Grocery Innovation As a Path to Growth

Grocery Innovation as a Path to Growth

As established CPG brands and grocery retailers rifle their playbooks in search of strategies for driving growth in a marketplace where sales volume and profit are suffering continuous contraction, they need to give special attention to, and bookmark, the section on innovation.

Innovative product development and distribution is the lifeblood of food retailing and many in the industry particularly those anchored in the traditional space are in need of a serious infusion if there’s to be any hope of turnaround for them.

Dramatic, sanguinary metaphors aside, the reality is that traditional grocery stores can no longer expect to be successful simply by serving as CPG-supplied ingredient warehouses enabling at-home meal preparation by stocking ubiquitous recipe requirements. Seismic shifts in share within the $1.3 trillion food market are making that role increasingly untenable and unprofitable. The remaining pathway to growth is innovation. And it’s one that emerging brands have taken to get on shelf and steal share.

It is not an easy road for those less nimble. But it is navigable, nonetheless.

Trends must be distinguished from fads.

There are a number of new consumables currently receiving significant media coverage and contending for shelf space even as controversy and company valuations swirl.

From plant-based protein to non-milk to clean meat to CBD oil-infused, the ongoing proliferation of “alternative” offerings would appear to promise real opportunity for successfully activating a shopper base that is seriously committed to dietary improvement involving sustainability and responsible sourcing. 

But which products will endure and generate long-term positive market effect? How can manufacturers and marketers understand where to invest their time, energy and dollars? (Remember, Atkins?)

Determining how best to commit resources will demand more than a study of the latest headlines. But, the means to understand product potential and genuine shopper preferences are readily available.

Predictive analytics informed by voluminous shopper data — combined with active social listening — comprise a central, and immediately executable, strategy for accurately identifying areas for growth.

Accessing existing data is the first step toward successful innovation; mining and modeling that data for actionable insights is the second. 

Being first matters. But it’s not enough.

Those brands that are first to market with a viable product can capture a better-than-normal “fair share” of the category. Getting on shelf ahead of the competition and establishing a significant presence in the market represents a persistent advantage that can be maintained. Those that choose to follow will be challenged to enter the product space with any impact and will be left struggling to catch up. Once new entrants take volume from existing products, new introduction placements will be much tougher to attain.


Retailers willing to make sufficient investment to fully leverage the innovation delivered by brands will establish themselves as a “go-to” for shoppers looking for new products and build loyalty among these customers as they recognize and reward the availability of offerings that support their lifestyles.

That investment will not be unsubstantial. Retailers may need more shelf space, new layout, marketing, etc. Finding space for new products may also be challenging as some shoppers will remain loyal to the products they already know and space for these familiar products will need to be maintained. It could also be the case that retailers would need to expand departments to accommodate greater assortment and that is an expensive proposition.

However, achieving superior speed to market alone does not guarantee success. For a new product to find and keep customers, it must contribute measurably to a positive, healthier eating experience, provide consumers a satisfying mouthfeel and do so with maximum functionality as shoppers have made it abundantly clear that they want it “all.” It’s a substantial list but delivering anything less means the prospects of success for a new product diminish exponentially.

Efforts will need to be ongoing.

Product launch is just the first stage in achieving innovation-driven success. Once a product has made it to shelf, marketers will need to continuously evaluate its sales performance and rate of consumer adoption. It will be critical to identify, quickly, if a product is working and if it’s not cut it loose.

The goal is to optimally manage the success-to-failure ratio for all new products. Winners must be accelerated while losers must be quickly killed off.

Trial, initial velocity and repeat velocity will need to be closely monitored. If trial isn’t meeting expectations, marketers should look into demos, sample offerings, etc. Benchmarks must be set with norms established and charted.

It will be incumbent on retailers to be particularly watchful and agile. Store loyalty programs and analytics capabilities should be leveraged to target shoppers, strategically promote products and evaluate where sales are coming from so that physical positioning and marketing can be adjusted as needed.

Through it all, marketers must keep heart. Failures must be acknowledged, mined for insights and then left in the rearview mirror because what matters most is what’s ahead. Dollar share of food and consumables for traditional grocery has fallen more than 50 percent over the last 30 years and, without immediate action, this trend will only continue.

Producers and sellers have no choice but to innovate. Regardless of their failure rate, trading partners must commit to developing and marketing new products if they’re to meet consumer demand, drive incremental category growth and reverse the decline of traditional grocery.

About the Author

Jim Hertel leads analytics at Inmar as senior vice president. His strategic use of data and shopper analytics can be found in Inmar’s analytic products and systems. His rich experience in consumer goods marketing, food retailing and economics makes him a Read More

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