Giving Independent Grocers an Ecommerce Boost

Every retailer needs to be an omnichannel player. But if you’re not Amazon or Kroger, how can you serve consumers on this new playing field?

Independent grocers of any size, even down to single-store operators, are finding the resources they need to be more competitive, thanks to the National Grocers Association (NGA), which hosted its annual trade show Feb. 24-26 in San Diego, where speakers and exhibitors offered resources for upping one’s tech game.

Some companies, like Utah-based ShopHero, are exclusively focused on delivering affordable ecommerce solutions to independent grocers. “Everything, from service to pricing, is geared toward smaller operators,” says ShopHero’s Josh Ray, whose company has hundreds of clients across the country, most of them single-store operators. “We want to be a technology partner for smaller operators who are not tech-savvy or who don’t have the budget.”

Likewise, Smart.Market’s David Kiehle says his company aims to help indies compete with larger chains by providing them with the tools to create personalized offers for shoppers.

These were among many tech exhibitors that seemed to dominate this year’s expo floor that offered a wide range of goods and services to independent grocer attendees.

This year’s NGA Show opened with a new content track, iRetail: Technology Innovation Reshaping the Grocery Industry. Speakers focused on ecommerce, customer-centric innovation and other areas now considered table stakes for retailing.

For example: Retailers have offered weekly ads for decades, but now customers want more individualized approaches, said Gary Hawkins, CEO of Center for Advancing Retail & Technology (CART), during an iRetail session. Hawkins urged the industry to focus more on personalized marketing, supported by technology.

“Think of it from a customer’s perspective,” Hawkins said. “Technology today is driving change. We’re at a point of inflection.”

The online share of total grocery spending is growing faster than expected, said Steve Bishop, managing partner and co-founder of Brick Meets Click.

“The online portion of the business is where growth is happening,” Bishop said. “That’s why new competitive entrants are coming into the space. Independent retailers need to consider how to make it seamless for shoppers to move between online and in-store.”

Another day of concurrent sessions at the conference included a track on omnichannel marketing, during which Laura Strange, NGA’s SVP of communications and external affairs, stressed the importance of selecting the right social media channels to spread your brand’s message.

“There are 3 billion people on social media and they’re talking about you whether you’re on or not,” Strange said.

What to consumers want to see most from retailers on social media? Discounts, new products, in-store events and recipes, Strange said, and it should be an outlet for shoppers to share their experiences.

The digital realm is a perfect outlet for smaller retailers, as it allows grocers to shift from a focus on product to customer-centricity with less reliance on mass-marketing channels, asserted Dennis Host, VP of marketing at Coborn’s.

But yet digital is not the be-all and end-all for everyone, as Ted Balistreri, CEO of Sendik’s Food Markets, noted when relating how his company dropped print circulars a decade ago, only to bring them back with a resulting uptick in sales.

“The market is constantly evolving and we must evolve with it,” Balistreri said, explaining that while changes in demographics and local print media economics made the circular’s return possible now, further market changes could see it vanish again someday.

The vibrancy of the independent grocery segment is inspiring suppliers to create solutions aimed at helping these smaller players be competitive.

This year’s exhibitors included Shipt, the Target-owned delivery provider that serves several major grocery chains, as well as Mercato, an online ordering and delivery marketplace specifically for independent grocers.

With more than 650 independent grocers on board, Mercato claims to have driven sales increases for its clients ranging from 45 to 400 percent.

“Our biggest focus is quality,” Mercato founder and CEO Bobby Brannigan tells PG. “Working hand in hand with the stores is our sweet spot.”

Retailers must use technology to create a marketplace that removes barriers for consumers, according to panelists in a discussion on tech’s role in brick-and-mortar retailing.

“The progress we’re going to see in the next year on intelligent edge devices is going to be incredible,” says Microsoft’s Marty Ramos. Fellow panelist Mariya Zorotovich of Intel advises, “In the next couple of years, all the technology out there is going to get to the right place at the right time … so now’s the time to get your house in order.”

Leveraging this technology will be the best way for independent operators to commit to “a relentless effort to be more efficient across all aspects of their business,” UNFI CEO Mike Stigers said during a panel discussion of wholesale executives.

How can independent grocers win, according to these c-suite leaders? A commitment to fresh, passion for their communities, helping people eat well and making base hits in ecommerce.

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