FMI’s Surfing Lessons


FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin cited futurist Alvin Toffler as she positioned FMI’s role in helping its members “surf” the grocery industry’s unique embodiment of all three of Toffler’s waves of human development: the agricultural age, the industrial age and the information age.

Toffler’s The Third Wave (published in 1980; a sequel to The Futurist, 1970) argued that these waves reshaped cultures in developing countries. The agricultural age ushered in order and stability in the food chain. The industrial age made mass production, distribution and consumption possible. The industrial age further jettisoned industry by providing information that changed behavior and thought, increased efficiencies and speeds to market.

While continually tied to the first wave of agriculture, the food industry simultaneously embraced the second, industrial age, as a way to mass produce, distribute and market food. Similarly, the industry migrated into the information age, creating new ways of connecting with consumers and industry partners.

Big Data as disruptor

Each of Toffler’s waves had a disruptor, but in many cases, these disruptors pushed us to progress to new ways of doing things. As Sarasin says, “you either learned to surf [the wave] and move forward or sank beneath the power of its crest.”

In fact, this confluence of Big Data and “machine intelligence,” as described by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, has resulted in “the biggest disruptor,” giving grocery retail – among other industries – the ability to target and talk to individuals.

The grocery industry is still trying to optimize emerging and existing technologies, but given the ubiquity of smart phones and the prevalence of Big Data, it’s widely accepted that we’re on the brink of major breakthroughs in personalized, omnichannel commerce.

Big Data is a disruptor, but by learning to focus on the questions that are critical to business success, data can be integrated with current knowledge and a good measure of common sense to help us navigate necessary changes that deliver against the experience that will continue to draw customers to our stores.

Staying true to the consumer

The biggest nut to crack might not be Big Data at all. Rather, it might be ensuring consumers really get what they want and in a manner they’re comfortable with. What is the perfect level of personal contact? How comfortable are consumers with giving us the “right” information needed to deliver against their personal needs and wants? Throughout FMI’s Midwinter Executive Conference, transparency and trust were major themes. Every retailer wants to serve customers in the most positive manner, but trust cannot be compromised.

Big Data can help retailers identify their point of difference, what their personalized service will look like, and the right techniques for marketing to their customers. Technology and information will allow the grocery industry to be more efficient with product procurement, handling and placement. But emotional intelligence is as important as these other types of information.

New wave

There’s an argument that the fourth wave is emerging, a conglomeration of the existing waves, but mixed with what Sarasin describes as “nostalgic backlash.” Grocery retailing, with its meld of local, organic, artisanal, functional, enhanced biotech and high-tech, is already living in this space. It’s our beacon that the food industry is adaptable and forward-thinking. We stay true to the best, while making the most of new tools to advance for the future. Grocery retailing is an industry focused on meeting the needs and wants of the consumer, even if the consumer can’t articulate these needs and wants. FMI is pledging to assist with the current challenge of navigating Big Data, and helping the industry integrate it with the common sense and open approach that have been hallmarks of successful food industry players.

FMI Connect: The Global Food Retail Experience, to be held in Chicago, June 10-13, will emphasize food retail of the future, with a strong focus on Toffler’s waves.  As Sarasin said during her presentation, “FMI Connect will give you surfing lessons” on how to ride these waves.

Who knows, maybe Toffler will come back with a book on the fourth wave, prominently featuring grocery retail as an industry adept at maximizing the best of the three waves in a manner that is personally and emotionally rewarding for individual consumers.


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