IN THE old days, provision shop owners knew their regular customers well. They would probably have known what items their customers were there for, who prefers tea over coffee, or whose mother was ill.
With modern trade, maintaining that relationship with customers can be a challenge. Supermarkets are bigger and customers mainly pop in to get what they need.
But building a relationship with its customers remains key for Village Grocer, says The Food Purveyor Sdn Bhd group executive chairman Ong Kim Too. As the premium grocer continues to expand, getting the “people” element right will ensure that the Village Grocer brand stands out in the segment.
The Food Purveyor is the holding company for the Village Grocer, Ben’s Independent Grocer and Pasaraya OTK chains.
“A lot of people can do the hardware. But the software is where you have to put in more work. That software is the customer service. And that’s why we are putting in a lot of effort into this,” he says.
While it may not be possible to know every customer that walks through its doors today, Village Grocer has laid out strategies that would enable the brand to continue engaging its customers through good service, a wide product range and fair pricing.
People come back for the good shopping experience, says Ong.
In recent years, Village Grocer has been refurbishing its outlets with a tweak in store layout so that customers can have a better shopping experience. Its aisles are wider, meats are better presented and product offering expanded. At its flagship outlet in Bangsar Village, some of its popular food stations have been moved out of the supermarket into an opposite lot – aptly named Village Pantry – to provide customers with more space to enjoy some downtime or for a meal.
Grocery shopping has become somewhat a destination where families go to on weekends, explains Ong. And making the place conducive would give customers a positive experience with the Village Grocer brand.
Providing good customer service is just as important.
Customer service make up one of the company’s main strategies to build value and enhance its brand presence in the market. It has put some standard operating procedures in place and train its employees to ensure that its service is top-notch.
“We have an English guy who is heading the customer service team and he regularly does his spot check to see if our people are following the process,” Ong shares with a small laugh.
Long-time customers also like the personalised service of the Ong family – who founded the grocery chain. Ong still visits the outlets regularly, sometimes, as many as five stores a day, to get to know the customers and his staff. It helps him stay in touch with what’s going on in the stores.
The company also introduced its digital loyalty programme, BITES, which can be used across the group’s stores. The programme has proven to be a good platform for the brand to stay connected to customers and understand what they are looking for.
“Sometimes, they will request for a product to be brought in and we try our best to do that. We continue to engage with them.
“In terms of operations, we are looking at ways to improve our quality and reduce our cost especially for perishable products by going direct to farmers and fishermen.
“We will continue to also look for new products. We are working with our business partners to expand our offering and we are travelling a lot to look at new products overseas and to see how other grocers carry out business so that we can innovate more,” he says.
Ong is optimistic that its efforts will help the company maintain a good rapport with its customers and build value for the Village Grocer brand.
This will put it in a favourable position as demand in the premium grocery segment grows.
According to reports, Ong notes that modern trade has been growing rapidly in Malaysia over the past decade. The segment enjoyed growth of 5.3% from 2011 to 2016 and was estimated to be worth RM8.4bil in 2016. It is projected to hit RM9.3bil in 2020 thanks to increasing urbanisation, rising affluence and change of lifestyle, particularly among millennials.
Ong says there is still a lot of space for growth in the Klang Valley area. And given that it is an established brand, developers of new malls often seek Village Grocer out for tenancy.
Village Grocer currently has 15 outlets with another four planned for the immediate term.
Village Grocer took home the Platinum Award for Best Brand at The Star Outstanding Business Awards 2017 in the above RM25mil revenue category.
Ong says the award was an acknowledgement of the fact that the company did indeed build brand awareness.
“We used to be more focused on the operations and products. But now, branding is the one key message we want to deliver to our customers.
“Previously, our branding efforts were mainly done through relationship (with our customers). But now, we are doing it through marketing. Consistency is important and we want to be more consistent in our message to our customers across all channels,” he says.