LIVE FROM NGA: Indie Grocers Wrestle With Digital

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Don't be scared of digital - it's just another way to sell.

That's the message Kristie Maurer, store director of Wisconsin-based Madison Fresh Market, has for her fellow independent grocers wrestling with how to make social media technologies work for them in enhancing the customer experience.

Maurer (pictured below left) was part of a panel discussion, "Path to Purchase - Communicating with Shoppers Pre-Trip," on Monday morning at the NGA Show in Las Vegas.

Not only is Maurer not scared of digital, but her store has totally embraced it, so much so that it has forsaken the time-honored weekly print circular -- and she says her shoppers haven't missed it. Instead, Madison Fresh Market employs a four-member digital team that oversees marketing efforts on social media as well as radio. Team members aren't just tech nerds - they're grocery savvy as well, which allows them to respond more effectively to new product launches, daily specials and other changes to which they alert the store's loyal customer base.

"They key is their reaction," Maurer said. Eric Anderson (pictured center), marketing EVP for Fresh Encounter, a group of 30 stores operating under four banners in Indiana and Ohio, concurs. "If they don't know grocery," Anderson advised, "you're doing yourself a disservice."

While acknowledging that measuring ROI for digital initiatives is still a challenge, Maurer noted that consumer response to digital initiatives is a good gauge. Maurer's team routinely issues "calls to action" to consumers, seeking specific responses -- for example, a "scavenger hunt" that urges folks to visit the store to hunt for hidden tickets to sporting events. One of the keys to using digital, she says, is to create a sense of community.

Meanwhile, Madison Fresh has launched a shopping app, dubbed "Fetch Rewards," that allows shoppers to scan items with their smartphone so they don't have to empty their baskets onto the belt at checkout. "It's all about helping the consumer shop with their phone so they can expedite the process," she said.

But grocers must take care not to bombard consumers with messages through their phones, cautioned John Dee (right), chairman and CEO of Placewise Media, a path-to-purchase consultant. "The phone is highly personal," he said, noting that people want information when they need it, not just anytime when they might find it intrusive.

That came as no surprise to Anderson, who once tried a "12 Days of Christmas" texting promotion that resulted in massive opt-outs from subscribers. "You need to be careful about what makes sense," said Anderson, founder of Anderson Robertson Marketing, and of Grocery Influence, a social media platform designed to connect brands to retailers' social media followers. Dee asserted that digital messaging should be "actionable and valuable."

But above all, grocers need to get in on the game, because it's here to stay. "We're always reacting," Maurer said of grocers. "It's time we start being proactive. Digital is the way to do that. Don't be scared of it -- you're still selling your business, your family, your product."

As for the old newspaper circular, Dee called its future "abysmal." Ten to 15 years from now, he says, "I just don't see it being there."

Driving Sales in Stores

Another session outlined how to make it easier for independent grocers to leverage the power of digital media by tying it in to all the other customer touchpoints in the retail experience. The session, "Path to Purchase - Driving Sales in Stores," was presented by Joe Rogness (pictured at right), CEO of Jingit, an app that "bridges the gap between brand and shopper."

Rogness outlined a trial that Jingit will be launching for Food City/K-VA-T Food Stores - an application that uses digital to enhance the effectiveness of print FSIs, in-store signage, TV, online, audio and the out-of-home experience. For example, a print ad for Alka Seltzer includes a scannable coupon and a "check-in" challenge in which the shopper earns further discounts by scanning the product at shelf. The app further follows up with digital coupons for related products to be used on return visits, along with credits earned for additional store purchases.

By combining channels, retailers can build a community among their shoppers "by continuing the conversation beyond the store," Rogness said.

The Glass is Half Full

The morning's general session featured John Phillips, SVP at PepsiCo, speaking on the convergence of the digital and physical worlds, and the implication for retailers.

Phillips (pictured at left) outlined the advancement of technology, which among consumers has outpaced that used by business. He suggested, among other things, that independent grocers might launch unmanned stores in more remote areas (an interesting prospect, since indie grocers are known for creating jobs in their communities).

He further demonstrated how the wearable Google Glass device might be applied to grocery, offering shoppers interactive store maps and self checkout by sight, and giving store associates access to shopper profiles, allowing them to engage customers on a personal level and leverage information about their purchasing habits. Such personalization, Phillips asserted, is "where independent retailers should own this space."

Gaming technology also could be applied to the retail experience, Phillips suggested, by allowing shoppers to place orders from home using game consoles. Retailers could also apply 3D store planning technology to enhance online shopping with a virtual in-store experience (much like the one I demoed last fall).

Phillips also heralded the demise of the weekly printed circular as "a thing of the past, sooner rather than later." 

Meanwhile, On the Show Floor ...

Digital products aimed at helping independent grocers get in on the game were in evidence on the show floor -- among them, a custom loyalty program platform from market analytics company Reach / Influence, which provides a customizable template for retailers lacking the wherewithal to launch their own programs. Other tech-centric vendors included Big Data cruncher 1010data (whose Cal Garrett chats below with PG's Joe Tarnowski) and a cloud-based application from Ceridian (whose Ron Anderson is pictured below with PG's John Huff).

Read our ongoing coverage of the 2014 NGA Show on and breaking reports on Twitter @pgrocer / @jimdudlicek / @indygrocer



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