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Behind the Scenes of Big Y’s Tech Adoption

Grocer’s EVP/COO, Rick Bossie, talks with PG Editor-in-Chief Gina Acosta at GroceryTech
Rick Bossie GroceryTech Main Image
Big Y EVP/COO Rick Bossie spoke with PG Editor-In-Chief Gina Acosta at the publication's GroceryTech event about the regional New England grocer's adoption of technology.

For Big Y Foods, an 88-year-old, third-generation-owned and -operated grocer based in Springfield, Mass., tradition is important, but so is the future, in the form of technology. In a wide-ranging discussion with Progressive Grocer Editor-in-Chief Gina Acosta at PG’s GroceryTech event, held June 5-7 in Dallas, EVP and COO Rick Bossie shared how the regional New England food retailer is innovating for the years to come.

On the subject of innovation, Bossie noted that Big Y has “a continuous-improvement mentality in the organization. I think innovation has to come when there’s complete buy-in from the merchants, from the operators, from finance, from [all of] it. We don’t do anything by ourselves. The notion of tech projects is something [that] has to be important for the employee experience and the customer experience. Those are the two drivers.”

Checking Out Tech

Asked about Big Y’s customer-facing tech, Bossie noted: “We believe the solutions that we’ve implemented are fitting the bill there, [such as] MyExpress checkout, which is the phone-based application for checkout. You walk around the store, you scan your groceries, we have the scale set up. If you want to buy weighted items, you check out with a QR code at the end of your shopping trip. We have [a special lane for the solution] delineated towards the end of our self-checkout island … [F]or the most part, it is really effortless, and it is really adopted.” He added that associates as well shoppers appreciate the convenience of scanning their own groceries

As for self-checkout, Bossie observed that “we are introducing, as much as we can, the human element. I suppose it is a source of concern for us in terms of shrinking. There are issues and there are opportunities for us. We’re looking at AI sort of solutions for that. But what we have right now is just a kind of focus from our people. We’ve been very careful how we choose the folks that work in that area; their set of competencies have to be aligned with. There’s got to be some courage there. There’s got to be some customer service elements. There’s got to be some friendliness, salesmanship. It is really one of the most important jobs on the front end.”

[RELATED: Big Y Makes Information Resources Technology Moves]

In fact, the associates who work in the self-checkout area are considered specialists, according to Bossie, who adds: “We’ve affectionately called them our SCOAs, or self-checkout ACEs, so we have a whole culture around that. It’s really important to us that those people are making that customer experience as strong as it can be.”

New Approach

To help it adopt new technology, Big Y has recently adopted a new approach “We just celebrated [the first] anniversary of our project management office (PMO). We didn’t employ that strategy ever. And [when] you think back to innovation and technology, it always ended up being something that was important to an individual or to an individual group, and whether or not they could get that pushed through depended on timing and how loud their voice was and what their status was in the organization. But now, with the PMO, we’re able to do a much better job of determining ROI, the resources necessary to get a project done, get something implemented, the balance between things. … And we’ve also learned a great deal about integration and the complexity of our systems and the outdated nature of our systems.”

A study recently undertaken by Big Y found that the company had 400 separate yet intertwined system-reporting mechanisms, which “make it very difficult to get innovation implemented, because you pull this switch, and it affects this,” explained Bossie. “The PMO has kind of refocused us, and our investments in [this area are] paying great dividends for us.” 

Enhancing the Customer Experience

Speaking about how the company intends to augment its famous customer service with tech, he said: “I think, as an organization, we're always going to define the customer experience or a heightened customer experience as being one that’s one of our people is interacting with you and in person. … We think it’s a point of differentiation for us, and we think it’s really important to our brand. That being said, technology fits in there, because it’s not to replace those people, it’s to enhance what they’re doing, obviously. I’m always looking for ways to remove tasks that would prevent some of our people [from having] that interaction with customers.” This includes solutions encompassing such functions as inventory, ordering and scheduling.

“My vision would be to allow everybody in the store to have a device of some sort,” asserted Bossie. “It is a huge capital outlay, obviously, but we’re probably at 17 or 18 units that are in the store right now. So, all the key folks in the store, all the leaders, have something to work with … rather than have to be behind a PC at this level. [That’s] what we’re really focused on.”

E-Commerce and AI

In the realm of e-commerce in the kitchen or foodservice department, “we do we do partner with third parties that deliver, to limited success,” admitted Bossie, “and I think part of that is because we’re in a lot of rural areas, a lot of vacation destination areas that don’t have the drivers and the shoppers necessary to really support that.”

Regarding e-commerce more broadly, “we’re not ignoring that piece of the business,” insisted Bossie. “We want to understand what we can do, but we also understand that we can’t or don’t do it very well by ourselves. We need strategic partnerships, and there are some very good companies out there that we have a great deal of respect for. We're going to continue growing those relationships and we’re going to continue to advance the e-commerce costs through them.” 

He also hastened to remind the audience that way back in 2008, the company was an early adopter of click-and-collect with its Big Y To Go program. “The software probably wasn't ready for us, and we weren't ready for the software, but we did learn at that juncture a great deal about efficiencies and productivity and the profitability of actually doing the fiscal labor of picking those orders in the store,” he recounted.

Meanwhile, the in-store deli experience, noted Bossie, is highly influenced by the ages of shoppers, with younger customers “not as likely [as older shoppers] to want to stand in a queue, pick out an item out of the deli case, and stand there and wait for somebody to slice it for them, [or to have] that one-to-one conversation [with a deli associate.] So, in partnership with our key suppliers and strategic partners, we’re going to have to have some sort of – I don’t know if it’s going to be a kiosk, I’m not completely sold on that – but it's definitely going to be a way of ordering your daily meats and your salads and things like that.”

On the highly popular subject of artificial intelligence, Bossie was enthusiastic about its possibilities. “The promise of it is extraordinary,” he said. “We’re using AI right now. … We see it as data analytics, safety and security. We see big opportunities for loss prevention. We see big opportunities for promotion and personalization. There’s just a ton of things that we see as really cool applications for AI. But we want to organizationally have a plan for the implementation of AI before we just start willy-nilly plucking these solutions out and applying them to the store. We did something kind of cool recently. We partnered with some graduate students from the University of Massachusetts as part of their practicum. They took a deep dive and helped us develop policy governance and a training module for AI for across the enterprise. So we’re new and learning, I guess, and willing to say that we don’t have all the answers and that we’re going to kind of go on this journey with all of our employees at the same time, rather than just a few key leaders.”

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