Why the Store Walk Is More Important Than Ever

Progressive Grocer talks with longtime retailer, college professor and author Dr. Russell Zwanka
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
a woman smiling for the camera
Store Walk Book
Dr. Russell Zwanka recently updated his book, "The Store Walk: A Walk Through a Grocery Store in Today’s Environment."

It wasn’t all that long ago that the traditional store walk took a pandemic detour. Six-foot social distancing, one-way aisle traffic, face masks and a markedly changed store atmosphere put a crimp in grocers’ routine.

As stores have gotten back to normal – even samples and salad bars are back! – Dr. Russell Zwanka has updated his book, "The Store Walk: A Walk Through a Grocery Store in Today’s Environment," to reflect the new operating environment. Released on Aug. 8, the book touches on early 2020s hot-button issues including the lingering COVID-19 impact, inflation, supply chain issues and various food trends.

Progressive Grocer recently spoke with Dr. Zwanka, director of the food and consumer package foods marketing program and associate professor of marketing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., about his book and the store walk for the current era.

Progressive Grocer: Why did you pick this topic?

Dr. Russell Zwanka: When I did the first store walk book about five years ago, it was primarily because I have been a retailer all of my life. You teach this from day one: Nothing is more important than the store walk. I covered the walk from the parking lot inside the store, department by department and category by category. I talk about the store brand – if your brand is value, you should feel the value when you walk through the store and if your brand is fresh, you should see fresh through the store.

If you are in this business, you have to learn how the store flows. This book is mostly about store flow, but also the experience that customers should receive as they move through the store.

PG: How does the new version reflect the changes over the past couple of years?

RZ: I updated it post-pandemic. I’m leading with some of the trends – how the customer is shifting and how that is playing to the rest of the store.  

Also, we still have the Plexiglas up – we seem to have built up so many barriers between us and our customers. In this industry, we are all about the samples, smells, ambiance and experience, but for a while we became utilitarian as people filled up their cart and pantry and got out. 

PG: What are some other ways that stores and the all-important store walk have adjusted to changing circumstances?

RZ: We are coming out of a situation in which there was no one to plant potatoes, pick the potatoes, drive the truck with the potatoes. We have these shortages all along the supply chain that are hampering innovation and trends. This may hinder us a tad, but nothing slows us totally down in this industry.

PG: How can grocers take inflation into account on their store walks and overall view of their industry?

RZ: We are there when people are feeling prosperous and we are there when they have to contract their spending. We have all tiers of value.

PG: Is there more technology to be seen on a modern store walk?

RZ: Look at the amount of checkout-free stores coming on board. The number-one chokepoint is checkout. If you can’t do checkout-free, do scan-a-bag. If you can’t do that, do self-checkout.

We have to start more conversations about technology. Maybe you’re walking into the store and your phone buzzes that your daughter ate a peanut butter sandwich and how you need peanut butter in the house.

PG: Finally, what are some of your takeaways about the grocery industry and how it has responded to recent rapid-fire changes?

RZ: I think online ordering for grocery will probably only get to 10% or so (of the market). Most people like to go to the grocery store and feel the action. In our classes at Western Michigan, we stress the fact that there is beauty to this – someone got 70,000 items and put them in a way that even a person who doesn’t speak the language can find products.

And I’m a big believer in the resiliency of the supermarket industry. We are a great industry and we can go through incredible obstacles.

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