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Batenic Calls New IGA Customer Service Initiative Key To Survival

Mark Batenic, chairman and CEO, IGA Inc.
Mark Batenic, chairman and CEO, IGA Inc.

The 2017 IGA Global Rally marked the launch of the alliance’s new goal for its 1,100 U.S. stores—to be the industry leader in extraordinary shopping experiences.

The rally, at The Mirage in Las Vegas Feb. 10-12, sought to unite attendees behind that common goal with its theme, “It’s in our DNA.”

In his speech to attendees, numbering about 500 from 10 countries, Mark Batenic, chairman and CEO of IGA Inc., said, “That’s our theme for this event, so you’re going to hear a lot about what makes up who we are. Today we’ve lost a few competitors, added a few new ones to the mix and expanded around the globe, but nothing has changed about who we are. IGA still stands for taking care of people and community, and I know that firsthand because I now spend my days seeing these community centers in action all over the world.

“…Taking care of people is what you do,” he said. “It’s the red thread that connects us all. It’s both fundamental and distinctive to who we are. And it’s unchangeable because it’s in our DNA.”

But, Batenic added, “what if we elevated taking care of people to the next level? What if we continue to support and fulfill our goals as community centers, but on top of that, we pledge to take care of people in a way that will create a better shopping experience for our team members and customers alike? What if we could create a culture—based in leadership, engagement and treating people like family—that would take our shopper experience from good to not just great, but truly amazing?

“We could be the industry leader in extraordinary shopping experience.”

It’s not an option to not get on board

In an interview with Lorrie Griffith, The Shelby Report’s editor-in-chief, the day after the Global Rally’s conclusion, Batenic spoke about how imperative it is for IGA retailers to get on board with the move toward customer service excellence.

“If (the IGA retailer) doesn’t step up and do it, he’ll eventually die,” Batenic said. “You can quote me on that. The store will go out of business if he doesn’t differentiate and doesn’t do this customer service initiative.

“We expect the store owner to step up,” he added. “The store owner has to step up and be a leader in this endeavor or…customers are going to go elsewhere.”

IGA came to the conclusion that heightened customer service was the key to survival based on research. Information was gleaned from mystery shops (done by TrendSource), online customer feedback, focus groups and discussions with retailers and their store associates.

Ashley Page, IGA communications consultant, said, “We have determined the specific behaviors that we think will deliver extraordinary shopping experiences in IGA stores. It’s not just extraordinary shopping experiences overall; these are what our IGA customers are looking for.”

IGA has been piloting the “Way to Serve” program in six U.S. stores—one on the East Coast, some in the Midwest and some in the West. Three of the retailers—Nakul Patel of Mt. Plymouth IGA Express in Sorrento, Florida; Mike Trask of Granite Falls IGA in Granite Falls, Washington; and Phil Blackburn of Martin’s IGA Market Fresh in Cashmere, Washington—were part of a panel discussing the Way to Serve initiative.

“The owners of these stores realized that they weren’t providing extraordinary customer service,” Batenic said. “They realized that they had to be part of (the customer service emphasis), that they couldn’t delegate it, and they’re committed to doing that and looking at their employees and their shoppers in a whole different way.

“But I don’t care if you’re in Florida or in California; customer service is the differentiator,” he added. “Sure, the assortment in the stores will be different, but you can’t replace old-fashioned customer service the way it used to be.”

Stores will receive training on how to implement Way to Serve through the IGA Coca-Cola Institute, in the form of webinars at the store level, as well as resources supplied through the IGA organization. The hope is that stores will appoint a “learning leader” to spearhead the training process. To be considered for IGA Five Star Retailer status, a store has to have a learning leader (about 20 percent of IGA stores have achieved the Five Star ranking).

Because the results were fairly dramatic in the pilot stores, the program now is rolling out to a larger group of stores, he noted.

But Batenic was quick to point out that this is not a program that has an end date.

