Brick and mortar must adapt, but it will survive. That was the shared sentiment among the panelists in the Specialty Food Association’s “Buyer Panel: Selling Specialty” at the 2017 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City Monday.
“We’re seeing a lot of grocery moving online. It doesn’t mean that you won’t need a store,” Monica Schechter, category manager for international and specialty grocery at Jet.com, said while discussing the recent purchase of Whole Foods by internet giant Amazon.
Jet’s parent company is the physical location giant Wal-Mart.
“When you look at e-commerce evolving, you see a lot of, ‘How can I emulate a store?’ When you see a store you’re thinking, ‘How can I emulate e-commerce?’” said Schechter.
Cathy Strange, global cheese buyer at Whole Foods Market, agrees. “What we found through the years as a brick and mortar and as a specialty retailer is that customers are going after transparency,” she said, adding that for physical locations the “main banner is trust”
Strange also said that physical stores offer a level of service that digital shopping simply can’t at this juncture.
Schechter concurs, adding that “customers are really looking for personalized service.” She stressed that store shoppers often seek staff and resident experts to answer questions related to specific diet or health restrictions.
Trip Straub, co-owner of St. Louis’s Straub’s, also believes a focus on developing personal relationships will keep his store from making hastened changes in the face of e-commerce.
“We’re not looking to change anything drastically [or] quickly, but we will certainly keep our eyes wide open as we see what’s going on,” Straub said.
“I’m going to engage you,” he added.
Straub believes that a positive in-store experience will keep customers from checking out an item in store and then heading home to purchase it digitally at a cheaper price.
But Tony Stallone, VP of merchandising at e-commerce veteran Peapod, said that digital could offer a personal touch too.
“We know who out customer is; we know what our customer wants; we do everything in our power to fill customer needs,” Stallone said.
Schechter conceded that while she feels brick and mortar will continue to thrive alongside digital shopping, the perfect formula has yet to be found. Physical stores need to adapt, and in doing so, they must focus on building personal relationships. However, more evolution will be needed.
In the meantime, e-commerce is continuing to build on what has already been a winning formula.
“We’re moving towards e-commerce 2.0,” said Schechter. “We’re moving towards a situation where we can understand your preferences but we’re also using technology to [find new foods to try].”
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