Self-proclaimed 'Wegmaniacs' stood in the rain to be among the first people through the doors of a new Wegmans in Brooklyn, New York, on Sunday. One customer, Alexis Grafakos, said she woke up at 5 a.m. because she remembered how well she was treated at Wegmans in a town where she used to live.
Grafakos's experience tells you everything you need to know about how Wegmans has attracted a loyal cult following and why it's consistently named one of the best places to work. Grafakos told The New York Times that when she shopped at a Wegmans in western New York, she couldn't find empanada dough to make her native Caribbean dishes. Within a week, the product was on the shelf. Someone at Grafakos's store was empowered to satisfy the customers.
Empowerment Is Key
Empowerment is a management strategy that's central to the Wegmans experience. In the most recent Fortune survey of 630,000 employees across the country, Wegmans was voted the best place to work in the retail industry. Drill down in the survey results and you'll find the word empowerment highlighted as a key reason the company keeps employees happy and, as a result, customers happy too.
"The Best Workplaces are thriving in an evolving marketplace because they inspire and empower their employees to give their best and provide exceptional experiences for customers," says Michael C. Bush, the CEO of the organization that conducts the annual survey.
At Wegmans, empowerment is more than a feel-good slogan. When asked directly why they enjoy working for the company, frontline employees often bring up the fact that they are empowered to make the right decisions.
"I love being empowered to run my department like I own it, and to make decisions that affect my team positively," writes the manager of a cheese department in one Wegmans store.
Empowerment makes employees happy for two reasons. First, it shows that management trusts them to make smart decisions. Second, it gives people some sense of control in a rapidly changing business climate where many people feel they're losing control of their careers.
Wegmans Shares a Culture With the Apple Store
I studied the Wegmans culture when I wrote The Apple Experience, the first book that pulled the curtain back on the Apple Store. Apple managers empower their employees to do what's right for the customer. One manager told me he knew of only one other brand that came close to the Apple level of empowerment. It was--you got it--Wegmans.
In a major research paper analyzing 105 studies on the topic of employee engagement, the researchers concluded that when employees feel empowered at work, it results in stronger job performance, higher employee satisfaction, and a stronger commitment to the organization. Why? Empowerment builds trust. "By empowering their employees, these leaders are also more likely to be trusted by their subordinates, compared to leaders who do not empower their employees."
Empowerment doesn't work in the absence of appreciation. Employees must be recognized and praised for taking initiative. Leaders must share real examples of real employees empowered to do what's right. Such stories are a regular part of Wegmans employee meetings at each of their 101 store locations.
Wegmans sent me letters that are shared among employees, highlighting the stories of empowerment spread throughout the organization.
In one story, a woman had to miss a family reunion because of her work schedule. She called a Wegmans store near her parents' house to order a cake and pay for it over the phone. Wegmans' store policy is not to process payments over the phone. The employee did it anyway. According to the customer's email, "Thank you for allowing your associates to use their decision-making ability and common sense to assist me. The request may have been small, but it means the world to me to participate in a family celebration."
Customers didn't line up outside Wegmans in Brooklyn at 5:30 on a Sunday morning to be the first to buy fresh produce. They lined up because they're made to feel good while they're shopping and when they leave the store. Train your staff to make people feel great and you'll have maniacal customers too.