I like Smart and Final. Its stores are kind of a blend between one of those wholesale warehouse operations like Costco, and your local grocery store. While the Smart and Final stores are much smaller than a Costco, the stores carry both a selection of bulk package items suitable for restaurants and other institutional buyers, as well as package sizes suitable for an average household. I think they have carved out niche concept that competes very well in the grocery market.
So why am I writing about Smart and Final? To tell you what a great store it is? Not exactly. I’m writing to express my wonder at how a business that seems to get so many things right, gets something very big wrong.
Most of the time I shop at Smart and Final on the weekend. Typically, at the time of day that I go, most of the shoppers appear to be regular household consumers. They are buying their household groceries for a few days or a week.
However, occasionally I shop during the week. If you shop at Smart and Final during the week in the morning, you will find a lot of customers are clearly buying for their restaurants or catering businesses. Their carts are full to the brim with bulk supplies and large quantities of similar items.
So let me digress for a moment to tell you what Smart and Final did during Covid. Perhaps in an effort to enforce more social distancing, or perhaps for other reasons, Smart and Final adopted a checkout system whereby all customers waited in the same line, and then customers advanced to the next available cashier. They even put in a monitoring system and the monitor would announce “Next customer please proceed to register five” or something similar. I loved this system. No more did I have to try to decide which register to line up at. No more peering into people baskets to see how full they were. No more checking to see if the checker in the lane was a fast mover or slow mover. Now all I had to do was to wait in line and wait for the next available register. Made all the sense in the world.
Then something happened. For unknown reasons Smart and Final scrapped that system and went back to a system whereby you once again had to figure out which register line to get in, and hope you get the line that is moving the quickest.
So back to my story. The other day I went to Smart and Final on a Thursday morning. I picked the items I wanted and put them in my cart. When I got to the checkout registers, there were two open. One had a sign “Express Checkout Limit 10 Items per Customer.” I looked in my basket and took a quick count. 15 items. Doing the proper thing, I got in the other lineup. The guy in front of me was clearly someone who was buying for a restaurant. He had a cart that was full to overflowing. I expected it would be a long wait before I was able to check out, but again the only other register open was the express checkout.
While I was waiting for my turn, three people lined up behind me. All these people had smaller baskets of goods – about the same as my basket. The others also looked frustrated that the guy in front had a huge basket full of goods, and it was taking time for the checker to check through all the stuff.
By this time some of my goods were on the cash register conveyor belt, but it was still taking a long time. Suddenly another Smart and Final employee shouted, “Cash register 3 is open.” The three people lined up behind me bolted to the new register. If I had tried to join them, I would have had to put the groceries on the conveyor belt back in my basket and then fall in at the back of the line. So, I decided to stay where I was. The checker at my station finally checked out the restaurant guy, and then checked me out. All the people who were behind me in the line, and who rushed over to the other checker, ended up getting through the newly opened cash register and out of the store while I was still bagging my groceries.
I am sure my experience has been repeated many times over by other shoppers at Smart and Final and I am sure that those shoppers were as annoyed as I was. I have to wonder why the people in charge at Smart and Final would not see that the system they adopted for Covid was a much superior system to what they had prior to, and what they have gone back to, after Covid.
Are they really so Smart and Final? Or would Dumb and Final be a better name?