaign for a local football club. I think this is a good example of the way that you can create a close relationship with customers and a connection to the neighbourhood. And to a degree that I would have never thought possible.
How did things turn out?
The SV 07 Moringen, an amateur sports club with a long tradition in the region, asked me whether I would conduct a sticker-collection campaign with them. It turned out to be a huge success. We were literally overrun. Even people in neighbouring areas came to my stores to hunt for the stickers. I gained a lot of customers who still shop in my stores today thanks to this campaign.
Local sports clubs frequently look for supporters. What opportunities does such a commitment offer to retailers who want to express their connection to a region?
A partnership with a well-run and established sports club in the area is valuable especially in this regard. It does not always have to be a football shirt sponsoring drive or a collectible card offer. I worked with six REWE retailers from the region to put together a sponsoring package for the professional basketball team BG Göttingen. I could not have done it on my own. But the team of retailers I worked with made it all possible. My customers see that I am a supporter of BG Göttingen as they enter my stores: We have placed a photo of me and a professional basketball player on both sides of the sliding door. When the door closes, it appears as though we are giving each other a high five. It catches people’s attention. I know so because people keep mentioning it to me.
Sven Gippert, REWE and nahkauf retailer“One of the top priorities at nahkauf is to communicate closeness with customers – by addressing them personally and having a large range of regional products.”
Are you involved in any other activities besides sports in which you express your commitment to the neighbourhood where your stores are located?
We organise a clean-up day in Bovenden, a small area where I also have a store. Residents collect litter there once a year and then have a barbecue when they are finished. We provide them with gloves and reflective vests. We also regularly organise bets with mayors.
How does that work?
We base everything on the former German TV show “Wetten, dass” in which some sort of VIP placed a bet on whether an individual contestant would be able to pull off a spectacular feat or not. We have already organised several of them. We placed one bet on whether mayors would be able to peel a certain amount of white asparagus within a set amount of time. Or whether 100 bicyclists could be persuaded to pull into the car park of one of our stores and then bite into an apple grown in the region. If we lose a bet, we will make a donation to a good cause. It’s quite popular, and the mayors are happy to pitch in.
At nahkauf, closeness to the customer is part of the concept. As the slogan goes, “nahkauf – nichts liegt näher” (nahkauf – nothing’s closer). How does nahkauf turn this slogan into a reality?
One of the top priorities at nahkauf is to communicate closeness with customers – by addressing them personally and having a large range of regional products. The reason is that these stores primarily have regular customers. They do not come to the store because of some special sale. Rather, they come because they have faith in this store. They tell themselves: This is my neighbourhood store – and I will support it. This creates a particularly close relationship.
What do you do to facilitate this relationship?
We come up with new things over and over again. In one store, employees decided to take the unpleasant job of packing groceries at the checkout off customers’ hands – this small gesture was well received, and word about it spread quickly. Customers can tell: Employees take time for them here. Customers who feel right at home will be happy to come back.
Thank you for this interview, Sven.