Walking into a Wegmans grocery store is a little like stepping into a European food hall. Around each corner awaits another department, each with its own style: Brass and marble gleam in the patisserie. A giant brick oven fills an earth-toned bakery with inviting smells. An employee sporting a black beret helps a customer choose from a sprawling display of more than 400 kinds of cheese.
Although the stores range from 85,000 to 135,000 square feet, shopping feels snug, as if you're tucked in by the attention — and deep knowledge — of the employees. What vegetable and wine go best with roast duck? Chances are, Wegmans employees will know. What is the best way to prepare snapper? Take a lesson with a cooking coach. Employees in departments such as meat or fish must pass a 30- to 55-hour "university" program. Many department heads travel overseas to work in French patisseries or to tour the countryside to learn about cheese. Knowledgeable employees are "something our competitors don't have and our customers couldn't get anywhere else," says president Danny Wegman.
It adds up to what the company calls "telepathic levels of customer service" — and revenue that grew 9% last year to $3.3 billion in 66 stores in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. And it starts with employees such as Carol Kent, manager of the 20-person cheese department in the Pittsford, New York, store, who was sent to Italy three years ago to see how Parmesan is made. "We sat with the families, broke bread with them," Kent recalls. "It helps me understand that we're not just selling a piece of cheese. We're selling a tradition, a quality." But it isn't only just trips to Europe that have kept her at the Rochester, New York-based chain for 30 years. Robust benefits (rare in this industry) help too.
In a world of fierce price competition, Wegmans' commitment to employees — and through them, to customers — is more than a philosophy. It's a way to survive. "Wal-Mart is the fastest-growing food retailer out there," Wegman says. "How do we differentiate ourselves? If we can sell products that require knowledge in terms of how you use them, that's our strategy. Anything that requires knowledge and service gives us a reason to be."
Runner-Up: Fairmont Hotels & Resorts
How's this for a place to work? All new employees at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa wear bathing suits during orientation to experience the spa's exfoliating showers and hot mineral baths. At the Fairmont San Francisco, new employees get the same penthouse champagne toast the hotel uses to woo meeting planners. And at many properties, employees arriving for their first day have their cars valet parked or get vouchers for a free night's stay. This innovative orientation program — which lets employees experience what guests experience — began two years ago after focus groups pointed to "empathy" as a service differentiator. As a result, the company added empathy to the attributes for which it screens and a training program that involves listening to recorded guest phone calls. Even its discounted employee travel program — Hawaii for $99 a night, anyone? — gives employees yet another way to understand the guest experience. — JM
Call it trial by hire. Last year, Petsmart moved interviews with potential employees from the back office to the sales floor, which lets store managers observe how candidates relate to customers — "pet parents" in Petsmart-speak — and their pets. When they pass a customer in the store, the manager stops and starts a conversation, and then steps back to watch how the job candidate interacts with the shopper. "It gives a good read on the person," says Barbara Fitzgerald, senior vice president of store operations. "Will they be able to interact with customers and provide the level of service we require?" The new hiring process is just one piece of the company's Customer Service Unleashed initiative, which it deems especially important as it moves into services such as boarding, grooming, and training. The initiative extends to the employees at corporate, too: Everyone at headquarters, from top brass on down, must now spend a weeklong "internship" working in the stores. And they're not excused from cleanup duty, either. — JM
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.