A Sound Business Decision?

A few years ago, a regionally local grocery store chain made an innovative decision to begin offering free daycare within the store. As far as I know, they were the first (and, the only) major grocery chain to attempt something of this nature. The chain is known as Giant Food or Martin’s, depending on where the stores are located, and they are operated out of Pennsylvania. The chain dots most of the central-eastern seaboard from Pennsylvania down to North Carolina.

As I said, they opened centers inside of many of their stores called “Tree Houses”, which were structured environments in which children from ages three to ten could be entertained while their parents did the grocery shopping. Each patron of Martin’s, upon registering with the Tree House, could leave their children with the helpful, capable staff within the Tree House for up to 90 minutes on each shopping trip.

Safeway later attempted to counter this concept by offering handheld televisions attached to each shopping cart. As a parent, I find the concept of the Tree House (which includes computers, books, toys, televisions, crafts and interpersonal interaction) fantastic. I find the concept of a television attached to the shopping cart insulting.

Unforttunately, Martin’s/Giant Food announced earlier this month that the majority of the Tree House centers within their grocery stores would be shutting down indefinitely as of Thursday, July 30, 2009. They will be leaving a handful of the centers open in larger metropolitan areas. The decision was apparently made because of low participation in the service.

Is this a sound business decision for Martin’s/Giant Foods? I suppose only time will really tell; but, as I see it, they had a lot of other options they could have considered before making the decision to shut them down altogether. As far as I know, none of these alternatives were attempted by the corporation.

  1. In our local area, at least, there are two Martin’s stores within five miles of each other that both have a Tree House center inside. We have received word that they will be closing both Tree House centers. To me, it would have made perfect sense to first try closing one of the Tree House centers and see if the traffic from the two separate centers would migrate into one.
  2. The Tree House centers currently operate seven days each week from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. Because the majority of families do their major grocery shopping on the weekends, it would also make sense to me to cut back on the hours the Tree House operates to see if the value of the Tree House increased in proportion to the cost.
  3. The Tree House has been completely free (on the surface, at least) to all patrons of Martin’s since its inception. For a service like this, I, along with quite a few other parents with whom I’ve spoken, would be more than willing to pay a nominal fee for the service. This was not attempted, either.

To me, the concept of shutting down the Tree House centers altogether is equivalent to someone owning two cars, finding that one of them has been getting gradually lower gas mileage, then making the decision to stop driving at all because of that.

Unfortunately, this decision has far-reaching consequences for everyone in the area. First of all, there are at least five to ten employees in each of the stores that will be essentially losing their jobs. As far as I know, they do have the option to make the switch from Tree House attendant to checker/bagger, but that means a drastic change in schedule and, for many of them, it means they will be working well below their qualifications (to work at the Tree House, you had to be vetted and fully qualified to work with children).

For other patrons (those without children), it means that the peace they experienced within the grocery store is going to be severely diminished. As many of you have probably noticed during your trips to various stores, there is almost always one or two ill-behaved children making a ruckus within the store. This is due, in part, to poor parenting. However, this is also due, in large part, to kids just being kids. Many of you may like to remember fondly how well-behaved you were at all times; but most of us also know that that’s not entirely true.

For Martin’s/Giant Food, many of their loyal patrons will stop shopping at the stores. I have spoken to quite a few parents (myself included – yes, I talk to myself) who have made it clear that they will not be shopping at Martin’s without the Tree House. For many of us, the sole reason we shopped at Martin’s was the Tree House. If we want to grocery shop with our kids following us everywhere we go, constantly begging for something and generally being impatient, it is much more convenient and generally less expensive for us to shop somewhere like WalMart. However, the Tree House offered an opportunity for all of us to take a break and actually peruse the products available at Martin’s/Giant. We generally ended up spending more than we normally would have on each trip, simply because we had time and energy to look and think about what we wanted.

The conversation about this business decision has popped up online in a few places, and has generally caused quite a nasty exchange of opinions. In each of the instances where I’ve found a conversation about this decision, I’ve only read one or two comments on the story before I start seeing comments like: “You parents are all lazy and don’t feel like paying attention to your kids. My parents didn’t have anything like this and they got by just fine. Your kids are only bad because you don’t like them. Why don’t you go and whine somewhere else. Maybe this change will make things better for the rest of us and save us money.” To those types of comments, I have the following responses:

  1. The Tree House offers the same type of structure and interpersonal interaction that a school or daycare facility would. If you think parents are lazy or inattentive for placing their children in that type of environment while they shop, I wonder if you are also opposed to children attending school. Within the Tree House, there are computer games and a television available, but there are also educational toys and structured activities. For many of us in rural areas, the Tree House offers the only real opportunity for our children to actually interact with other kids. Despite what those negative commenters have to say, placing our children in the Tree House, for many of us, was a sound decision specifically made with the development of our children in mind.
  2. If you are under the impression that Martin’s/Giant Food will be lowering their prices as a result of this decision, you are sadly mistaken. If anything, this decision is an indicator that they will either be raising their prices again or even that they may be going out of business. They are obviously in financial trouble (there are other indicators in the stores, as well). I do have trouble understanding, however, how this decision will improve things for them.
  3. Our parents did not have these options. You are absolutely correct. However, there are a lot of other things our parents and grandparents didn’t have. Does that make them all inherently bad? When our parents were children, they didn’t have seatbelts. When we were children, we didn’t have seatbelt laws. Does that mean that any parent that makes their child use a seatbelt in the car is being lazy and inattentive? I suppose it does.

I am curious to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this matter (keep it civil, though, please). Do you think this is a sound business decision for Martin’s/Giant Foods? Are you aware of any other stores offering this type of service? What other types of drastic cuts are you seeing in your area?

If you have used or do use the Tree House service in your local store, you can call the toll-free number for Martin’s at 888-5-MARTINS (1-888-562-7846) and lodge a complaint. I have no idea whether that will make any difference, but it’s certainly worth a try.

One Response

  • I’m really having trouble believing parents weren’t using this service in big numbers (especially as the service was free). They don’t have anything like this in Australia unfortunately. Actually, I’d be happy to pay a one or two dollar coin for this service if I was going to do a long shop. I’m suprised Martin’s didn’t trial that option.

    When I put my marketing hat on, I think this service provides the store with a big competitive advantage. However, at the end of the day I’m sure they’ve put a lot of effort into number crunching the viability of this service. And for a retailer it is all about sales/square foot. By replacing the child service with aisles of mercandise, I assume the sales will far outweigh the additional sales generated by customers using the service.