Grocery retailers and suppliers adapted and came through for U.S. consumers when the COVID-19 crisis hit, and food industry stakeholders can help create a “better normal” as the nation emerges from the pandemic, FMI-The Food Industry President and CEO Leslie Sarasin said today in a keynote speech at the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference.
“COVID-19 has changed our world. It has changed the way we work, the way we socialize, the way we engage in commerce and the way we live our lives. As many have observed, there simply is no going back to the normal we knew before the pandemic,” Sarasin said in the videoconferenced event, titled “Delivering a Better New Normal.”
“We’ve changed, the world has changed and we can’t expect to return to an environment exactly like we had previously,” she said. “But as you already know, that doesn’t mean we’re relegated to sitting by passively and letting the next normal emerge around us.”
"We kept pace with the accelerated change COVID-19 cast our way, and the industry and American families are in a much better place because of these extraordinary efforts," FMI's Leslie Sarasin said. (Photo from FMI)
With the coronavirus outbreak, the food industry had changes “foisted upon us” from all directions — including in the areas of employee and customer safety, supply, operations and new ways of doing business — but can continue to “direct them, modify them and improve them,” according to Sarasin.
“We in this industry are uniquely positioned to actually write this new narrative going forward,” she said. “We can help shape the next normal and make it better than our previous normal and, in so doing, we can play a role in helping heal our families, communities and the world at large, making them stronger than they were before.”
The grocery sector responded swiftly and proved “unexpectedly facile” when suddenly faced with new demands, “especially at the outset of the pandemic, when conflicting directives were flying and mushy, unclear guidelines were being offered,” noted Sarasin. “We moved quickly to act on the most reliable sources we could find to keep our associates and our customers safe.”
Not only did supermarkets and other food retailers have to deal with panic-buying customers emptying shelves, but they also had to develop comprehensive cleaning and safety plans for stores and facilities, quickly build up their workforces to meet the demand crunch, bolster employee benefits and compensation for new workplace hazards, become more flexible and resourceful in procurement, and immediately boost e-commerce operations to fulfill a doubling or tripling of online grocery orders.
“The food industry has been widely commended for adapting quickly to the challenges that COVID-19 created. Now, while I think it’s safe to say we haven’t traditionally been known as an industry that aggressively leans into change, we learned in the past 10 months that we actually can move relatively fast and furiously to protect our associates and the American consumer,” Sarasin told the audience.
“Over the past few years, we at FMI have talked a lot about the ramped up pace of change in our industry. But I would suggest to you that the pace of change instigated by COVID-19 made the changes we faced over the past decade looked like they occurred in slow motion,” she noted. “Yes, many of the changes taking place in our marketplaces were already under way, but the pandemic accelerated them exponentially. The most important point we must remember is that while we encounter daily challenges, in some areas, we kept pace with the accelerated change COVID-19 cast our way, and the industry and American families are in a much better place because of these extraordinary efforts.”
At the same time, the effects of COVID-19 put some industry operations “under a particularly white, hot spotlight” and “exposed a few of our wrinkles,” Sarasin said, referring to supply chain disruptions and out-of-stocks as the virus spread.
"I believe it would be a gross injustice and a moral failure on our part if we don’t heed the epiphanies we experienced during COVID-19 — in terms of product outages and problems with supply flow — and take to heart the hard lessons that were provided to us,” she said. “While we were able to recover and make relatively quick adjustments, we must learn from the experience and plan to even be better-prepared to respond in the future so we can continue to keep the country fed. The path forward calls for stronger bonds between and among trading partners, so communication flows more freely and adjustments can be made more quickly.”
Supply disruptions and out-of-stocks at stores amid the pandemic underscore the need for closer retailer-supplier communication, Sarasin said. (Photo from FMI)
Consumers must be part of the communication equation as well, Sarasin added. “We must be working now to establish the necessary collaborations that will enable us to act more decisively, communicate more clearly and be better-prepared with options when panic-buying occurs and we see product outages or other additional needs on the horizon,” she said. “This more candid approach to supply chain management includes improved communication with consumers regarding the realities of the supply chain. I sincerely believe that if shoppers better understand how the system works, they’ll be better-equipped to accept any interventions retailers are forced to implement when consumer behaviors or purchasing patterns create unnecessary outages.”
