Independent Grocers Share COVID-19 Ecommerce Best Practices

May 11, 2020

Leadership, communication essential to serving shoppers in a crisis

By Jim Dudlicek, Director, Communications and External Affairs

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the adoption of ecommerce, making strides in five weeks that the industry thought would take five years. During these challenging times, as grocers of all sizes are working around the clock to meet this unprecedented demand, many independent operators – some of whose ecommerce strategies were not fully developed – radically changed the way they do business, practically overnight.

But the effort will ultimately make independent grocers stronger and better equipped to serve a larger customer base, ensuring long-term success.

That was the consensus of four leading independent grocers who discussed ecommerce best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a recent webinar hosted by the National Grocers Association and moderated by Nick Nickitas, founder and CEO of ecommerce solution provider Rosie.

Here are some key takeaways from that discussion:

Be the leader: “When other retailers were pulling back, we pushed forward,” Corry Lankford, director of advertising and ecommerce at Lufkin, Texas-based 116-store chain Brookshire Brothers, said of competitors. Responsiveness and nimbleness are an independent grocer’s best attributes, Lankford said: “We’re seeing people giving us the opportunity to serve them for the first time, and I suspect it won’t be the last time.” Likewise, Logan, Utah-based Lee’s Marketplace, which started its ecommerce program in 2014, hired 180 new people and reassigned many others to beef up its ecomm team, noted Jonathan Badger, president and CEO of the six-store operation. Lee’s continues to scale up its program for greater efficiency and is working on a batch-picking process to increase its order capacity. Meanwhile, Spokane, Wash.-based Rosauers was ahead of the pack in safety measures like employee masks, shields, cart sanitizing and in-store social distancing. “Safety is an area we really jumped on ahead of our competitors,” said Mike Myhre, district manager of the 22-store chain in an early COVID-19 hot spot.

Leverage your strengths: In addition to be being nimble, independents tend to have a unique advantage given their close ties to local communities. Sarah Lafferty, store owner at St. Johnsbury, Vt.-based White’s Market, said while many of her customers may be buying more center store items from big-box competitors, their perishable orders at her stores are on the rise: “They trust me to have local products on the shelf. They trust my butcher, and my produce and deli staff.” Lankford recommended cross-training employees so they know the whole store. A stronger team also deserves recognition and reward.

Communication is key: As an owner of a three-store operation, Lafferty is able to communicate directly with consumers via text and social media. “Our focal point in this community has never been louder,” she said. That’s been even more important lately, Lankford noted, as grocers have had to reassure customers about the availability of essential products: “Customers are much more understanding and willing to take substitutions.” Listening to shopper feedback is important to making sure your store can fulfill specific household needs, Badger added.

Offer a personal touch: As much as people need safety in this crisis, they also need service that’s consistent and friendly. “Amazon’s going to leave it on your doorstep – we have the owner handing your order to you and asking how your kids are doing. That’s an important differentiation right now,” Lafferty said. “My son’s teacher told me she comes to our store for hope as much as she does for groceries.”

Keep up the momentum: “Independent ecommerce may have been slow-starting, but this [crisis] has revolutionized what we’re going to be able to do,” Badger declared. Myhre said while he expects ecommerce orders to drop a bit when people can finally get outside more freely, he believes it will remain a “doable option,” especially for hesitant consumers who were compelled to shop online by the crisis. “The pandemic is what ecommerce needed to push it to the next step,” Badger added. “A lot of people that were questioning are now converted. It’s not just a convenience anymore – it will be a way of life.”

Independent grocers enjoy the freedom to innovate, the flexibility to pivot and the trust of their local communities.

As Nickitas concluded, “It all comes down to service and the shopper experience – that is where independent retailers can differentiate and win.”