True Customer Service

It could not have happened at a worse time. A major snowstorm was howling outside. Whole Foods supermarket at Bishops Corner in West Hartford was jammed with shoppers anxious to get home for dinner. Suddenly, the computer crashed. None of the cash registers could function. Ted Donoghue, the assistant manager running the store on the afternoon of Dec. 13, consulted associates and made a snap decision:All customers passing through the registers would get their food for free until the computers were working again. I doubt any other chain store would have done the same thing, but this is Whole Foods, where every employee earns a living wage, employees are real team members and customer satisfaction is not just a saying but a practice. "It was clearly a snafu on our end, and it didn't seem right" to punish the customers by making them wait, Manager Kimberly Hall said. Hall said the supermarket's computers were being converted to a new system from that of its former owner — Wild Oats — when they went down. Whole Foods purchased Wild Oats earlier this year. There was no storewide announcement of the problem, or its consequence. Cashiers simply told customers there was a computer glitch, bagged their groceries, wished them a happy holiday and a safe drive, and sent them on their way. Hall estimated that up to $4,000 in groceries were given away before the computers began working again. She said Donoghue did not consult headquarters before making his decision and said she has heard no negative feedback from the top brass. "They just totally trust us to do what is right for our customers," she said. It didn't appear to be a big deal to Hall. In fact, neither the store nor the chain sought publicity for what happened. One of the customers, Christine OConnell of West Hartford, tipped me off about the incident. "I have the perfect Christmas story," she wrote. She said she picked up about $70 worth of groceries for a dinner party that night to celebrate the first snowstorm of the season. When she got to the cash register she was prepared to swipe her card, but an employee was blocking the machine.He explained to her the problem and asked if she wanted paper or plastic. "I was somewhat dazed by this comment and asked what I should do," she wrote me. "He said, 'You don't understand, we can't charge you and your groceries are free!' I think I looked pretty silly standing there with my mouth open for a few minutes. "A grateful OConnell said she will donate the $70 to a food bank, "and I thank Whole Foods heartily for what I think is truly the essence of Christmas spirit. "

Imagine the kind of world we would live in if all corporations were run like Whole Foods.

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