The same goes for the industry’s workforce, which came under the spotlight for its extra efforts amid the COVID-19 crisis.
“We must be mindful of while the food industry received public kudos for its work and keeping the nation fed during the pandemic, we were also being watched for how we cared for the safety and defended the welfare of our workers,” Sarasin said. “If we’re to help develop an improved next normal, we should build upon the positive public perception we accrued in our response to the pandemic and assertively seek out ways to expand our efforts to applaud, develop and retain our workforce.”
Meanwhile, grocery stores have emerged as stronger health and wellness venues during the crisis, especially as pharmacies have stepped up participation in COVID-19 testing and are now ramping up vaccination capabilities.
“For those of you with pharmacies and health care facilities, that includes being a vital leader in the race to administer the COVID vaccine as safely and efficiently as possible to all, including our trusted supplier partners,” Sarasin pointed out. “For all of us, it means serving as health and well-being destinations for our customers for nutritious food, dietary supplements and household supplies until the vaccine is available to everyone. It means being recognized community leaders and not letting our guard down in the midst of the good news of vaccination effectiveness. It means remaining vigilant with our safety precautions and disciplined in maintaining pandemic control measures.”
FMI Chairman and Hy-Vee Chairman and CEO Randy Edeker, who introduced Sarasin, spoke of the grocery industry’s expanded health care role amid the pandemic and his company’s efforts to aid COVID-19 prevention and administer vaccines.
FMI Chairman Randy Edeker, chairman and CEO of Hy-Vee, noted that "we are all part of the solution" in helping deliver COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo from FMI)
“This year, our businesses are moving into the extraordinary, unchartered realm of safeguarding the nation’s health against one of the world’s deadliest diseases. Our pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are stepping into the spotlight to help curb the COVID-19 pandemic. And as an early vaccine provider, we’re committed to being at the forefront and working hand in hand with the CDC and our local governments to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to patients,” Edeker said. “As we enter this first critical phase of vaccine distribution, many FMI member companies have joined Hy-Vee in this effort, and we are creatively working to extend our capacity and service to other food industry workers in partnership with local health officials.
“I want to personally thank all the dedicated pharmacy professionals for the work they will be doing in the coming months to vaccinate and protect the residents of the many communities we serve,” he added. “We are all part of the solution to support community wellness through COVID-19 vaccinations. Our new normal includes embracing community and public health across the various new dimensions.”
To help industry stakeholders meet this new normal, FMI will continue to act as a conduit for the exchange of ideas and information as well as serve up resources, intelligence and tools to help members better adapt to upcoming changes, improve their businesses, voice their concerns to lawmakers and pubic officials, and better serve their customers, according to Sarasin.
For example, she said, FMI’s partnership with market researcher Nielsen on omnichannel shopping trends helped members determine “where the ball’s going” in e-commerce with the continued surge in online grocery sales since the start of the pandemic.
"Those who had taken preliminary steps were in a much better position to accommodate the dramatic increase in shopper demand and catch the wave,” Sarasin explained. “When the COVID-19-induced home sheltering caused online shopping levels to double almost overnight, by relying on this important FMI resource, they knew where the ball was going and were able to get a jump on getting there before those who didn’t.”
FMI’s efforts to encourage more family meals and promote food as medicine also can help members meet increased food-at-home demand spurred by the pandemic. “Cooking will remain a strong trend because people have learned firsthand that it just makes more sense economically, emotionally and nutritionally,” Sarasin said.
In some ways, she observed, the coronavirus crisis “turned back the food industry clock some 50 years” to a time when people cooked more, focused their grocery shopping trips on stocking up and spent most of their food dollars at the supermarket.
“This flashback to days gone by provides the food retail industry with a unique opportunity to explore the things it could do differently this time around to better address customers’ need for convenience, affordability and sustainably produced foods,” Sarasin said. “It offers us some surprising prospects to retain shoppers’ loyalty through better helping them achieve their family’s health and well-being goals while providing them a feeling of comfort and family time. You know, it’s not often we get a do-over in life, but in many ways, the pandemic has provided us this tremendous opportunity.”