Customer engagement and mobile key topics at FMI Midwinter Conference

Senior-level executives in the food retail industry share experiences and lessons learned

Canadian executives were among North America’s top supermarket retailers who gathered at Miami Beach’s Fountainebleau Hotel this week for the Food Marketing Institute’s Midwinter Conference.

The group discussed how to better engage the shopper and grow their top and bottom lines. Retaining existing customers is a key reason to improve the shopping experience, the crowd heard, but so is the fact that experts are projecting 9% annual growth in online grocery sales for the next 10 to 20 years.

“We are experiencing the end of the beginning of ecommerce and that is fundamentally changing the retail store. The path to purchase has changed to a highly variable and often more circuitous series of events. Retailers need to attack the friction – lines, inconvenience and out of stocks – in order to remain viable,” said Doug Stephens, a retail futurist with more than 20 years in the retail industry.

Stephens presented the thesis that media is now the store, and that movies, music, television and social media all have retail elements. As a result, the physical store needs to stop being a place to distribute product and become a more connected experience for the shopper.

Among the target customers for grocery retailers are millennials. “Retailers are working on providing authentic service to engage these shoppers. We also work to give our stores the authority to connect with the local community. There are certainly price issues facing millennial consumers, but we need to deliver value in other ways like teaching them how to cook,” said Justin Dye, EVP and COO, East Region of New Albertsons Inc. – a top U.S. supermarket chain.

Speakers at the event mentioned several other issues the industry needs to be tracking in the coming year to remain relevant, including food safety, diversity management and cyber security.

The urgency on food safety comes as retailers in the U.S. face the adoption of the Food Safety Modernization Act in August. The act holds senior executives personally liable for lapses in conformance, and as consumers are applying responsibility for food safety to supermarkets as record levels. As one CEO said in charging the room over the issue, “I’m not going down alone.”

On the technology side, mobile is one of the primary tools retailers are focusing on. As with general retail, supermarket operators are having better results with mobile by moving beyond advertising to using beacons to connect with the shopper in the store, offering discounts or loyalty incentives based on analytics.

“We are very focused on mobile as a customer convenience and engagement tool. Our digital development is all about how the customer is going to be interacting with us,” said J.K. Symancyk, president of Meijer, Inc. a Midwest U. S. supercentre operator that has actually closed its ecommerce site to reinvent it to create a more one-to-one environment.

The Midwinter Conference is typically a mix of discussions meant to scare retailers into action and talks meant to motivate them. The first day was heavy on the scare tactics but still had an element that pushed attendees to take risks in the effort to grow their businesses.

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