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A Tale of Two Icons

In the sleepy Little Bavaria known as Frankenmuth, Michigan are two world-famous businesses. One of them is Bronner’s CHRISTmas WONDERLAND! The other is Zehnder’s Restaurant and their “World-Famous Chicken Dinners.” 

Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland two weeks before Christmas.

Bronner’s is a mecca for anyone who loves Christmas. It is over 90,000 square feet of all Christmas all the time. Tens of thousands of ornaments from all over the globe grace display upon display upon display. Buses stop frequently all year long bringing tourists to this amazing store. Like Toy House, Bronner’s was also named “One of the 25 best independent stores in America” in the book Retail Superstars by George Whalin (Penguin 2009).

Zehnder’s is a massive restaurant with several dining rooms and a chicken dinner you drive to get. (They also have a water-park hotel, golf course, and marketplace, but the restaurant is the crown jewel.)

A typical trip to Frankenmuth requires a stop at both of these iconic businesses.

I made that trip last Saturday to get into the Christmas Spirit. It worked! The trip, however, was not without its lessons.

It was the Saturday two weeks before Christmas. I knew it would be busy. I expected it to be mobbed. I was prepared for the throngs of shoppers and diners.

Zehnder’s, apparently, was not. When we entered the restaurant there was no clear way to go. There appeared to be a line that eventually split into two lines, but then again there were people milling about on chairs in a lounge-type area. Being a guy, I looked for signs. Didn’t find any. We got into what appeared to be the back of the line, but then again, the mass of people standing everywhere made it hard to be sure we were at the back of the line, or if we were even in the right line because it now looked like there might be three separate lines.

Fortunately the people who got into line behind us confirmed we were in the right line. They had waited almost 30 minutes in the wrong line before being directed to our spot.

Another fifteen minutes passed in this line until we met the host who then informed us to go stand in another line and that we would be seated in approximately an hour and a half.

Now mind you, this was at 2:10pm in the afternoon. Can you imagine what noon and 5pm looked like? Nowhere was there a sign directing traffic. Nowhere were there ropes to guide you. There were a couple of unhappy employees (I assume they were employees because unlike everyone else, they weren’t wearing or holding jackets, but they also weren’t wearing uniforms or name-tags) directing traffic by occasionally yelling at people entering the building and telling them where to go.

Zehnder’s has been open since 1856. This isn’t their first rodeo. I doubt this crowd was that much bigger than usual. In fact I would bet they have crowds like this every year at this time, if not every Saturday all year long. You would think they would have a better system for crowd control by now. It was more the lack of crowd control that caused my party to decide not to eat there than it was the two hour wait time. We could have waited if we felt cared for, if we felt confident they knew what they were doing. But this obvious lack of control was unsettling.

Contrast that to Bronner’s.

A quick Google search tells me that Frankenmuth, MI has a population of 5,131 people (2016). Most of them must work at Bronner’s. Bronner’s website tells me they get about 50,000 visitors over Black Friday weekend. Doing the math, I would guess there were at least 5,000-10,000 of my new best friends in the store shopping with me last Saturday.

Yet as crowded as it was, it wasn’t hard to get around. The signage was spectacular and easy to see. They also had maps available to guide us to the several different departments. I was never more than twenty feet away from a red-vested employee eager to help me find what I wanted. In fact, they had several information stands staffed by at least two employees all throughout the store.

It was everything you would expect from a top-level retailer. They were prepared for a busy day and it showed. I spent two wonderful hours there, soaking up all the Christmas Joy and basking in the fun and excitement of retail done right. The store was packed with people and strollers and shopping carts. You couldn’t move fast, often having to shuffle along from one display to the next, but you never felt crowded. The eager, friendly staff and the amazing merchandising and displays made the crowds more bearable and put everyone, especially the shoppers, into a better mood.

That was the lesson right there.

Don’t meet your customer’s expectations and they walk away frustrated and disappointed. Meet and exceed your customer’s expectations and they stay and shop and have fun. I stayed and shopped and had a blast!

More important than how much a customer spent is how that customer felt about it. I’m sure many people walked away from Zehnder’s after waiting over an hour for their chicken dinner thinking, “Okay, I did that. Won’t have to do it again.” while many people walked away from Bronner’s thinking, “That was fun! I can’t wait to do it again.”

Which response would you rather have?

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS If you’re expecting a crowd, plan for it. Make sure your customers know exactly where to go and what to do. If you are expecting a lot of new faces, have maps and flyers telling them where to go and what to do. Act like you’ve been there and done that and that you expected to be this busy. Most of all, act like you’re having fun! Your mood affects the mood of everyone. If you act like you’re stressed, your customers will feel stressed. if you act like big crowds weren’t expected, your customers will not believe you to be all that wonderful.

PPS I am not knocking Zehnder’s at all. I am sure they are a fine restaurant and I know their chicken dinner is spectacular. But I guess because they are “world-famous” and have been around since before the Civil War I expected so much more out of them. That’s the one problem with being world-famous. The bar is set much higher. You have to be better than everyone else at everything. That’s also why advertising that you have “great customer service” is dangerous. First, it tells the customer nothing. Second, it raises the bar of expectation. Don’t tell me you have “great customer service.” Show me one really cool thing you do for me (and leave the other really cool things you do unspoken so that you’ll surprise and delight me.)