“This isn’t a one-time, one-shot thing; it’s a culture change that’s going to be benchmarked, reviewed, graded,” he said. “Stores are going to have to adhere to it; we expect them to all be the same because we want that shopping experience to be the same whether they’re in Maine or California. If you can create that consistency in the way you take care of the customer in the grocery store, what a difference that would make.”

He mentioned companies that have achieved consistent customer experiences such as Ace Hardware (key trait—helpfulness) and Chick-fil-A (key trait—politeness).

“The service is the same, the feeling is the same (wherever you go). That’s what we’re trying to emulate.”

“Everybody can do price; everybody’s got ketchup, but what makes the shopping experience memorable, exciting, not tedious, and makes them want to come back? What can you do that’s unusual?”

And Batenic charged those retailers who were at the Rally to take up the cause with the IGA retailers who were not present.

“We had 500 believers in the room representing maybe 800, 900 stores, but we have 5,000 stores across the world, so we need to get to the rest of the 4,500 stores and tell them this is how it has to be so the experience is the same,” he said. “These guys have to be an advocate of the brand and they have to be our evangelists—‘evangelical change agents’ is the term we’re using.

“This is the beginning of a journey; there’s no ‘easy’ button,” Batenic pointed out. “It’s a journey that we’re on that we hope to be successful at. Quite frankly, we have to be, because if we’re not, we’ll fade.”

About the author


Kristen Cloud

A former newspaper editor and publisher, she once enjoyed leisurely perusing the grocery store aisles but, since having a baby in 2016, she is now an enthusiastic click-and-collect shopper.


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  • Ok, so IGA Corp. and its store owners have spent the last 25 years watching the industry pass them by – rarely building newer stores, offering better options, newer technology. The owners were happy to sit back and do it the “old school way”, not investing in their future or keeping up. Now, when the end is near, your leader tells you what a disaster you and the Corp have allowed things to get in and his plan is to do what every other failing company does – blame it on service – not facility, management, operations, bad choices, bad leadership – service! HINT: this is code for ” if I tell you to invest tons of money you will fire me”. Here is the truth. Of course its service. Its also all of the other things, too. Doing one without the other will not work, it never has and never will. Can a friendly cashier overcome an older outdated store when a newer choice comes to town? no. Blaming it on the employees is the least expensive and least measureable of all the options and that is exactly why he chose it. And furthermore, if his solution is a video, A VIDEO!!!, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD DO YOU NEED A VIDEO TO TELL YOU HOW TO HIRE FRIENDLY PEOPLE???

    As an add on, if the “final solution” to all of your futures was something more tangible such as, for example new cash register systems and your leader said ” so what we have done is get a video on cash registers and here is the cheapest one available. It hasnt worked well in the past but if you watch the video, i’m sure it will be ok”. You would panic, as well you should. hiring the same people at minimum wage even though that hasn’t worked up til now is repeating your failure and it is why you are where you are.

  • As a former independent owner, here’s my question. How did we let Dollar General, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, and all the others take away large chunks of our business? Did the wholesalers let us down? We could always be the cheapest on any given week on a variety of items in our ad but where was the everyday pricing we needed to stay competitive?

    Let’s not include Wal-Mart in this discussion because they are all powerful and even the biggest chains have to react to them. But why is a 6,000 square foot Dollar General now a destination for food? Yes, their private label products leaves much to be desired but families on a budget don’t care. When a 2 lb box of macaroni is $1.99 at Dollar General and $2.59 at the independent is the store owner being greedy or the wholesaler charging $2.00 for the box and the owner just trying to make enough profit to survive? Yes, once a quarter he or she will run it at 99 cents, make no money, but sell a ton of it. What good does that do anyone in the supply chain? I’ll bet Dollar General makes money at $1.99!

    As to the previous comment, yes many independents did not do enough to upgrade their stores. I will say part of the reason is that they were not making enough money to do so. But to my point, dollar stores are not meccas of cleanliness, modern, or offering anything compelling except for price.

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