Grocery store focus group

This focus group was run by L&E Opinions, ran on Thursday, March 16, 2023 from 9 – 11 a.m., at The Casso hotel, and I was paid with a $150 Amazon gift card.

I’m in the L&E Opinion’s database as an interested focus group participant, and I’ve participated in many of their taste tests and focus groups over the years. But I have to say that this one was like none of the others I’ve ever participated in.

Two things about it that were “firsts” for me were:

  1. They had a “lottery slot,” and one of the 9 qualified participants who were there “won” the lottery, which meant they were “dismissed with pay.”
  2. They used a “jury method” to conduct this focus group.

How I ended up participating

I submitted my interest in participating a couple of weeks prior to the meeting, but I didn’t get chosen. Then, on the Monday before the Thursday meeting, a recruiter emailed me saying:

“You recently completed a screening for our in-person grocery study and did not qualify. The client has changed the quotas they want, and I believe you would now qualify. Let me know if you’re still interested in participating.”

I answered yes immediately and she followed up with: “Since you didn’t qualify when you did the screening, I need you to answer these questions, and I’ll put you in the 9 AM group.” These were the questions, with my answers included:

  1. What do you like about shopping at Publix?

    I like that it’s downtown and so close to our house. I also like how they put a bunch of BOGO items in the area where you first enter, and I love their made-to-order subs in their deli.

  2. How satisfied are you? Would you recommend to others? How disappointed would you be if they closed?

    I’m very satisfied. I often recommend it to others. I would be devastated if they closed!

  3. Of the last 10 grocery shops how many were in store or online?

    All were in the store.

  4. Fun question: Use your imagination! If money were no object, what would your favorite dinner be? What would you have? Where would it be at? Who would you invite?

    A dinner for 4 or 6 with close friends. I’d ask each of the attendees what their favorite meal is and try to work in an element of each in our meal. Weather permitting, on our beautiful, screened-in back porch! Sam & Neal and Jaleh & Danny—good friends of ours whose company we really enjoy.

The morning of the focus group

Focus group calling at 8:23: “I’m just calling to remind you of your focus group at 9AM today.”
Me: “Yes, I’m leaving in 7 minutes. Thank you.
Bob, hearing my end of the call: “Focus group?”
Me: “Yes; they obviously don’t know me. I have a calendar entry, an iReminder notification, and 2 alarms set.”

Like the instructions in our email told us to, I arrived 15 minutes before 9:00 at the meeting place, The Casso in downtown Raleigh, a fairly new hotel, which I’d never been to. I followed the instructions about parking that were also included in our email: “Make sure you bring your parking garage ticket upstairs with you, so it can be validated to avoid paying parking fees when you leave.”

At almost start time, I may have posted this on social media:

Not to be a Judgy Judgerson or anything, but it’s 8:58 and “Jeff,” “Cindy,” & “Theresa” aren’t here yet. (I see their awaiting name tags.*)

Cindy came rushing out of the elevator at 8:59, trying to rifle through her purse while she walked, looking for her parking ticket. “I must have dropped it on the way up,” she said exasperated. Aside: I had stopped in the lobby after the meeting to text something, and she came running through the lobby toward the parking garage. Late to arrive. Lost her parking ticket. Late for her next big thing. Cindy’s got a lot going on.

By 9:04, they still hadn’t taken us back to the conference room where the meeting would be held, and Jeff came bounding in, not only 19 minutes later than he was told to be there, but 4 minutes after the gig was to start. People.

Right before we went back, one of the staff came out and said, “Which one of you is Julie?” Julie identified herself and they told her, “You’ve won the lottery. You’re free to go. You’ll still get your $150 honorarium for participating. It’ll arrive in your email within 3 business days. Thanks for coming today. Goodbye.”

The introduction

The first thing we learned was that we had been chosen by our passion for either Publix or Wegmans grocery stores and were divided into “Team Publix” and “Team Wegmans.”

Joe, the leader of the staff and the meeting, addressed the room: “We’re going to be using what’s called “a jury method” to run the focus group today. Actually, I’m going to be the judge, since I’ll be the only one ruling at the end, so there’s not really a jury.”

There were 4 of us on each team, and he invited us to each take one of the seats at our respective team’s table, where there were already two people sitting, whom Joe then introduced as our team moderators. At our Team Publix table, we all said polite hellos, and then turned our attention back to Joe.

Joe continued: So how this is going to work is that there will be 3 distinct phases of the meeting:

  1. Opening statements
  2. Rebuttals
  3. Closing statements

The opening statements phase

In the opening statement phase, you’re each going to make a claim (a declarative statement) about why your grocery store is the best, then devise 5 supporting points for that claim, and finally summarize it with a “pitch” statement.

You should devise individual supporting points (which can actually be more than 5), then discuss them all as a group and settle on 5 that you’ll present to the other team along with your opening and pitch statements. My original (6) supporting points about Publix were:

  1. It’s within walking distance of my house, and my husband sometimes does just that to get some exercise in when we need only a few things.

  2. As the only full-service grocery store in downtown Raleigh, it legitimizes our downtown/city.

  3. Their products—they have a BOGO area when you first enter the store, a fantastic bakery, and their deli has the best made-to-order subs, with daily specials for one kind of sub or another.

  4. They have a pharmacy with a great staff.

  5. They have excellent customer service, especially at the checkout counter, where there’s usually both a cashier and a bagger, and the bagger always asks, “Would you like help taking this out to your car?”

  6. I don’t have to worry about “Publix” seemingly needing an apostrophe in its name like I do with “Wegmans.”

After discussing everyone’s 5 points, we came up with our group response, which not surprisingly, didn’t include my grammatical concern about the Wegmans name. But I’ve let that go.

