Supermarkets’ love affair with the customer ended long ago
As Superquinn moved closer to vanishing from the map last week, the supermarket wars moved up a notch
This was in Superquinn’s golden period, during which no one could get over how beautifully stacked its vegetables were – I’m telling you, this is true – and people were deserting Quinnsworth in droves. (This was before Quinnsworth was Tesco but after H Williams had been eaten for breakfast, and when Dunnes Stores was everywhere. It’s complicated.)
This was back when kids got to hold signs which said “I’m Helping my Mummy to Shop” – or words to that effect – as they were dragging the washing powder off the shelves in Superquinn. Quinn had also removed sweets from the checkouts so their mothers could get home in one piece.
This was back in the days when Superquinn had something called a customer panel (est 1975), and you might very well have been asked to join it and to give it the benefit of your opinion on store layout, presentation and so on. “It made you feel important,” says the female customer close to The Irish Times.
It was before Superquinn became famous for its Victoria sponge, cheeses, brack and that mad little hacksaw you could use to cut the stalk off your broccoli.
I am not making this up – Quinn made it up. That lift out of the grim 1970s retail reality came from him. It was a significant cultural shift for the Irish consumer, when a business would actually worry about how the vegetables looked, or how your kids interfered with your shopping – and you would happily pay the business extra to do so. It is extraordinary when you think about it. And a bit bonkers. Of cour- se it was another of our heroic attempts to live in what we thought was the US.
It was also an interesting moment in management terms. The final chapter of Crowning the Customer is actually called “Don’t let the accountants win”. Earlier in the book Quinn wrote: “I remember the impact that Tom Peters’s book In Search of Excellence had on me. It arrived from America shortly after it was published, and I started reading it one evening after work. I didn’t go to bed that night I was just so excited about it.”
Whatever happens in the supermarket wars, it is unlikely that supermarkets will ever be treated with that enthusiasm by either customers or managers. Supermarkets stopped feeding Irish dreams a long time ago. And no one in food retail says things like: “Fun and surprise: they are the jokers in the pack of the customer-driven person. Learn how to use them.”
It’s going to be a long time before we hear that kind of thing again.