The simplest and greatest marketing story ever told


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The Power of Giving and Delight

stew leonardStew Leonard opened his dairy store in Connecticut in 1969. During his first year in business he was asked by the local elementary school to come out and speak on career day. The prinicipal asked Stew to talk about his store and the dairy business. Even though Stew didn’t see the appeal for kids, he reluctantly agreed.

As Stew pulled into the parking lot he knew instantly he was in trouble. There was a fire truck parked in front of the school with kids all around it.

fire truck

It didn’t get any better when he walked through the doors of the school.


He immediately saw a room about the Air Force playing a movie about the history of jet airplanes. It was filled with kids. Across the hall was a police officer and we showing a packed classroom about various police equipment and weapons.

He proceeded to walk down the hall and eventually found his classroom. There was a sign on the  door that read THE MILK BUSINESS.

the milk business

Stew walked in the room to find only three kids sitting there. Two of them were the sons of his produce manager. For the next 30 minutes he talked about the dairy business and running a store. At the end of the talk he thanked the kids. Stew then reached into his pocket and handed them each a coupon for a free ice cream. The kids left and Stew waited to present the second of two Career Day sessions. He waited and waited . . . no kids. 15 minutes, still no kids. After 20 minutes the prinicipal came rushing in and exclaimed,

move the next session

imagesThis simple story underscores the power of giving and how effective word of mouth marketing can be. I had a chance to hear Stew tell this story four years ago. He shared it during a talk about his book and memoir, “My Story” at an event sponsored by the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce.

The Backstory

For nine years I lived about 300 yards from the original Stew Leonard’s. It was one of the main inspirations behind my first book, “What’s Your Purple Goldfish.” For those not familiar with the legend of Stew and store, here’s some further background:

clover truckStew Leonard grew up the son of a dairy farmer who was in the milk delivery business. His father Charles Leo Leonard opened Clover Dairy Farms in the 1920?s. Proof that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Clover’s fresh milk was delivered daily by trucks that had plastic cows on the front that “mooed” for the neighborhood children.

The 1960?s brought a time of great change for Clover. Two things would shake the core of the business. First, the milk delivery business was dying on the vine. Second, the State of Connecticut evoked eminent domain and furrowed his dairy farm to make room for a new highway called Route 7. Stew needed to shift. He soon envisioned a retail dairy store where children couldStew Senior watch milk being bottled, while mothers did their shopping in a farmer’s market atmosphere. In December 1969, Stew Leonard’s opened its doors. Located on Route 1 in Norwalk, it was a 17,000 square foot store carrying just eight items.

Fast forward 40 plus years. Did Stew achieve his vision? Stew Leonard’s was dubbed the “Disneyland of Dairy Stores” by the New York Times, because of its own milk processing plant, costumed characters, scheduled entertainment, petting zoo and animatronics throughout the stores. In the words of Stew, “Where kids go, customers follow.” The Guinness Book of World Records cites Stew Leonard’s as the food store in the United States with the greatest sales per square foot. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! identified Stew Leonard’s as the world’s largest dairy store.

5 Loyalty Takeaways from Stew Leonard’s

These milestones were achieved because of the passion, loyalty and word of mouth generated by his customers. 100,000+ of whom visit his flagship store in Norwalk each week. Want happy customers? Want to drive word of mouth? Here are five lessons:

  1. sl_fortune_banner_320x456It Starts With Employees – Similar to Walt Disney, Stew realized he need people to help bring his vision to life. He strived to make the store a great place to work. For each year over the last decade, Fortune has ranked Stew Leonard’s as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. Stew shared his hiring philosophy with the New York Times. He would rate prospective employees on a friendliness scale from 1 to 10, “Then I hire only the 10?s.” If hiring is key, Stew recognizes ongoing care is vital,”Take good care of your people and they in turn will take good care of your customers.”
  2. Listen to Your Customers – Stew’s is famous for a 3-ton piece of granite in the entrance. Chiseled into the stone, “Rule #1 — The Customer is Always Right”; Rule #2 – If the Customer is Ever Wrong, Re-Read Rule #1.” It’s one thing to talk a good game, but how do you operationalize it? Part of the answer for Stew’s is the Customer Suggestion Box. Each day the box is emptied, the suggestions written up and place in the employee break room. If a suggestion makes sense, changes are made immediately.
  3. Stay Focused and Offer Value – Stew’s mission is simple. “Create happy customers… by selling the freshest products at the best prices in a friendly, fun atmosphere.” Most full service grocery stores carry upwards of 30,000 items. Stew’s carries just 2,000. The store always buys direct from manufacturers. By going deep on fewer items, he gets preferred pricing which in turn offers great value for customers.
  4. stews-samplesSample, Sample, SampleCostco has nothing on Stew Leonard’s. Walk through the store during the day and its sampling central. Lemonade, rice cakes, cookies, chips, cheese, fresh mozzarella are just some of the options. Sampling is the lowest hanging fruit in marketing. It’s a marketing tool that Stew’s wields to great effect.
  5. Always Do The Little Extra – Invest in the little things to create an experience for your customers. I frequently use Stew Leonard’s as an example when I try to explain what a purple goldfish is. Stew’s has a handful of extras. My favorite is the free ice cream with a purchase of $100 or more in groceries. It’s that little extra or unexpected ‘WOW’ according to Stew.

Last Words

A few years ago I was sharing the story of Stew and his visit to the elementary school to a few fellow volunteers at Assumption Church in Westport, CT. I mentioned the free ice cream with purchase. An older woman named Helen chuckled. She mentioned that she thought it was a neat idea when it was originally announced. Unfortunately though she didn’t like ice cream. It prompted Helen to leave a note in the suggestion box,”Why don’t you offer either a free cup of coffee or a free ice cream when you purchase $100 or more?” The very next time Helen visited she saw the policy had changed. She walked out that day with a free cup of coffee and a trunkload of groceries.

Today’s Lagniappe (a little something extra thrown in for good measure) – Funny or Die did a sketch with Christopher Walken and Richard Belzer called Cooking with Christopher WalkenIn the beginning they do their shopping at Stew’s:

A Family Affair

Stew Leonard Jr. has now been at the helm since 1987. Similar to his Dad, Stew Jr. has helped grow the brand. Stew Leonard’s now consists of five supermarkets and nine wine stores. His sisters and brother are also involved. Here is a classic commercial featuring Jr.:

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Stan Phelps
Stan Phelps is the Chief Measurement Officer at 9 INCH marketing. 9 INCH helps organizations develop custom solutions around both customer and employee experience. Stan believes the 'longest and hardest nine inches' in marketing is the distance between the brain and the heart of your customer. He is the author of Purple Goldfish, Green Goldfish and Golden Goldfish.


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