Harris Teeter Marketing Lessons and Why Publix May Challenge Them

September 12, 2013

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Updated 09/14/2013:  Publix announced on Friday they were purchasing seven Bi-Lo stores in the Charlotte region.  This will bring the projected number of stores to 14 within the next couple of years and presenting Harris Teeter/Kroger with direct competition.

As a marketing consultant in Charlotte, I’ve wanted to write an article for a while about Harris Teeter and its approach to marketing.  It is a company I’ve come to admire as a marketing consultant and one that I enjoy shopping at as a customer.  What finally prompted this article are two events.   The sale of Harris Teeter to Kroger and the expansion of Publix into the Charlotte market.

If you are not familiar with Harris Teeter it’s home headquarters is located in Matthews, NC located just outside Charlotte.  The company operates approximately 137 stores in NC and has a total of about 200 stores located as far south as Florida and as far north as Maryland.  Although it dominates the North Carolina market, the number of stores and famialiarity with Harris Teeter drops off precipatously outside the state.

According to USA Today, the top ten grocery retailers in the US are Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco Target, Safeway, Super Valu, Lablaw, Publix, Ahold USA and 7-Eleven.  When you consider this top ten list, Publix is at the top for delivery high-end customer service and enhancing the shopping experience.  The others focus on convenience or being the low cost provider.

For many that are part of the targeted market segment,  middle and upper middle class families in and around Charlotte, Harris Teeter’s value proposition resonates but questions surround its future.  Will Kroger’s come in and change the business model, emphasizing cost containment at the expense of customer service?  If so, will this provide an opportunity for Publix to capitalize on?  this makes the acquisition and integration of Harris Teeter into Kroger and the expansion of Publix into the Charlotte market a fascinating story line to watch.

History of Harris Teeter has Innovation at Its Roots

Harris Teeter was started in 1960 when two business owners operating separate stores merged.  Both of these owners William Harris and Willis Teeter shared a similar philosophy of  delivering a much better buying experience to their customers through innovation.  They understood that customers wanted much more than a place to buy groceries. Customers wanted convenience, wanted it to be a pleasurable experience, wanted fresh produce but still wanted value.

Harris Teeter was the first grocery store to introduce an air conditioned grocery store.  Imagine, all those shoppers that flocked to the store in the summer just to stay cool.  For many, it would have been worth it to shop at Harris Teeter just to stay cool.

During that time, it was unheard of for a grocery store to be open late.  So when, Harris Teeter started staying open until 9 PM on Friday nights to make it more convenient for people to shop at the end of the week, it was  a huge success,  people received checks at the end of the wee so they had money available and with the stores open late, a place to spend it. Not to mention the convenience of completing all their shopping on a Friday night.

They continue to cater to families busy schedules today, with their on-line shopping service.  You can place your order online for a low fee.  Someone at the store will go through the store and complete your order.  You simply pull up to the front of the store and the order is loaded right into your car.  For many busy parents, it is an awesome deal.  Harris Teeter only charges $4.95 per order or a monthly fee of $16.95.  Considering it usually takes most shoppers 45 minutes to an hour to complete their shopping, for busy parents on the go, this can be a life saver.

Harris Teeter Focused on Customer Service

It is obvious when you visit any of the stores customer service training is a central tenet to their core philosophy.  No matter when I have been in any of the stores I have never found the store understaffed (ever been to Lowe’s and you have one person working the cash register in the whole store).

On check-out the cashier will always greet me by name and ask to make sure they have the correct pronunciation of the name.  Either the cashier will bag the groceries, or more often than not, another cashier or employee will jump in and help bag the groceries.  Always, always always, they offer to assist me with bringing out the groceries.  I can’t recall a single incident when I’ve had more than a few bags they haven’t made this offer.  When you have teenagers, offering this type of service consistently, it speaks to their philosophy and making sure customers are treated correctly.   What a great learning opportunity for young adults to have access to this training and to work for a company that trains its employees on delivering the right way of treating its customers.

Great Follow-up Marketing with Harris Teeter’s EVic Program.

Harris Teeter, like most other grocery stores has their customers signup for their customer card called the Vic card in order to receive discounts.  Like any loyalty card, you simply sign up and receive items at the discounted sale price.  Nothing new, innovative or great about that.  However, Harris Teeter recognizes the value of:

  1. Having your email address to grow its database
  2. The value of getting shoppers into the store on the weekend.

Their EVic program accomplishes both.  By simply giving Harris Teeter your email address, each week they email you out their exclusive EVic specials.  These sale items are typically for a specific day or days on the weekendwith items being marked to an incredbly low price.  So on a Saturday they may have a greatly reduced rate for paper towels and on Sunday, milk may be priced at under $2.00.  Doing this brings in additional customers at least once per weekend and often times twice depending on what is marked down each day.  Think about the increased traffic that brings in on the weekend and how often do you think those customers go in and pick up just one or two of the items on sale…probably not too often

Customer and Community Appreciation

Harris Teeter, does a great job with showing its appreciation of its customer and for its community.  Every sales receipt prints out your Vic card savings for that purchase.  This makes a huge impression on customers.  Some weeks I have had bills that were reduced by over $100.  When you look at that cash register and see the total roll back from $225 to $125, you feel like you hit the lottery.  In addition every print-out includes your year to date savings.  This is their way of demonstrating the value they provide to you every time you shop.

It is not only customers they provide value to but the communities they serve.  William Harris did not have the opportunity to graduate from High School.  He however, placed a priority on supporting schools and educations.  Customers can link a participating school in the community with their Vic card.  Every time you make a purchase a certain amount will be donated to the school.  In addition Harris Teeter throughout the year raises and donates money for United Way, Wounded Warriors and other organizations.

Will Kroger Provide an Opening for Publix

It is obvious, Harris Teeter is entrenched in the North Carolina region.  They offer customers with recognized value.  While I’ve been to Publix only a few times I see many similarities between Publix and Harris Teeter.  The wild card in all of this will be Kroger.  if Kroger comes in and starts closing stores, cutting back on staffing, changes the core philosophy to that of competing on price at the expense of customer service Publix will have an opening.

Michael Beauchemin

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Certified Inbound Marketing Consultant committed to helping businesses grow sales through measurable, accountable marketing metrics.
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