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Social media, staff engagement hot conference topics at GIC 2011


Canada’s food industry came to Toronto last week for the annual Grocery Innovations Canada show. The trade show aisles were busy and a host of new products were showcased by exhibitors. Meanwhile, technology, consumer trends and international best practices were explored during the conference portion of the show, put on by the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

This year’s conference featured two international independent grocers–one from the U.S., the other from Australia–explaining how they go to market, serve customers and compete against big chains.

Roger Drake, managing director of Drake’s Supermarkets, which operates in Australia, said independents should look for ideas everywhere to improve their business. “I’m a great copier of ideas. When you see a good idea, take it and make it your own.” As an example, he said that once at a farmer’s market he noticed children being given balloons. Now Drake’s stores hand out balloons to children as well.

Drake also pointed to the importance of finding great staff and using their ideas. “I don’t think there is a good idea that’s come from head office. They all come from the store floor,” he said.

Jeff, Heinen, president and CEO of Heinen’s of Cleveland, Ohio, also talked about the importance of staff in differentiating his business. “You can be different with people,” he said. “We work with associates instead of them working for us.”

He said what makes Heinen’s successful is its highly satisfied associates that deliver on the services it promises, pointing out that as associates’ satisfaction improves so does customer satisfaction.

Drake and Heinen also sat on a retail panel along with Anthony Longo, president of Toronto-based Longo Brothers. All three agreed the most important ingredient to grocery success is the culture of the store. “Culture is what it’s all about and you have to really maintain it. That’s why I say we hire slowly and fire quickly,” Drake said.

Longo noted that when Longo Brothers opens a new store, a third to half of the staff at the new store are transferred in from Longo’s existing units. “You want the new staff to interact with the existing staff and retain that culture.”

Heinen, meanwhile, advised grocers to identify promising employees. “We lose very few people we want to retain because we work very hard to keep them.”

The featured keynote presentation was provided by Maclean’s magazine national editor Andrew Coyne. He provided a detailed historical overview of the Canadian political landscape. He said the main challenges ahead are for the federal Tories are the arrival of boomers at retirement age and increasing productivity through the removal of barriers to investment.

Talking about the adage, “the more things change, the more things stay the same,” Douglas Stephens, retail and consumer futurist; founder of Retail Prophet Consulting, said he would refute this. He talked about the speed of change in grocery due to demographic, economic and technology changes. Namely he pointed to the aging population, the disappearing middle class and the growth of social media. “What’s the ROI on social media?” he asked the audience. “It doesn’t matter. It’s permission to prove yourself as a business,” said Stephens.

In a separate presentation, technology journalist Amber MacArthur, also spoke about the growing importance of social media and what tactics grocers might employ to speak to customers through Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

To start, all businesses should have a social media policy that dictates how your company will respond if, say, someone attacks you on your Facebook page or elsewhere online. For those who don’t want to spend too much time developing a policy she cited a website,, that can help create a social media policy for free.

She urged retailers to be honest and authentic online and to have a sense of humour as well. Here she cited an app from Charmin that lets people find public toilets on their smartphone. The app also consumer reviews of public toilets by consumers.

Before her presentation at GIC, MacArthur said she had asked friends in her social network about ways grocery stores could improve service. One person suggested retailers alert customers about new products via Facebook or Twitter. Another suggested they reward customers if they shop during period the store is less busy. Every store’s customers have good ideas that a retailer could use in their business, she said. “The good thing about social media is that if you don’t know, just go and ask.”

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