When the best lunch option could ruin your lunch hour.
This was a week-long case study that I did mostly for my own entertainment and to answer the question: How might we improve the grocery store experience?
When wandering around my local grocery store, it was abundantly clear where the most unpleasant experiences happen. Right past the specialty cheese section, you may think there is some sort of mosh pit forming. No, no- It’s just a typical Tuesday afternoon at the Publix deli counter. Pub subs, as they are affectionately called, are a favorite lunch option.
The ‘Pub Sub’ is available in all 776 Florida stores, and a true Florida institution. The love for Pub Subs is definitely apparent in Florida. Poems have been written about them, thousands of instagram hashtags shared in their honor, more than one Tumblr dedicated to their glory. I hesitate to share links to deli aisle brawls, but I can attest to their existence on youtube. People really care about Pub Subs.
All of that affection is despite the fact that obtaining one of these subs is inexplicably frustrating. The process of ordering a sub, in person or online, is simply unpleasant for the customer. The problem is compounded by the fact that making subs in a timely manner is stressful for deli staff and causes unhappiness at work.
The customer experience problem became even more obvious when I viewed the yelp reviews of the Publix stores within a 5 mile radius of my home. There was a huge discrepancy between the love of Publix sub and the actual experience getting a Publix sub.
Customer pain points:
To determine why the experience of ordering a sub is unpleasant, I used a number of UX research methods to gather insight: In-store and participant observation (yes, I’m so dedicated to the research I ate a sub or two), interviews with both customers and employees, usabilty testing on the existing Publix app, and customer journey mapping.
While there were a lot of frustrations shared, the most commonly shared customer pain points were:
- Deli had long lines and wait times
- Couldn’t leave the deli to wander the store because you would lose your place (if ordering in person) or wouldn’t know when your sub was ready (if waiting for an online order).
- Employees have unpleasant attitudes
- Didn’t know that they could order online or found the online ordering site too difficult.
- Online orders were not ready on time. This was shared time and time again during the workweek lunch rush.
From one of the interviews:
“I get 45 minutes for lunch. I ordered my pubsub online so that I could just pick it up and eat it. I have been waiting 30 minutes, I’m hungry, annoyed, and won’t get to eat lunch now. This happens all the time”
— Construction Worker
Employee pain points:
For a store with the motto ‘where shopping is a pleasure’, it was a bit shocking how often the deli employee attitudes came up when talking to customers. I reached out to some Deli employees to try to understand their experience behind the counter. Hearing from the employees offered amazing insight.
In their words:
On online ordering: “Online ordering doesn’t account for our busy times. A person could wait in a long line twenty minutes, but online ordering makes us prioritize the online, which is due in fifteen minutes. So a customer can wait while you make an order that was placed after he got in line. We have no control over the time. Fifteen minutes is the minimum, and a lot of people use it…They can order 8 sandwiches (or more) to be done in fifteen minutes. So, eff the people that got up, drove here and waited in line. This online guy wants something, so they can wait.”
On unlimited choice: “The ability to ask for anything makes the process slow. One customer might want 2 special subs with 3 meats each. The sandwich maker must go pull out 6 meats, slice each one, wrap and put away each one, and then they can return to make the sub, only to find moments later that the customer wants a special cheese (yep, which needs to be cut). That’s one customer. And they want both subs toasted. On sourdough bread.”
On Employee Morale “People complain all day long. You deal with rude, demanding customers….You don’t see many deli employees smiling behind the counter.”
So, clearly there are some problems in-store. I then tested the app on some users, simply requesting that they order a sub on the Publix app. More than half of the users got stuck on the products screen, not seeing anything specifically relating to the deli. They had to figure out to click the ‘Online Easy Ordering’ section (I highlighted below). However, there were many more screens to tackle! Users needed to find their way through 6 screens and excessive scrolling to find the subs.
When they made it to the subs, there was, of course, more excessive scrolling for toppings and cheeses. One user didn’t know which peppers (banana/ jalapeño) were the ones they liked as there lacked any visual cues.
I put together some personas based on some of the different customers I spoke with or observed.
The proposed solution to improve the overall grocery store experience and alleviate some of the difficulties the employees were having, is a Pub Sub specific app. The app would no longer be integrated into Publix current app, which caused a lot of confusion. The sub builder would be interactive and show images of the ingredients. There are great examples of this type of functionality already. Subway, as an example, (which taste-wise does not compare and I do not eat there, don’t @ me) has a really fun, colorful, intuitive sub builder on their app.
Additional features on the Pub Sub app should be real-time estimates on food, favorites for re-order, and push notifications, allowing customers to wander the store, rather than wait by the deli. These simple additions would make the experience much more pleasant and convenient for customers. The increase in online orders (an estimated difference of 3 or more minutes per order) would, in turn, increase employee productivity and happiness.
Revisiting Hannah and Friends:
How would this app improve the customer experience for the three personas?
With the new app, 9–5er Hannah feels confident in ordering her sub on the way to her car from her app. She has a favorite sub (turkey and swiss on wheat) so the whole process takes less than a minute. Her sub is ready by the time she gets to Publix, she makes a quick stop to grab her dry cleaning, and heads back to the office with plenty of time to enjoy her lunch.
Danielle, the stay-at-home Mom, visits the grocery store after picking kids up from soccer practice. She has a grocery list to get through and does not feel like cooking. She orders a roast beef sandwich for her husband and a chicken tender sub for herself. As she meanders through the store, she grabs the essentials, sees what’s on sale, and picks up some mac and cheese for the kids. As she is perusing the dairy aisle, she gets a push notification that her subs are ready!
Chris grabs his skimboard, towels and the cooler and packs it in the car. He has to stop somewhere for beer and ice anyway, so he decides he will grab some lunch too. He orders a whole chicken tender sub from his pubsub app as and heads toward Publix. A couple hours later, he instagrams a photo of himself biting into his delicious #pubsub. Life is good, brah.
The devotion and affection people have for Publix subs exists despite the difficulty and annoyance of ordering one. #pubsub love is a cultural phenomenon that Publix has yet to hone in on. This app would not only make the customer experience and the employee experience better, it would increase productivity, encourage greater brand loyalty, and increase organic impressions.
Next steps would be to design, prototype and test the proposed app. Until Publix calls and requests my assistance (or sends a legal team), I will keep those designs to myself.
psssst…Assuming you’re into UX research, innovative product design and, um, grocery shopping if you read this entire case study. So, if you’ve never watched this 1999 Dateline special featuring a team at IDEO rethinking the grocery cart, it’s a sweet little piece of design thinking history.