By Melody Meyer
Independent Natural Foods Retailers Association (INFRA) held their annual conference virtually earlier this month with a focus on the future of retail in a post pandemic reality, and dealing with the challenges of aligning new customer preferences while simultaneously seizing the opportunity to create the next “Great Grocery Experience.”
With 279 members and 19 associate retailers across the country, INFRA attendees acknowledged how stores were impacted during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic with the supply chain stretched, and more importantly how the retail community has bounced back over the past five months.
This was illustrated with some basic data at the outset of the conference. Retailers share of the total food spending went from 50 percent in February to 68 percent in April, while weekly grocery sales shifted to online sales increased by 27.9%.
How can retailers adapt and thrive?
There is an opportunity for retailers to deliver distinctive benefits that customers once sought at restaurants. People want to eat at home, but they may not want to do much cooking. And what is the customer seeking: safety, pricing, and an improved retail experience.
The Keynote “Redefining 'Essential’ For a Post-Pandemic World” was presented by Kevin Coupe, The Content Guy at MorningNewsBeat.
Coupe stressed the importance of retailers to come out of the pandemic a different company than they were before. Retailers may have had the best financial quarters in their history, he said, but they still need to rethink and rework how you do business.
Matt Olson, fresh program manager, INFRA
Matt Olson, fresh program manager at INFRA, presented an insightful session on the “Future of Produce”, and how the pandemic has changed the mindset of consumers.
Customers are staying home and settling in for the long term, he said, “ They want a seamless shopping experience where they can get in and out with maximum efficiency, while still being willing to spend more on one trip.”
Olson said demand for packaged produce has grown, which poses a conundrum for sustainability and reducing packaging. With convenient grab and go items in high demand, retailers were urged to ask their suppliers to switch to compostable or recyclable packaging.
Also important to any retailer’s success is a focus on robust safety procedures and cleaning protocols. Olson stressed the need to educate staff to communicate to consumers that there is no evidence that produce (or any food) can transmit the virus.
He further outlined three strategies and solutions as retailers move forward.
- Focus on the foundation of their business: and set their stores apart by sharing a unique story to engage customers and staff.
- Utilize data to make informed purchasing decisions because buying trends are changing rapidly during the pandemic.
- Think strategically and react quickly. Larger stores do not have the agility to act as quickly as INFRA retailers do.
Olson encouraged INFRA retailers to make commitments with distributors and local farmers to purchase key items every week. Developing strong relationships that have clearly defined mutual goals will help alleviate supply chain shortages.
This also provides INFRA members a way to differentiate themselves and highlight the link between local producers and the community, Olson said, adding that merchandising local produce in one area creates a destination in the department and ties customers into the local growing community.
More now than ever it is important to define product selection – gone are the days when all varieties of apples or plums are displayed.
The most effective way for a retailer to tell their story is through merchandising, Olson said. This can be done by building clean impactful displays that highlight local, seasonal, and promotional items.
Olson noted that sampling has changed forever, and urged INFRA to empower their staff to listen, learn and engage with suppliers and customers and, most important, be open and nimble as change is likely to continue.