business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Today’s headline would ordinarily be my attempt at a clever play on words to make a point about business’s inability to look at problems in a different way. While it is partially that, the headline is really literal, linking to a most unusual and eye opening shopping trip.

The background is this: A week ago a business trip brought me near an 89-year-old relative who sadly is now legally blind due to macular degeneration. She needed to do some grocery shopping and, because she knows I love visiting stores, she knew I would help. Through her failing eyes, I saw shopping in a whole new way.

The store we visited was a wonderfully well merchandised, lit and serviced Publix in a suburb of Tampa. It’s a store that I’d happily shop any week, but for my relative with a visual handicap, it’s a challenging trip. For her, the incredible bounty of a supermarket is simply overwhelming. For her, the stunning variety of products in each successive aisle becomes a staggering burden.

Our conversations throughout the store were an endless version of the following:

Relative: I need apples.

Me: Do you want Macintosh, Fuji, Gala, Delicious, Golden Delicious…etc.

You get the idea. Every product created a lengthy discussion of choices, prices, brands, sizes, expiration dates (where appropriate) and more. We bought maybe 25 items on a shopping trip that took well over an hour. Suddenly the beautiful store seemed a challenge to me too. It was an incredibly different way to see a store and to understand how beauty really changes in the eye of the shopper.

As I contemplated the trip, two conflicting thoughts came to mind. At first I was unsure what a supermarket could do to serve people with issues like my relative’s. I think it is great that most stores do a vastly improved job of merchandising products that fit specialty needs such as allergies or gluten-free, making it easy for folks with those concerns to find what they need. Yet I can’t imagine how stores can deal with every ailment and find a way to properly offer the level of assortment and choice most feature today.

Then again, maybe these are issues we must take on. If we examine all the demographic groups growing rapidly in the coming decade, nothing stands out like senior citizens. As my generation - the now inappropriately named Baby Boomers - ages, the ranks of seniors will swell like never before in the US and throughout the developed world. While that means challenges with everything from health care to Social Security, it also means incredible opportunity.

It’s not surprising that great examples abound in a Florida town with a preponderance of senior citizens. At the Publix store we visited, it was clear that staff were well trained in dealing with seniors. Store associates routinely interacted with my relative, pleasantly helping her find various items or providing appropriate samples to help her make a decision. When we went to her bank a few doors away, a well-trained teller counted out cash with patience and care that I have never experienced in all my years of banking.

Clearly, more can be done. It might be time for larger type labels and shelf talkers in areas where senior populations are large. Many stores that already offer transportation to stores might add in services to slowly guide those same shoppers through the store. It’s a win-win situation. My relative explained that my willingness to talk her through product choices helped her buy a number of items she usually avoids in a regular shopping trip, simply because she can’t find them. By helping her shop, I helped her buy.

If nothing else, shopping through the eyes of someone who can barely see was an experience I won’t soon forget. It was difficult, time consuming, slow and frustrating. And it was eye opening.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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