It’s a difficult hiring market. Standing out isn’t easy, and sometimes it takes more than competitive wages for retailers to attract and retain top talent.
I’ve always been fascinated by those who succeed in creating truly exceptional work environments. That’s why, at a time when brands are scrambling to figure out what they can do, I wanted to reach out to Andrew Thornton.
I met Thornton last year while speaking at a conference in Berlin. Although well-known for the 2018 introduction of 1,800 plastic-free products at Thornton’s Budgens — a North London grocer — Thornton is also laser-focused on cultivating an exceptional workplace.
Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
(Note: Thornton recently announced the sale of Thornton’s Budgens to the Kavanagh Group, which owns 11 SuperValu stores in Ireland and a variety of stores in the U.K. They plan to continue developing the store along the same lines.)
FB: Before we start, I want to ask more about your personal story. After all, it’s not every day that someone wakes up and says, “This consulting gig is great, but I think I’ll quit and open a grocery store.” What made you decide to take that leap?
AT: I had a midlife crisis. I asked myself if that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and if that’s how I wanted it to play out. I was seeking something with more purpose, I think.
There’s a joke that men buy a Porsche when these things happen, but I went and bought two supermarkets. I now realize that it was about what I call heart. It was about running a people-centered business where I could look after all the stakeholders — the employees, the suppliers and the environment.
Since then, we’ve developed a series of methodologies for helping people be more authentic. We’re also seen as the community supermarket that cares about the planet.
We get a lot of attention for our efforts to be plastic-free. David Attenborough brought the message into customers’ living rooms, and they wanted to play a role in it. But they needed retailers who would give them easy and simple solutions. That’s a big play for retailers, I think — especially the small ones. We also wanted to show the big guys that it’s not as difficult as they thought it would be. We initially saw a 6% sales uplift followed by a 4% total store sales uplift. That demonstrated to me that if you do the right things, your customers will reward you.
FB: I think you’re right, but I also want to ask about a story you shared at the 2019 NACS Convenience Summit Europe. You spoke about helping an employee who had been told by a previous employer that he wasn’t creative. That was interesting. Can you share more about what happened?
AT: We have an approach to coaching that we use in the store — and with other business clients — called being in flow. The employee was doing this with his internal coach. In the process, he shared that he was very creative and loved building things. His coach said, “Why don’t you bring that to work?”
He explained that he’d built a display in a past job, and the store manager told him that it looked terrible. The store manager probably forgot about that 10 seconds later, but this triggered something in him.
We explained that the past is the past and suggested that he give it a go. He agreed. He started building tomato displays near the entrance to the store, and got a lot of positive feedback from the customers. The displays kept getting bigger and bigger to the point where we had a whole two meters by two meters full of loads of tomatoes.
The result is that sales went up not just for tomatoes, but for all fruits and vegetables. What better way to enter a food store than to come into this amazing, abundant display of products?
His confidence grew. He physically looks taller as he’s standing more upright and confident. He engages with customers differently. His English isn’t the best, but that doesn’t matter. He’s confident. He’s open with people. He just opened up as a person.
Afterwards, other people started to say, “Well I can do that.” They started being creative. We had a guy from Budgens who was in our store recently, who said he’d never seen a produce department that good in the past 30 years. It just keeps getting better and better, and it came from empowerment.
The thing that makes me happy is when I come to the store and see things that I wasn’t expecting. Even if I don’t like it, that doesn’t matter. Someone is taking the initiative and trying things.
FB: This makes me think of a conversation I recently had with a retailer. They were debating creating scripts for their cashiers, and I told them that it’s a terrible idea. I hate scripts. As a customer, it’s awkward when I see employees being forced to act like automatons. For employees, it’s effectively saying that management doesn’t think they’re capable of talking to customers. How demoralizing. Do you have any thoughts on this?
AT: There’s a big controversy in Europe at the moment about software being used to track people while working. They don’t trust their employees. Stores that do what you described also don’t trust their employees to have a proper conversation with their customers. We’re the opposite of that. Nobody is scripted, and everyone is empowered. You can feel it in the air.
We do a series of interviews with team members, and we have a tool that measures human potential. We see big increases in their scores for trustworthiness, but we also track for scores in categories like “play.” What people say when we interview them is that they really appreciate that they are fully trusted. One person said that getting the appreciation and being trusted is more important to him than money.
When companies have a mission statement printed on the wall that doesn’t connect with what you see and feel, that’s a problem. People know that we genuinely do care about them, the planet and the community. And, yes, it’s written on the wall. But we deliver on it.
I think this is an opportunity for smaller players. It’s more difficult to do on a big scale. If you’re an independent, the great thing about them is they’re closer to the ground. They don’t have a big corporate machine. Those who do it can create something different and special — something meaningful and able to adapt to the customer.
I think of the story you told in Germany about the Burger King at a convenience store that doesn’t even fix the lights that went out on their fascia sign. I’ll always remember that. It tells you a lot.
FB: The funny thing is they still haven’t fixed it. I think it’s been at least four years now, and it’s really just entertaining at this point. But what you’re saying makes me think of an employee who used to work at a store that I frequented. When he started, he just seemed down on his luck. A few months later, it was like a switch flipped. He took a lot of responsibility, was great with customers and vendors, and would even shovel snow before the sun came up. He was great. However, I get the sense that he wasn’t provided with a way to advance or grow in his position. It wasn’t long before he left the company.
AT: We all want to be appreciated. Nobody shows up to do a bad job.
We spend a lot of time being grateful and appreciating each other. The old retail way was the manager going around and saying things that aren’t going well. We do the opposite. We share what’s working well and go out of our way to compliment people.
It’s a technique called descriptive praise. It’s not saying, “You’re a fantastic guy.” That’s meaningless, and maybe I’ve even heard otherwise as a parent or a boss. You need to mean what you say and describe what it is. Say specifically what you like about something. For example, “I really appreciate how even though you had loads to do yesterday in your department, I noticed that you went to help out in the deli as they were one person down.”
It’s about putting the heart back into the business. I’m actually writing a book on this.
FB: How can retailers put the heart back into the business if there isn’t currently one?
AT: You start at the top. The leadership team has to listen to each other and appreciate each other. You need to create an environment where it’s safe for people to say what they really think.
People on the front lines know what needs to happen. They understand the reality of the business. If you create the right environment at the top, then it flows downward throughout the entire organization.
I’ve been interviewing retail CEOs in turnaround situations for my book. They all say that what went wrong is they had company values, but nobody was leading with those values. Leaders have to develop a purpose and a set of values that they can stand by and engage people with.
If you want to listen to customers and engage them, then you have to engage yourself. People will model behaviors from leaders. If they’re dismissive, rude or only care about money, then that’s what you’ll manifest as an organization. It’s really as simple as that.
We have 80 people, and we’re accessing ideas from all of them instead of a select few. In a big corporation, you have thousands of people who can all be advocates for you. They can be channels and sources of ideas and information, or they can do the minimum and go off and get another job.
Our average length of service is pushing eight years now. This is in North London, in a sector that’s not the best-paid sector. Amongst our senior team, the average length of service is 15-16 years. We don’t recruit externally. Some people say that’s a drawback because you need new blood and ideas, but you get the new blood and ideas at the lower levels. Then people who understand the business and care about it.
There’s an executive coach in the area who I met at an event. She told me that she sees the same faces that she used to see before I took over the store — but they’re different. The difference is in how they are as people and how they engage with customers.
Andrew Thornton is the founder of London-based Thornton’s Budgens. To learn more, visit www.heartinbusiness.org. You can also click here to watch Thornton’s 2019 presentation at the NACS Convenience Summit Europe.