The Grocery Industry: Fresh Innovation for Turbulent Times

Grocery stores couldn’t close their doors to change to the new way of operating in a pandemic. But they’ve adapted quickly and tapped into the positive force of innovation to keep feeding households everywhere.

Jeremiah Barba October 19, 2020
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I’ve spent a lot of time this year waiting for things to be delivered. And now, as the mostly home-bound months continue, my response is downright Pavlovian as I scamper down the stairs at the sound of the doorbell. And groceries of all kinds are a big part of that. At any moment, I have at least three different delivery services supplying me with sundries for survival and excessive snacking. 

As the pandemic changed nearly everything in early 2020, some retailers closed their doors. But grocery stores are essential to keeping us fed (see above), so they had to make fast changes to stay open and serve everyone who relies on them. Let’s dive into how the global pandemic has affected grocery stores, how they’re adapting and looking to the future. 

Reinventing the Store Experience

Especially in the early months, many changes had to be made on extremely short notice. Many stores had to figure out the logistics of limiting store capacity. They had to modify the flow of the store and implement signage to promote social distancing. They quickly implemented cleaning procedures to keep employees and customers safe and enhanced contactless payment options. And some stores are completely reinventing the front-end check-out experience, in an attempt to balance safety with the personal connection that matters to many shoppers. 

In some cases, these changes led to grocery CHROs needing to make big changes on the fly, whether bringing on extra help or recruiting employees from other parts of the business to help stores. Schnuck Markets, a chain with over 100 stores in the Midwestern United States, made quick changes when demand rose. Becky Fitzpatrick, director of human capital management, said “we quickly onboarded 1500 temporary employees with Workday, so they could clock in and out and get paid weekly.” They also redeployed corporate employees to help in stores near their homes. And they had to do it quickly to make sure their stores stayed open. “We can change processes in 30 minutes, including setup, testing, and rollout, using Workday,” said Fitzpatrick. Whatever changes that grocery CHROs are making, they need to ensure employees can be trained and retrained quickly and easily when conditions change, and be able to see their schedules and pick up shifts when the need arises. 

A Whole New Way of Operating

It wasn’t just a new store experience that needed creating, though. In many cases, the essence of how people get groceries changed. Online ordering, click-and-collect, and curbside pickup and delivery services accelerated rapidly, and stores had to make adjustments to meet demand. And in many cases, grocery CFOs are the ones feeling the effect of these changes. As trends shift rapidly, forecasts are adjusted and readjusted, and it’s important for data from both general ledgers and retail operations to combine so CFOs can analyze, plan, and report in one system. As the months progress, things appear a bit more “normal” as more shoppers return to the old way of shopping, but the appeal and convenience of online ordering, delivery, and curbside pickup are likely to stick for many shoppers. 

Innovation for a Better Future 

The grocery industry has adapted quickly to all the changes of this year, and looking forward, the future is bright. This year has pushed grocers to get into the express lane of innovation. 

Instead of thinking of innovation in terms of years, John Furner, Walmart’s president and CEO of U.S. operations, said recently they’re thinking of it “in scales of days or weeks or months.” For example, they’re using artificial intelligence to dive deep into how their consumers buy, and what they might have delivered or pick up in the store, and monitoring temperature data to cut the time it takes to get fresh items to the stores by days. 

Entirely new store models continue to emerge and are likely to pick up steam in the years to come, like the Amazon Fresh grocery store, which uses a smart grocery cart for a completely checkout-free experience. Shoppers can also use Alexa to find their way around the stores and keep up with their shopping lists. Grocery apps have experienced a renaissance of innovation recently, as shoppers use them to build a more “contactless” experience. Grocery chains saw downloads of their apps skyrocket, especially early in the pandemic. Schnuck Markets used an app to help customers stay updated on their safety procedures, monitor store capacity (including if there was a line to get in), as well as find hours dedicated to serving at-risk customers. 

The design of grocery stores in the future may also be changed to help shoppers feel more comfortable and safe. According to a recent Grocery Dive article, this could include more flexible displays that can be moved easily when conditions change, improvements to make curbside pickup more of an experience and less of a transaction, and more airy, indoor/outdoor spaces. 

It’s been a whirlwind year for grocers, and they’re facing it with creativity and innovation. They couldn’t shut their doors and plan how to adapt, they had to do it on the fly. And all the while, they’re creating new and more effective ways to keep us all well-fed. Speaking of well-fed, that’s the doorbell—pardon me while I skip down the stairs to grab a box of fresh fruits and vegetables from my doorstep.

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