What Google and Costco Could Learn from Whole Foods

Google, Costco, and Whole Foods.

They have one thing in common and it’s not food!

It’s Search.

I admit I have a love/hate relationship with Costco.

I love their business model. Their CEO is terrific and who can resist the hot dogs, chocolate acai berries, and low prices.

But it feels to me like Costco goes out of its way to make it hard for you to find things.

There are no signs at the head of the aisles. Employees are few and far between on the floor.

Their CEO once described a visit to Costco as a “treasure hunt.”

For many people this is fine. Wandering around tasting samples, buying extra- large-this and oversize – that. It’s what makes Costco so enjoyable for them.

Maybe if there were some gold buried in the store I could go along with the treasure hunt analogy.

But I’m a guy. I don’t wander when shopping.

I view my trips to Costco as surgical strikes.

Get in. Get Out. 15 minutes max.

It can be done folks, I promise you.

But you have to know where everything is and with few staff out on the floor, and no signage, you’re on your own.

I thought I had the search pattern down pat until a recent visit. My internal Costo GPS, honed from multiple visits, knew the precise location of the eggs and milk.

What I didn’t know was that Costco had changed its algorithm and relocated them to a new location.

I spent an extra ten minutes in the store that day in an endless search.

It was very frustrating.

Costco, your Search Engine sucks.

If Google were the Costco of Search Engines it would be long gone.  Even if it gave away free hot dogs with each Search Query.

On the other hand, there’s Whole Foods.

The first thing to notice is that unlike Costco, Whole Foods has lots of mini-search-engines sprinkled throughout the store. They are called staff.

They are everywhere and unlike Costco, you don’t have to search for these search engines!

You can ask for the obvious like “where’s the bread” or you can really test them with “where’s the orange flower water?”

Either way, the result’s the same.  You are walked to the exact location.

Now that’s what I call the Perfect Search Result.

And BTW, I’ve tried this in multiple stores and it works flawlessly each time. Amazing!

So this got me thinking, what if Google were more like Whole Foods?

You type in what you want and you are taken to exactly the “shelf” you are looking for.

Imagine that!

I suppose the difference is that there’s only one or two “orange flower waters” in Whole Foods but maybe dozens found by Google.

What makes the Whole Foods experience so good is that the assistant fine tunes my search on the spot. “You want loose oat meal or boxed?”

Then takes me to the appropriate spot.

With Google, I’m often in the dark after a search.

OK, I see all those search results for “orange flower water” but which do I choose?

Perhaps that’s where Google Plus can help. Maybe when Google “takes me to the aisle”, they show me all the “pluses” from others which indicates the best spot to buy from.

Or maybe that’s the time for a human connection.

Someone comes up in chat and asks me if I’ve found what I’m looking for, then helps me with the final step.

OK, I’m dreaming!

So my wish for 2012 is for Costco and Google to learn from Whole Foods and be ultra helpful with searches.

And then maybe I can achieve the ultimate.

Successful one time searches on Google and in and out of Costco in ten minutes.

Frank Coyle About the author
  • Jason


    Thank you for sharing your opinion. I am a current Costco employee and while I can understand where you are coming from (it’s a complaint I hear and deal with a lot), I think that it’s necessary that the other side of the coin is revealed as well. While I commend whole foods on their customer service, their prices are pretty high and their stores aren’t as busy which allows them to have the customer service that they do. Make no mistake, Costco does care about customer service and I can’t tell you how many times a day that I hear from a manager, “It’s all about customer service.” I would guess however that we are dealing with a significantly higher number of traffic along with razor thin margins on our product which allows people to save money but doesn’t quite allow us the ability to have a large number of staff on the floor. My recommendation to you is if you are having trouble finding a few things, ask about them when you get to the register. I often run out to grab items for members when they come up front having not been able to find them (and I do mean run because after all, it’s good customer service). We are happy to help you in any way possible, just have us run out to the floor to grab it for you when you get up front rather than wandering around trying to find it. I hope that this will be helpful to you and all who read your blog. In the end, if immediate customer service is the most important for you and you’re willing to pay more for it, head to Whole Foods. If saving money is the most important for you and you’re willing to wait for help, go to Costco. Thanks for your time.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:46 am

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