Fresh Tech Perspectives: 3 GenNext Award Honorees Talk What's Next for Grocery

Fresh Tech Perspectives: 3 GenNext Award Winners Talk What's Next for Grocery

The grocery industry is changing, and what better way to get ahead of what’s next than by checking in with some of Progressive Grocer’s technology-focused GenNext Award winners? 

Key Takeaways

  • Progressive Grocer GenNext Award winners Jaclyn Cardin, Emily Gibbons and Nick Nickitas speak about what technologies are driving the industry and where the most potential lies in the next five years and beyond.
  • Common topics of discussion include the evolution of a truly seamless omnichannel experience; increased data and personalization, with transparency at the forefront; and customers’ curation of their own retail experiences.
  • So that grocery will continue to move forward, and eventually catch up to other retail segments, it must have the right talent in place. 

Emily Gibbons, VP of data science for The Kroger Co.’s 84.51° division, in Cincinnati; Nick Nickitas, CEO and founder of Ithaca, N.Y.-based ecommerce and data analytics services provider Rosie; and Jaclyn Cardin, director of interactive for La Farge, Wis.-based CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley, are all in their 30s, and all look at the grocery business through a very different lens from that of many industry veterans. 

PG sat down with all three of them individually to figure out what technologies are driving the industry and where they see the most potential for the next five years and beyond.

Some common themes emerged in these discussions: a truly seamless omnichannel experience is evolving and has yet to be fully realized; increased data and personalization are the way of the future, with transparency at the forefront; and customers are curating their own retail experiences while really being in charge.

The Omnichannel Shopper

We hear time and time again that customers are increasingly shopping for groceries online, but that retail stores won’t go away. All three of these young experts agree that one of the main reasons that this is true is because shoppers will never exclusively favor one channel. 

“Depending on where you are and how your day is taking shape, there are some days where you’ll have time to run into the grocery store and have that in-store experience, where you get to hold and touch and see things, and take the time going through the aisles,” Cardin says. “Then you have other days where you’re just flying from one thing to the next, [so] being able to quickly find your top 10 items and shop off your list from last week is just going to be the most effective thing that you can do in order to get groceries home in time to feed the kids for dinner.

Emily Gibbons, The Kroger Co.’s 84.51° division
Emily Gibbons, The Kroger Co.’s 84.51° division

“The more we can understand that and be able to personalize an experience for omnichannel shopping, the better customer experience we’ll be able to deliver.”

Customers’ behaviors will continue to change and evolve, so the responsibility falls on retailers to offer the best experiences possible, anytime and anywhere. 

“There are so many different ways that consumers want to engage, and it’s really not individual consumers, but it’s more their trip occasions,” Gibbons says. “The role that we play is to know the customer better than anybody else and enable different ways of shopping.”

Data Dominance

Gibbons knows that data is a really valuable asset in improving this customer shopping experience, both online and offline, by gaining insights into what a customer needs, what products they like, how they expect them to be priced, and so much more. 

At Kroger’s 84.51°, most of the data is transactional in nature, creating a really robust longitudinal data set following customers on their journeys through the grocery shopping channel. Gibbons is quick to note that it’s hard to separate the consumer advantages from the retailer advantages of this data set.

“Everything that you do to optimize supply chain, everything that you do to optimize out-of-stocks, everything that you do to optimize assortment and pricing, ultimately should drive a better customer experience in a way that helps to broaden Kroger’s engagement with consumers,” she says. “We really help to make sure that data is driving the decisions for every unit of the business, and we’ve expanded quite a bit to be involved a lot more in things like operations and supply chain and making sure that we’re looking more at end-to-end.”

Nick Nickitas, CEO and founder of Ithaca, N.Y.-based ecommerce and data analytics services provider Rosie
Nick Nickitas, Rosie

As transparency becomes a regular topic of conversation and new privacy laws are brought to the table — such as the California Consumer Privacy Act that went into effect Jan. 1, 2020 — all three of these GenNext honorees note that customers really own their data and still have some hesitations. Shoppers will make it known how willing they are to share their data and what they expect to receive in return. 

