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Groceryshop 2019 – A Recap

Another Groceryshop is in the books and after sitting in more than 30 educational sessions and talking with technology providers that address opportunities across the retail environment, there’s a lot to digest. Any conference done well isn’t for the faint of heart, this one is no exception. Tons of smart people, lots of great conversations, and a to-do list that will make my team wonder what hit them are what comes of diving into Groceryshop. Let’s see if I can distill which topics resonated the most for me as they relate to independent grocers.

Data

Nobody thinks this data thing is easy. There’s too much of it, it’s raw, and all over the place. In the first session I attended, Heather Kang from Mars hit on what would become an often-reiterated point about data. Data is sexy but rather than analyzing all data all the time, it comes back to knowing what business problems need solving. Then, the data can be used to address those opportunities. Amy McClellan from Martin’s also reminded everyone of a very important aspect of data: “Data doesn’t do things on its own. If you don’t take action on what it is telling you or it’s all for nothing.” I really liked Brian Sappington from Coca Cola’s example of their application of data insights from their FreeStyle machines leading them to the launch of Orange Vanilla Coke. Independent grocers need to first make sure they’re paying attention to collecting data, then not get overwhelmed into inaction by all of it. Clarify each opportunity and apply the right data.

eCommerce

Speaking of not easy, eCommerce is still a conundrum. Natively digital companies are opening brick and mortar stores and even Kroger, who has multiple eCommerce channels (Click & Collect, Home Delivery, Ship to Home), still does 94% of their business in-store, a number provided by 84.51°’s Cara Pratt. eCommerce takes time and everyone is still learning. Oliver Chen of Cowen & Co. says it takes nine quarters for online shopping to break even. Retailers, especially small independent ones, have to be patient. There is no silver bullet. Yet, Chen noted, those online shoppers are younger and drive incremental sales. Independents need those consumers to thrive into the future. Subsequently, direct-to-consumer brands aren’t necessarily intending to threaten brick and mortar retail. For Winc CEO Geoffrey McFarlane, he sees the relationship between stores and online as complementary, with the online channel being driven more by exploration and brand awareness. Prentis Wilson, president of boxed.com, said the company isn’t considering expanding from their 2000 skus into fresh areas because they’d rather partner with retailers who already execute a cold supply chain well. Understanding the consumer mindset and how they apply it to these different channels helps define the objectives of online shopping and how to approach it.

Stand For Something

From periods to packaging, discussions were had at Groceryshop that I haven’t seen a lot of during my career in grocery. In her keynote, Carolyn Tastad stressed that for P&G, they need to be high tech but also be high touch. A whole host of other brands showed examples of their commitment to that as well.

  • Tastad and Jordana Kier of Lola sparked more conversations about feminine hygiene than I’ve ever had with people who aren’t my mom.
  • Noting that 70% of consumers want conscientious products, CEO Stu Landesberg showed Grove Collective’s new product Seedling, paper products made from sugarcane and bamboo grass rather than trees.
  • Beyond Meat unabashedly challenges the definition of meat as only animal-based.
  • Brian Durkee of Numi Organic Tea company isn’t just worried about his product, but also the entire ecosystem surrounding their production, telling a story about connecting his purchase of turmeric for a product to eventually supplying the small African town with wells for drinking water.

These companies are voicing commitment to causes in real and substantial ways and that’s what consumers are expecting from their favorite brands. This social conscientiousness doesn’t stop with brands though, and retailers are wise to take note.

Have Courage and Be Agile

While brands were expressing their stance on social issues, retailers are approaching the current environment with courage and the understanding that agility through evolution is an absolute imperative.  Matt Simon from Giant Stores, what he calls a 96-year-old start up, says this courage comes from empowering people to make decisions and have ownership. Make sure people feel empowered, secure and safe. This leads to buy-in and breakthrough. Rafeh Masood of BJ’s Wholesale Club employs the tactics of Agile development:

  • Flow (make work visible),
  • Feedback (check accuracy and completion)
  • Continual Learning (what can be implemented and iterated upon?)

Jamie Iannone of Sam’s Club noted that they approach their technology evolution with concerted effort, not launching until they have a minimum viable product, then listening to associates and consumers to make changes quickly as the feedback comes in. The way forward also takes a shift in the question of “What happens if I do this?”. Instead, said Kellogg’s Julie Bowerman, thinking about “What happens if we don’t do this?” can sometimes be a jumpstart. The good news for independents is they can be the most agile because there are very rarely big infrastructures that need to be changed. The ability to implement changes quickly is a competitive advantage independent retailers can lean on.

Digital Transformation and Process Change:

To take advantage of this ability to move quickly, organizations have to start to transform their structure and processes to best position themselves into the future. Bowerman said there were four things to think about:

  1.  Start with organizing right, thinking less about silos and more about how everyone works on this together.
  2. Then, the staff should be blended talent, those who have known the industry for a long time intermingled with those who have a more startup-honed mindset. Importantly in this step, when bringing in people who aren’t familiar with the pace of change in big grocery, reminding people to be persistently patient is important. Big grocery can’t always react like a start-up can, and that can be frustrating for those who want change to happen early and often.
  3. Digital transformation isn’t not just about sales and marketing but how the entire organization benefits from this new mission.
  4. Ultimately, establishing metrics that business cares about. It’s about taking off the table whose money it is and better to build a plan that aligns with objectives.

Omnichannel isn’t something just the consumer needs to experience, said Masood, it also needs to be an internal mindset. Adrianne del Sol of Danone thinks about how she uses the right language for those who have been around longer is important. She mentioned one example of thinking of search as slotting, a term most people who’ve been in the industry a while are familiar with. Some of these points apply more to my wholesaler mentality because as I noted above, independent retailers themselves can change quickly, if they want. It might take a shift in mindset, though, and that’s where these steps come in.

There’s absolutely no way everything I saw or talked about at Groceryshop will get assessed accurately or implemented completely but these five areas are places to focus and keep on the radar as we slide back into meetings, executing daily objectives, and trying new things. Ultimately, Kang’s advice to brands and retailers summed up Groceryshop best for me. She said to:

  1. Keep the consumer at the heart of everything
  2. Commit to learning

If in that commitment to learning we can also commit to executing where we can and being ok with failure as we get better, we’ll be helping independent grocers compete and succeed well into the future.

Why do I work at AWG? “I value the opportunity to work with family businesses. My dad owned his own business for 35 years, so it is what I know and cherish. Plus, I love food, so thinking about it everyday is a huge plus.” -Kate