Retailers could learn a lot about customer service from Superquinn, a
Dublin-based supermarket, writes Julian Lee
Finding the right formula for customer service is similar to the search
for the Holy Grail. It appears to be never-ending. There is, however,
one retail company that many would acknowledge as coming close to
It was the first company to introduce ‘bag packers’. Its staff escort
you to your car with an umbrella when it is raining. They will even give
you free bones for your dog.
You might be forgiven for thinking it is Asda, but it isn’t.
In fact, it is a 16-strong chain of supermarkets based in and around
To many in the retail industry, the name Superquinn became a by-word for
Feargal Quinn, its founder, has written a book called Crowning the
Customer and regularly travels the world preaching his gospel of
The customer is king
In the book’s foreword Donald Keogh, president of Coca-Cola, says of
Quinn: ‘Many say the customer is king or queen but seldom mean it.
Walking through a Superquinn store with him is like walking through his
home. Everyone knows him and he knows everyone.’
When it comes to customer service, Superquinn is the undisputed king.
And UK retailers are desperate for some of its Midas touch, that will
transform their glittering retail superstores from cold and impersonal
shopping palaces into warm, friendly markets, where personality and
humour sit by the cabbages and frozen prawns.
In the past few years all the major UK multiples have been striving to
achieve this aim with a raft of measures. Tesco has introduced 4500
‘customer assistants’ in special blue jackets to lend an extra hand to
Safeway is following suit with its own ‘queue-buster’ staff. Asda has
remodelled its larger stores to give them a marketplace feel, where
staff are trained to not only interact with customers but also to
In an age when supermarkets are offering similar products at similar
prices, customer service can be the deciding factor for the customer who
is spoilt for choice.
Which is the reason why, from his early days in food retailing, Feargal
Quinn recognised that unparalleled customer service was by far the most
effective way of standing out from the crowd. His company’s key
objective is to concentrate on looking after its best customers, rather
than chase after promiscuous shoppers.
‘We like to think of it as a courtship rather than a marriage,’ says
Eamonn Quinn, marketing director of Superquinn and son of founder
Since Superquinn’s birth as one store in Dublin in 1961, the ‘boomerang
principle’ has been at the very heart of its strategy.
Its roots lie in the family’s former business of running a holiday camp.
The only way the company could make any profit was to ensure each family
returned the following year.
By taking the old adage that ‘retail is all about detail’ to its most
extreme, Superquinn has chosen to concentrate on the little things that
make the difference between a customer returning and going to a
competitor, such as children’s play areas, no-sweets checkouts, in-store
bakeries, customer forms for special requests and clocks that tell the
customer when the produce was delivered.
Join the Superclub
Most importantly, it introduced its own loyalty card more than three
Superquinn’s Superclub, which has more than 300,000 members, accounts
for 70% of the value of all sales and is the hub of its customer service
Many of these initiatives are almost commonplace in UK supermarkets. So
what is it that makes Superquinn stand out amongst its competitors and
rivals across the Irish Sea? Without doubt it is the company’s constant
reminder to its customers that the high standards they expect can only
be maintained with their help. By allowing customers to accrue extra
points by spotting any customer service slip-ups in the stores,
Superquinn may appear to be inviting trouble.
‘What other store group has 300,000 quality control inspectors? We know
everything is up to standard because there’s a whole load of people
waiting to catch us out if we slip up,’ says Quinn.
If any multiple has taken a leaf out of Superquinn’s book then it is
Asda. Both groups encourage staff to build a rapport with their
customers. The theory goes that by establishing an emotional link, no
matter how small, between customer and store, you are generating trust
and guaranteeing sales from that particular consumer.
Asda’s customer services project manager, John Barnsley, says Asda
relies a great deal on its staff to build up relationships with its
customers. ‘By interacting with customers they can feed things back into
the system which can then be developed, tested and eventually rolled
out,’ he says.
‘In the training course we encourage colleagues to really think about
the meaning of the word ‘legend’, what it means and how it evolves.
Legends take time to develop. For us it is our service that is part of
Similarly, Superquinn allows its staff a high degree of autonomy.
Checkout operators are authorised to allow customers who do not have
enough money or have forgotten their money to pay another day.
‘It means the staff have a sense of ownership,’ says Quinn. ‘Customer
service is too important to be left to the customer service department.
You have to have the whole business taking part.’