“When I talk about having this magnificent data asset, that could make people uncomfortable, so I think that it’s really important for us as a data science company and for Kroger as a whole to make sure that we’re continuing to push the value proposition back,” Gibbons says. 

This value proposition could be in a highly direct manner such as free samples and coupons, or take a more experiential approach like seamless shopping.

“You can see that the Millennial generation, our generation, is willing to give up our data to have convenience,” Nickitas says. “Imagine a world where the grocery store was the exact same way as Netflix — that you experience a grocery store that has only the products you care about and none of the ones that you don’t, and it can serve you any time of day and just perfectly meets your needs. I think data is going to drive that.”

A Not-So-Distant Outlook

Jaclyn Cardin, director of interactive for La Farge, Wis.-based CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley,
Jaclyn Cardin, CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley

Gibbons, Nickitas and Cardin all weigh in on what they’re most looking forward to from a technology standpoint in the next five years. 

For Gibbons, this power of data is at the top of her list. Specifically, she sees huge strides forward in bringing complicated data science to the customer at scale in a much more personalized manner.

“A barrier for us has really been technologically. How do you create an environment where real-time data can be crunched at a speed and scale that enables a very reactionary, fast response? And we’re there today,” Gibbons explains. “I think where I see us going in five years is how do we bring that outside of the website and into stores, whether it be with the digital shelf edge or augmented reality? There’s so many different ways to manifest that experience.”

Nickitas is also excited to see how technology will impact brick-and-mortar retail, mentioning augmented reality and specifically focusing on how independents will be able to win in a new grocery equation. 

“I think that more of the center store is going to go away and that what you’re going to see happen in the store is much more experiential,” he says.

“That’s going to put these independent grocers in a position to build community gathering places that are going to draw people back in their stores, as opposed to just being fulfillment depots.”

As for Cardin, she’s most excited to see how ecommerce continues to evolve, with an easier mobile experience for shoppers and an ever-growing number of last-mile delivery options for retailers. 

Cardin also had experience in the beauty industry before landing at CROPP, and she thinks some of its ideas, such as user-generated content on social media, are now generating buzz in the grocery industry, or at least should be. 

“In my experience [in the beauty industry], way more often than not, when we would test branded content versus user-generated content, the user-generated content would win really from a click, a purchase or an engagement standpoint,” she says. “You don’t see so much of that in grocery today, so being able to really leverage the content coming from consumers, and leveraging their stories in the way that they’re using our products to fit into their lives, I think is really interesting, and something that we definitely want to lean into more in the future.”

Attracting the Right Talent

To keep grocery moving forward, and in many respects to help it catch up to other segments of retail, the industry needs the right talent. These three GenNext honorees, along with the other 22 individuals under the age of 40 who received the honor in 2019, are a testament to the ingenuity that talent can breed. 

“One of the misconceptions is that the grocery retail industry is just slow-moving and kind of stale, when I think all of us know that it is actually incredibly fast-paced,” Gibbons observes. “I think it’s an industry, more than any other sort of retail sector, that’s ingrained in communities, it’s ingrained in people’s lives and their everyday tasks, and I think the power of that is really incredible.”


The industry is also highly diverse and offers potential career paths for professionals of many backgrounds and areas of study. 

“When you think about it in terms of the data that’s available, when you think about it in terms of the opportunity to play with the latest consumer web and mobile technology, the chance to do really innovative blends in models and bricks and clicks, as opposed to just brick-and-mortar or online, that’s really interesting,” Nickitas asserts. 

He goes on to note: “These are technology companies that happen to solve grocery logistic issues. They’re not really grocery companies any more. And that’s what’s really neat."

About the Author

Abby Kleckler

Abby Kleckler is a former digital and tech editor for Progressive Grocer.

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