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Where Tech and the Human Touch Intersect

Annual Food Marketing Conference addresses the balance of interactions
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
John Phillips of PepsiCo shared that packages of the company's new Starry brand of lemon-lime soda will feature interactive QR codes for better customer engagement.

With educational sessions on a variety of CPG and retail topics, the recent Food Marketing and Supply Chain Conference at Western Michigan University (WMU) presented food for thought on the convergence of technology and the industry’s long-held pride points of customer service. One takeaway from the annual event is that the twain shall indeed meet.

The conference, held in Kalamazoo, Mich., with supply chain programming added to the mix this year, featured several thought leaders from leading brands and retail organizations.  In front of a crowd of more than 650 industry pros and students, they shared their insights focused on the ways that emerging technologies and long-held customer-centric mindsets with positive intent are propelling the industry forward after a decidedly disruptive period. Notably, that disruption continued during the time of the event on March 15 and 16, as banking collapses and market pressures made headlines around the world.

In her opening state-of-the-industry remarks, Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI - The Food Industry Association, drew a comparison between the time of discovery and exploration that emerged from the bleak 15th century to a new food and retail era that may come out of this turbulent time. “The pace of the pandemic era has robbed us of the ability to think larger and more long term than perhaps we’d like. What I suggest to you is an imperative for us as individual leaders and industry leaders to begin thinking bigger, to move beyond day-to-day problem solving,” she said.

Sarasin pointed out that accelerating technology transformation is at the center of the six imperative issues that FMI recently identified as impacting the food industry now and going forward. “We are just at the crawling state of realizing what AI and machine learning can do for us – in short, technology will transform the food industry,” she declared, also underscoring the human factor that drives technology. “As the purchasing agent for consumers, retailers are advocates for shoppers.”

In addition to Sarasin’s entreaty, the conference featured other leaders’ thoughts and advice on the promise of technology with a continued focus on people:

  • In a joint sit-down conversation, CEO Vivek Sankaran of Albertsons Cos. and CEO Steve Cahillane of Kellogg Co. spoke on the need to address human needs while pursuing technology. That includes motivating employees who are facing change as part of organizational transitions like those happening at Albertsons and Kellogg and providing solutions to consumers who can be reached with more personalized information and products through advancing tech capabilities. “When people shop with us, they are mindful or mindless. If you are mindful, it’s maybe because your daughter’s birthday is coming up and it has to be special. The mindless part is if you just need milk, eggs and a few other things. You can see how data and technology combined can help people with both of those pieces as consumers shop,” Sankaran explained. Added Cahillane: “When you take shopper data like the kind Albertsons has and combine it with data from suppliers like us who have insights on intent and behavior, you can meld them together in a meaningful way and see how it becomes predictive.”
  • In a session on smart packaging, John Phillips, SVP of customer, supply chain, global go to market at PepsiCo, shared how on-package digital QR codes are unlocking new ways for consumers to engage with products. “People are accustomed to using digital tools when they are at a supermarket or a mass market account,” he said, adding that the new code allows users to access things like nutrition facts, allergen information, ingredient lists, SKU sustainability details, local recycling links, certification, loyalty rewards and more. “That single scan provides this level of curated customer engagement.”
  • Justin Honaman, head of worldwide retail and consumer goods go to market at Amazon, reported that the e-comm giant has seen a significant increase in spend around grocery tech. “RFID is back, mobile commerce is accelerating and overall e-comm is trending to a more natural level of growth," he remarked, adding that Amazon’s various businesses, including its Amazon Fresh retail operation, are ultimately designed to connect people with products. “We’re here to help companies build great brands that consumers love. And it’s around innovating beyond consumer products  how do we help products get market faster and help provide a channel that is engaging with customers in different locations?” Honaman also highlighted current tech trends around e-commerce, such as personalized rankings, livestreaming with content curators, virtual stores managed by CPGs and virtual trial of products ranging from headphones to apparel.
  • Popular breakout sessions at the Food Marketing and Supply Chain Conference also emphasized the role of tech in the still-evolving marketplace. For example, a jam-packed session led by Bill Gillespie, client delivery partner at Microsoft, spotlighted the impact of the metaverse on the retail environment. He pointed out that tools within the metaverse can help grocers with recruitment and retention, like providing training at home using formats that young workers are familiar with and use often.
  • Finally, the focus on human interaction within an increasingly tech-fueled world extends to CPG and retail workplaces, too. In a panel discussion with NGA CEO Greg Ferrara, Sun Bum CEO Cynthia Herrera, E&J Gallo Winery's VP of Customer Development Tom Gillespie and Meijer VP of Customer Strategy Derek Steele, those leaders talked about leadership that inspires and encourages success. “We do need innovation and have sales and profit goals to drive. But when we think about how to build a culture, trustworthiness and empathy are important,” Steele noted.

The 2024 Food Marketing and Supply Chain Conference is slated for March 26-27 at WMU.

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