Patrick Spear is the president & CEO of GMDC | Retail Tomorrow and a contributor to Supermarket News. Spear joined GMDC | Retail Tomorrow in 2014 after nearly two decades of involvement with the association as a supplier member during his tenure with multiple CPG manufacturers including BIC, Newell Rubbermaid, Mapa Spontex, Identity Group, and Mammoth Office Products.
On the heels of a disruptive year, we are entering a new era of grocery retail. The global COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a wider variety of shopper profiles that now expect different shopping journeys.
In 2021, how can grocers navigate these customer profiles, lock in gains, remain essential, keep up with the competitive landscape and maintain connectivity with loyal and new customers?
Through a heightened focus on customer experience, reevaluating competitive advantages and discovering accidental opportunities through uncommon partnerships and associations, grocers can successfully become the trusted brand of choice for their customers.
It may be some time until a full recovery occurs, but optimism lies ahead for this industry.
Giving a New Meaning to “Essential”
Since the onset of the pandemic, the nature of the word “essential” has taken on various meanings. In early 2020, the first thing that was exposed was our humanity and our basic, immediate needs as it was essential for many of us to stay home. However, this did not apply to all industries and grocers were called upon as essential workers to serve on the frontlines, ensuring their communities were well-supported in a time of crisis — a selfless service that did not go unnoticed.
As we evolve into a new meaning of “essential” this year, it doesn’t just describe the brave men and women who show up to work and wear a mask for hours on end, or which businesses stay open while others remain shut down. The perspective of essential has pivoted to how customers view their relationship with their grocer, and vice versa. Grocery retailers are essential to their communities because they are part of their customers’ daily lives, they are heavily relied upon as a solution for essential needs and deeply trusted.
Providing an Invaluable Customer Experience
Prior to the pandemic, brands were keenly aware that providing a unique customer experience was the key to survival and securing relationships with customers. While health and safety measures have become a top priority for both grocers and consumers, in order for retailers to thrive in this climate, the customer experience must remain paramount. This experience is even more critically assessed among consumers today, as shoppers have a heightened awareness of their shopping journey from the minute they step foot inside a store, engage an app, or begin clicking on a website.
Consumers used to crave an experience they couldn’t get anywhere else, one that saved them time and money and provided the opportunity to engage with a brand that could either make their day or potentially change their life. In our new era, this imperative has transformed. Today, consumers demand a technology-enabled experience they can't get anywhere else, a store that has what they need in stock, a grocery experience that keeps them safe, and a shopping journey that allows them to pick up their items easily or have them delivered quickly.
To deliver an unparalleled customer experience for grocery shoppers, retailers must reverse-engineer the experience and reevaluate what consumers value, expect and demand as the perceptions of “essential” retail continues to evolve.
Stronger Together Through Uncommon Opportunities
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the changing meaning behind essential business has exposed the potential for players in grocery to discover “accidental” opportunities. Broadly and strategically, grocers must find ways to make available the products that their competitors have historically offered in order to continue fighting for a position as an essential resource for customers in the long term. Recently, I received a call from one of our members looking for a supplier in a category most often purchased in the mass or electronic big-box channel. Remarkably, his customers now view his organization as a destination for categories they’ve never previously sold — these unexpected connections are happening daily, across the country.
These “accidental category merchants” have been presented the opportunity to become a destination for uncommon products and categories, thanks to timing and creative thinking. As a direct result of these accidental opportunities, stronger relationship-building across industries and identifying uncommon partnerships to expand offerings will help grocers become more diversified and competitive in this retail landscape.
Despite the hurdles the grocery industry has faced, there is a new sense of reciprocity and togetherness, and retailers that welcome opportunities to partner with others in order to continue delivering a unique experience for their customers will pave the way for the rest.
Planning for a New Era
Looking ahead toward a new era in retail, grocery brands will continue to be looked to as essential businesses and seek ways to reimagine the experience they provide their customers, all the while ensuring their health and safety throughout the shopping journey. But they will also be challenged to maintain a competitive edge. As grocers have proven to earn the trust of consumers who now see them as essential to their daily lives, these businesses are also under a magnifying glass as their customer experience is constantly being evaluated.
The current retail climate is not one without challenges, but it also has many opportunities. The ability to be agile and identify uncommon opportunities and new partnerships will raise the bar in grocery, and retail trade associations will play a key role as these events unfold. Serving as an industrywide hub, the halo effect of retail trade associations will become more vital to business continuity and enable uncommon, valuable and lasting partnerships.