When my parents opened Fulton’s Market in the late 1960s, they believed they were launching a family enterprise that would enable them to spend quality time with each other and their three boys. My mother left a career in nursing and my father dropped two part-time jobs to devote their attention to this new venture, a neighborhood grocery store in Ocean City, New Jersey.
My family moved into the cramped apartment above the store and the tiny kitchen and living room on the ground floor. We all started adjusting to dinnertime with visitors in the next room … customers.
Despite the serious price advantages offered to shoppers at the local supermarket, our neighbors seemed to like the convenience of dropping in for basic stuff like the daily newspaper, milk, bread, lunchmeat, cigarettes, soft drinks, snacks, ice cream, etc. Summer tourists provided a robust flow of customers from May to September. Life was good for my family.
Dad had been a school bus driver and egg retailer. My friends in junior high school who rode his bus said they liked him. As far as I knew, his egg business customers felt likewise. That’s why it was surprising to me that he panicked when Fulton’s Market first opened and he had to wait on customers.
Initially, he loved stocking shelves, cleaning, sweeping and making everything look perfect. But when a customer walked in, he quickly retreated through the doorway into the downstairs kitchen and told my mother, “You have a customer.”
Mom was perplexed by his behavior and she quickly tired of being the only customer interface for Fulton’s Market. “What’s wrong, Tom?” she asked my dad. I can’t remember his excuse for his behavior, but I believe he was intimidated by waiting on strangers and making a mistake.
I’d like to say that Mom patiently indulged his insecurity, but she didn’t. She reminded him that he had interacted with people all the time in prior jobs and that he needed to get over his fear in a hurry because she couldn’t cut lunchmeat for a customer and ring up another one’s cigarettes at the same time.
Dad Takes Over
Somehow the message got through and Dad changed. Before long, he was telling my mother to stick to filling lunchmeat orders and he would cover the rest. Eventually, he even mastered slicing and weighing cold cuts.
But the transformation didn’t stop there. Dad morphed into the Fulton’s Market maven. Every customer became an opportunity to engage in a dialogue on something. Dad wasn’t picky about conversation subject matter. He had an opinion on everything.
Most customers politely indulged him for a few minutes and left with a smile on their face. Others rose to the challenge and engage in full-scale debates. Eventually, a handful of customers counted on a bull session along with their pound of boloney.
During the summer months, vacationing college students, who lived in nearby rentals and spent their time working menial jobs and partying, frequently stumbled into Fulton’s Market for some late-night supplies of pretzels and chips. They loved telling the “old man” their tales of woe and getting a lecture on how to straighten out their life.
My dad’s approach to customer service was simple and instinctive. He really liked talking to people and he showed a genuine interest in them. His customers sensed that and they enjoyed his unique personality.
If a customer had an issue with something, Dad did what he could to make the shopper happy. Freebies of some sort (maybe a package of Tastykake chocolate cupcakes) might be offered. Even when the aggrieved party declined the peace gesture, customer satisfaction usually prevailed. It seems they just wanted to feel that they had been heard.
Dad proved that providing successful customer service isn’t a mystery: Care about your customers. Engage them and find out what they really want. Provide good products at a fair price. Treat your patrons with respect. Do your best to make them happy.
Fulton’s Market hummed along until a new convenience store opened five blocks away. The competition took its toll. But it was a devastating calamity that delivered the death blow to the family enterprise.
Next Chapter: Fulton’s Market Folds.