The Anti-Walmart: The Secret Sauce of Wegmans Is People

An East Coast supermarket chain shows that a business can generously train its workforce and profit handsomely

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Reuters

ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Cashiers are barred from interacting with customers until they have completed 40 hours of training. Hundreds of staffers are sent on trips around the U.S. and world to become experts in their products. The company has no mandatory retirement age and has never laid off workers. All profits are reinvested in the company or shared with employees.

A doomed Internet startup? Occupy Wall Street fantasy? Bankrupt retailer recently purchased by Walmart?

No, a $6.2 billion-a-year, 79-store-supermarket chain with cult-like loyalty among its customers. Wegmans, which operates its 79 stores in New York, Pennsylvania and four other East Coast states, shows that a business can generously train its workforce and profit handsomely.

Privately owned by the Wegman family, the chain employs 42,000 people - 20 times the number who work for Facebook - and defies quarterly-driven Wall Street wisdom. Executives say their most important resource is their workers.

"Our employees are our number one asset, period," said Kevin Stickles, the company's vice-president for human resources. "The first question you ask is: 'Is this the best thing for the employee?' That's a totally different model."

Yet the company is profitable. Its prices are low. And it is lauded for exemplary customer service.

"When you think about employees first, the bottom line is better," Stickles argued. "We want our employees to extend the brand to our customers."

The Wegmans model is simple. A happy, knowledgeable and superbly trained employee creates a better experience for customers. Extraordinary service builds tremendous loyalty. Where, though, is the profit?

High volume, according to company executives. The chain's stores are enormous - usually 80,000 to 120,000 square feet - larger than a typical Whole Foods and roughly double the size of a traditional supermarket. And they feature a dizzying array of 70,000 products, nearly twice the number available in a standard grocery store. Across the East Coast, Wegmans supermarkets have the highest average daily sales volumes in the industry.

Employees are omnipresent in stores and do seem knowledgeable. With little prompting, they launch into exhaustive but friendly accounts of where the meat, fish or produce they sell hails from, what each item tastes like and how best to prepare it.

A fish salesman raved about the exhausting standards of the company's distributor in Alaska. A butcher said he had visited the ranch where a steak came from in Montana. And Maria Benjamin, a 38-year Wegmans veteran, started running a store bakery after managers loved her homemade Italian cookies.

"They let me bake whatever I want," said Benjamin, one of 1,015 people employed at the company's 135,000-foot flagship store in Pittsford, New York. "They're really down-to-earth, wonderful people."

Executives say the company is also able to invest in its employees and focus on steady, strategic growth because it is not publicly traded. They said cutting jobs or shipping them overseas was, in part, the product of having to relentlessly please the stock market.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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