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Most retailers will claim that they’re listening to customers and responding to our needs – right before introducing changes that customers clearly hate. JCPenney now has been reduced to begging customers to come back, after more than a year of not listening to them at all. And for a variety of reasons, grocery chains Kroger, Jewel-Osco and Farm Fresh are coming under customer fire, for doing what they think customers want – instead of what customers are telling them they want.

First, JCPenney. About a month after unloading its CEO, along with his much-reviled no-more-coupons-and-sales policy (read: “RIP JCP CEO: No Coupons, No Sales = No Job”), the department store chain has issued an extraordinary mea culpa. In a new ad unveiled this week (watch the video above), an announcer speaks over soothing images and music, saying “it’s no secret” that JCPenney recently changed, characterizing some of those changes as “mistakes.” But “we learned a very simple thing,” the ad continues. “To listen to you.” The ad ends with a plea to customers to “come back to JCPenney. We heard you. Now, we’d love to see you.”

Of course, by saying they’re listening to their customers now, JCPenney is admitting that they weren’t before – Johnson was too busy holding his hands over his ears and shouting “LALALALALA” any time a customer complained about what he was doing to the chain. Reuters reports that “Penney’s internal marketing department came up with the (ad) concept several months ago,” which suggests either that Johnson was finally preparing to admit his mistakes, or that the astute marketing team was busily brainstorming behind his back.

Either way – listening to customers? What a concept! It only took JCPenney more than a year, and billions of dollars in lost sales, to learn that lesson. But is it a lesson that the aforementioned grocery chains might need to learn as well?

Kroger has come under fire since announcing last week that it will be eliminating double coupons in its Mid-Atlantic region (a story that was first confirmed right here: “Another One Bites the Double-Couponing Dust”). Instead, Kroger will lower prices throughout its Mid-Atlantic stores, a move it says will benefit many more people. It’s part of Kroger’s “customer first policy”, after all.

But is it another sign that a company thinks it knows what its customers want, better than the customers themselves do? Hundreds of angry shoppers responded to Kroger’s Facebook announcement of the new policy, before Kroger took down its post (along with all of the customer responses). People continue to comment, though, and many are vowing to stop shopping at Kroger. “I can assure you that you will be losing more business than a few coupons can account for,” one Facebook comment reads. Another commenter is unimpressed with the lower prices. “So, you’ve lowered prices to ALMOST meet Walmart’s prices. Yet you’ve stopped doubling coupons.”

Adding insult to couponers’ injury, though, is Kroger’s borderline-dismissive contention that no one will miss double coupons anyway. “Only 1% of our customers take advantage of double coupons,” is the company line that more than one Kroger spokesperson has used to justify the change. Which only begs the question, if so few people are using double coupons, how can eliminating them free up so much cash to make all of the “new low prices” possible? It may not make sense to couponers, but non-couponers like Laura Dooley of Virginia are helping to make Kroger’s case. “It’s not fair” that “people that take the hours a week they spend meal planning and couponing” are the ones who get to save the most, she tells Roanoke’s WDBJ-TV. “For people like me, who don’t have the patience” to coupon, she adds, the lower prices are “nice.”

Got that? It’s not “fair” that people who do the work get to save the most. Don’t stop shaking your head yet, though, because Kroger spokesman Carl York had this to say, to West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette: “I think double coupons is something that’s going to go away at some point. The industry is moving away from that.” Wishful thinking, perhaps? It’s not the first time a chain has predicted, or tried to bring about, the death of doubles (read: “Double Coupons: Dying Like Dinosaurs?”). In this case, it’s not “the industry” that’s moving away from double coupons so much as it is Kroger itself, which has now killed double coupons in four of its regions. Only a few regional competitors have followed suit, while others have expanded their programs with “super doubles” and triples. Even Walmart has quietly tested doubling coupons in select areas.

In the end, Kroger may be listening to its customers, but it’s not budging – and it wouldn’t surprise most shoppers if the no-doubles policy expands to other Kroger regions soon.

Meanwhile, Chicago-based Jewel-Osco is facing its own customer backlash, over an entirely different issue. It recently instituted a policy in which store employees would help bring your groceries to your car – whether you wanted them to or not. A story first reported right here (read: “Hand Over the Groceries, Ma’am, and No One Will Get Hurt”) has spread, leading to hundreds of angry comments on sites including JillCataldo.com, a number of Chicago-area Patch.com sites, and Jewel-Osco’s own Facebook page. Complaints range from simply not needing the help, not liking that help is given even when it’s declined, not wanting someone else to push a shopping cart when a young child is sitting in it, not liking the way someone else unloads groceries into a car, not wanting to display the contents of one’s messy trunk to others, and simply not appreciating something that’s supposed to be a friendly gesture but is forced upon everyone. “There is a fine line between customer service and customer harassment,” writes a Patch commenter who identifies him/herself as a Jewel employee. “The person who came up with this knows nothing about giving the customers what they want and many customers want their space when they shop.”

Is Jewel listening? It says it is. “We’ve received quite a bit of feedback on this new policy,” Jewel posted in response to one Facebook complaint. “Our goal was to make the shopping experience easier and more convenient for our customers; we are hoping to provide the higher level of service, which our competitors don’t offer.” Jewel assures customers that it’s “heard you loud and clear,” but so far, there’s been no change to the policy.
(5/3 update: Now there has been. Read “Controversial ‘Cart to Car’ Service Clarified: No Means No, After All”)

Ditto, in the case of a controversial new change at Virginia’s Farm Fresh stores. Once again, as first reported right here (read: “The New Supervalu: Low Prices, Fresh Food, and the Sales are a Secret”), Farm Fresh recently “simplified” its weekly ad circular, by highlighting only certain sale items and encouraging shoppers to come into the store to find out what else was on sale. Customers have been howling in protest. “Whoever thought it would be easier for someone to have to walk up and down every aisle to find out what’s on sale?” one Facebook commenter wrote. “Someone did not ask real customers how they felt about this before pulling this stunt,” wrote another.

At first, Farm Fresh seemed taken aback by the negative reactions, but its responses have since settled into a “we’ll take your comments into consideration” routine. “Our goal is to make the weekly ad more impactful for our customers,” spokesman Jeffrey Swanson told Coupons in the News, “while not making it difficult to shop us.” He wouldn’t say whether Farm Fresh is considering any changes, based on customer feedback.

So, whether they’re eliminating coupons and sales, eliminating double coupons, forcing help upon customers or keeping their sale items a secret, there’s no doubt that JCPenney, Kroger, Jewel-Osco and Farm Fresh are listening to their customers. For the latter three, it remains to be seen whether “listening” will translate into action. For troubled JCPenney, the big question is whether its decision to finally start listening is simply too little, too late.

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