To go with our 5 points, we devised our declarative statement: “It’s everything you need without going overboard.”

And our pitch statement: “It’s your everyday grocery store, not a restaurant.”

The pharmacy has a star by it, because we had all agreed that that was its biggest differentiator from Wegmans, and we were going to put it first. But, I was the scribe, and I forgot to list it first, so that’s how we denoted it.

Team Wegmans went first presenting their equivalent work in support of their store, and the person they elected to present theirs, Ariana, was phenomenal—so much so that after she was done, I said to our team, “I think Ariana secretly works for Wegmans.”

Dawn presented our case, and then we moved on to the rebuttal phase.

The rebuttals phase

In this phase, we had to fill out a similar wall chart on which we had to rebut each of the 5 points that the other team presented about their store in the previous phase.

It may have been (okay, it definitely was) while devising these rebuttals of Team Wegmans’ points, for which we only had 20 minutes, that I first became annoyed with one of my teammates. Diane had two aggravating proclivities:

  1. Providing excruciatingly detailed examples
  2. Hyperbole to the point of losing credibility

Let me ‘splain:

Excruciating detail examples

About great customer service at the pharmacy, she said: “I take methotrexate, which is hard to get, but the Publix pharmacy not only got it for me, but they called me when it was in. I take Methotrexate for my rheumatoid arthritis. I take it orally, once a week, and it’s one of those drugs that may take several months before you get the full benefit of taking it.”

Me, by this time, thinking: OKAY! LOOK AT THE TIME! THIS IS ONE EXAMPLE OF ONE POINT OF FIVE WE HAVE TO DEVISE. Let me edit your example for you as a model for future points you make: “I take methotrexate, which is hard to get, but the Publix pharmacy not only found some for me, they called me when it was in. [FULL STOP]

About a price increase at Wegmans, she said: “My husband uses one of the Wegmans brand salad dressing for a recipe. It’s an old family recipe that his family makes. They’re from New Orleans and this dish needs an ingredient that’s only found in that Wegmans brand salad dressing, and the price has gone up from $.89 a bottle to $1.89 a bottle. That’s over a 100% increase!”

With flames on the side of my face, my edit: “My husband uses one of the Wegmans brand salad dressing for a recipe. It’s gone up from $.89 a bottle to $1.89 a bottle. [FULL STOP].

Hyperbole at the expense of credibility

In most of her points, she used the most extreme superlatives to the point of being incredulous: “Every time I go into Wegmans, the wi-fi doesn’t work. I can never find anything I’m looking for in their app. I can’t ever get through the store without getting lost, and someone always hits my ankles with their cart.”

I mean I was on her team, and I was already coming up with rebuttals to her statements: Personally, I can’t remember a time their wi-fi didn’t work. I only had one problem with their app—because the store location defaulted to a store in Virginia—and a customer service person knew that and promptly fixed it for me. I’ve gotten through the store at least 3 times without getting lost, and to-date, no one has clipped my ankles with a cart. Just sayin’.

The closing statements phase

In this final phase, each team had to concede one of the other team’s 5 points. Each team did this in the form of a “back-handed compliment,” which we were coached to do by the moderators at our respective tables.

Team Publix’s concession

We conceded that Wegmans has a food court and Publix doesn’t, which we immediately followed with, “You said if we don’t like it, we don’t have to use it, but it adds traffic in the parking lot, congestion in the store, and the store has to pay for all that space and the labor to operate it, which contributes to higher prices there.”

Team Wegmans’ concession

They conceded that Publix has a pharmacy and Wegmans doesn’t, which they immediately followed with, “But not everyone uses a pharmacy, and some people don’t have insurance to even be able to use a pharmacy, and there are plenty of other pharmacies around.”

We had to end this phase with a final, sort of tag line about our store, and ours was: “If you want a grocery-shopping experience without a dinner and a show, go to Publix.” This was a dig at how they described their store as an “experience” as opposed to “just shopping for groceries.”

The judging

Judge Joe asked, “Before I step out to make my ruling, I have one last question for each of the teams: “What’s your favorite department in your store?”

Our team couldn’t think of a particular department right away, so the Wegmans team shared theirs. (Which I promptly forgot.)

Looking back at our team, I said to Judge Joe, “I don’t know if it’s a department per se, but I’d have to say the checkout area. There’s almost always 2 cashiers in every line that is open, they do a great job of training and developing baggers, and the baggers always ask you if you would like help getting your bags to your car.

Everyone involved in checking out is just so nice. My husband loves chatting with them (and they with him, probably to the chagrin of the people in line behind him), but he knows so much about them, that he’ll come home and say things like, “Oh, Mary [the cashier at checkout #3], finally had her eye appointment and everything went well, She only had a slight change in her prescription.”

At this point, Judge Joe stepped out of the conference room, and after about 3 minutes, returned. One of the moderators said, “Ladies and Gentleman, the honorable Judge Joe.”

To which I quipped, “ALL RISE.” And everyone did. 😂

Joe said: First let me say that both teams did a great job. You were obviously passionate about your stores and each put forth a compelling case for yours.

I’m from near Cincinnati, and we don’t have either of these stores there, and you’ve piqued my interest about them so much that I plan to visit both of them before I leave Raleigh.

With that said, I’d have to say that Team Publix did the best job in convincing me that Publix is the better store, with it helping me to get in, do my grocery shopping, and get out.


Even though the emails stressed that it could be up to 3 business days before we received our “honorarium” for participating, and in fact, Judge Joe reminded us of that as we were leaving, by the time I got across town to Planet Fitness, I had a link to this in my email:

*The names of all of the participants, as well as the staff running the meeting, have been changed throughout.

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