Is the customer really the most important thing in retail?

Sep 27, 2022

Pardon my cynicism, but if I had a dollar every time I heard some variant of the phrase “the customer must be at the center of every retail decision” at Groceryshop last week, I’d be able to buy a nice meal at one of the many overpriced restaurants in Las Vegas.

Nearly every facet of retail discussed at the event featured some type of customer-first notion, from retail media to supply chain. Even the CEOs keynoting the event were focused on the use of technology and process to enhance customer engagement. The new CEO of Whole Foods, Jason Buechel, said “customer” no less than 20 times in about 20 minutes. (I counted.) John Furner, CEO of Walmart US, used that term or a related one several times in his session, as did Kroger CIO Yael Cosset, who focused on the digital angle in his discussion of the customer.

It wasn’t as if other key retailing factors were ignored during the conference. There were excellent tracks on ecommerce, supply chain, marketing, technology (of course) and even physical retail and merchandising.

Still, and with full acknowledgment that the statement may be entirely accurate, the proliferation of the customer-first approach at Groceryshop was borderline cliché to the extent that one of the presentations featured a slide with this Sam Walton quote: “There is only one boss — the customer. The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best but legendary.”

There has to be more than just a customer focus in retail. Merchants need to sell something and need to sell it in a certain way. There has to be a staff that supports the marketing and selling of that product. There needs to be a process to get the product from the point of the production to the point of consumption. And there need to be guardrails to ensure the product and the process is as risk-free as possible.

By constantly repeating “customer-first” at conferences and in internal and external communications, companies run the risk of it becoming noise that is ignored more than followed. If the most recent Groceryshop is any indication, we are rapidly approaching that line.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does the customer really need to be the primary focus of every retail decision? What other factors, if any, are as critical for retail decision-making?


“Does the customer really need to be the primary focus of every retail decision?”


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