Sports teams regularly send out scouts to evaluate their opponents.  They want to find weaknesses and injuries in their competitors.   I get to do that for supermarket retailers.  Your competition is going to do it to you.  They would be foolish not to.   I’m not going to get into site evaluation, estimation of store volumes/sizes and other quantitative data.  However, at the end of the day, sales per square foot is what the gatekeeper at supermarket heaven uses to determine if you are any good.  Evaluating competitors using a microscope or a telescope is the lazy way.  You need to use a proctoscope.  I carry a big one and I like using it.  As a competitor you want to look long and deep inside your competitors operations.  Sometimes critical strengths and weaknesses are not immediately visible.

 You only get to make one first impression and it usually starts with the parking lot.  Is it smooth and striped?  Or is it full of chuckholes and faded striping?  Are there grocery carts that have been littered about for days?  Is it a hangout for criminals?

 Adjacent shopping – is it full of good retailers or lots of vacancies?  Why do other retailers not want to be here?

 Next I check out the bathroom.  Whatever condition the men’s room is in you can count on the rest of the store being in a similar condition.   Don’t believe me? Try it and see if I’m right.

 Employees can really tell a story.  Are they young, fit, good looking, quick on their feet, and passionate about their work?  Or are they overweight sluggards with decayed teeth, reeking of tobacco, goofing off and horse playing?  Are they smiling and saying hello or do they walk around disengaged with the “thousand yard stare” of battle fatigue? If you want to scare away customers, let these kinds of employees sit at a picnic table in front of your store smoking and playing on their phones.

 How serious are the employees about their job?  How serious are retailers about their employees?  Everyone is judged by their appearance.  God judges our heart, but we judge with our eyes and consumers with their dollars.   More and more Target employees are wearing untucked pink t-shirts that used to be red.  Shoes – sneakers or work shoes?  The over-use of tattoos, piercings, and ear gauging.  Somehow that gets by at Whole Foods if they are students at an expensive university with high academic standards.  The rest of the world, not so much.  One large retailer has made it easy for us to determine which employees are expendable.  They give the expendable employees a vest with a large asterisk on the back, the dunce cap of the 21st century.

 I will often visit the same store every few years.  There is a reason we note the number of checkouts and stores hours.  If they are continually being reduced over time most likely they will become zero sooner than later.  If you don’t visit the stores and keep notes you might not know if checkouts and hours have been reduced or expanded.  Aldi will often sneak in an extra checkout or expand hours one hour per day when business grows.  The produce department is what the customer will often shop first.  Has half the produce department been dismantled and replaced with bottled water and paper towels?  Lawn furniture seems to be Winn Dixie’s favorite for occupying wasted space.  Are non-perishable items filling up the meat case?  Is the meat in the service case covered with cellophane?  Or worse, sits empty.  Are there more fake flowers than real ones in the floral department? 

 Has that in-store bank branch pulled out?  There’s big sign things are not going well.   Is there a mock police car parked in the fire lane 24/7?  Everyone knows it a prop. Police cars, real or mock, indicate shrink problems.

Now we get to inventory levels.  I’ve heard every excuse there is for low inventory levels but never that business is just plain bad.  This means the store is on C.O.D. with their suppliers and vendors.  Remember the stench of death will attract the buzzards.  Even if some of the shortcomings can be camouflaged, the stench of death cannot.  Other vendors will keep you informed but its always good to see for yourself.

 Then we sometimes see things we want to copy.  A full parking lot that is long, flat, and deep.  Uncluttered from orphan grocery carts. A 24 hour a day carnival of sights, sounds and good smells.  The x’s and o’s outlined in the market study are turned into imagination on the sales floor.    Employees are neat, clean, well dressed,  good looking, eager to help and very approachable.  Other retailers want to be next door or occupy out-lots.  The bathrooms are spotless and clean.  Every square foot of that store is being utilized to have maximized sales area space. No sign of criminal activity inside or outside the store. Shelves are fully stocked.  The store is a fun happening place.  The latest technology such as Instacart, click & collect, and Fetch are being used.  Bicycle racks, electric car chargers, and dog kennels tell the customer they are no longer in the 1990s.  We read about all the new concepts but the only way to imprint those ideas on your mind is to get inside these stores and see for yourself.