NGA Executive Conference Recap

September 25, 2020

By: Jonathan Downey, NGA SVP of Industry Relations

Last week, NGA held its sold-out Executive Conference, NGA’s first-ever virtual education and networking event for c-suite retail grocery leaders. We were excited to connect, collaborate and engage with more than 425 attendees. The education lineup included speakers from the arenas of grocery retailing and wholesaling, CPG, technology and consulting. Sessions focused on issues key to doing business in the current marketplace, from ecommerce fulfillment and supply chain to category marketing and health and wellness, to the upcoming U.S. presidential elections and navigating the COVID landscape. Below are key takeaways from the conference:

Macro trends expected to linger beyond the pandemic include more meals eaten at home and acceleration of e-commerce, according to our chat with CPG executives. And, according to Scott Tassani of General Mills, “The virtual workplace will be the new normal.”

The world is full of uncertainty but new solutions and technologies have to be a part of your future operations, says Sterling Hawkins of CART. And the secret to doing that in an effective manner is to bring in your whole team together to focus on new innovation, new capabilities and new ways of doing things, suggests CART’s CEO Gary Hawkins.

Supply chain will be front and center to driving incremental growth and operators must quickly adapt to a new way of working without losing focus on what it takes to win in the marketplace, says McKinsey & Co.’s Ash Dekhne.

The two questions leaders need to ask every week: The answers to “What are we doing next week?” and “How did we perform last week?” will help retailers build omnichannel engagement, says Inmar’s Spencer Baird.

Growth in a post-COVID world will be driven by reinforcement of value through pack sizes and price points, strong distribution in e-commerce and value channels, and continuing to tap emerging trends, according to the folks at IRI and Boston Consulting Group.

Demand is up for claims-based products such as organic and grass-fed. Says SunFed Ranch’s Matt Byrne, “When there’s uncertainty in the world, people kick the tires on their food decisions.”

Self-disruption is the only option to win long-term in a challenging competitive landscape, says The Dialogic Group’s Thom Blischok, who issued stern recommendations for independent grocer success in the post-pandemic world: SKU rationalization, plan for supply chain uncertainty, invest in your overall shopping experience, invest in seamless digital retailing, and create a strategy to keep restaurant shoppers in your store.

Listening speeds up the process in a retailer-supplier relationship because you’re more likely to avoid potential problems, says Brookshire Grocery’s Jerry LeClair: “Every idea can be a good idea, it’s all how you execute it.” Being smaller and more flexible helps you better understand which products are the most profitable for you. Mid-year course correction is a must. LeClair adds: “Right now, there’s nothing more important than supply chain.”

“Conscious consumption” continues to grow as more consumers are seeking out new products based on their health perspectives, notes SPINS’ Melissa Dabrowski. Consumers want cleaner ingredient profiles; trending product claims include gluten/grain free, non-GMO and paleo. Top-growth trending categories include plant-based meat and milk alternatives. Supply chain issues have driven innovation in plant-based foods.

In-store CPG sales have leveled off while online growth continues to accelerate since the start of the pandemic, largely driven by younger shoppers, says Nielsen’s Nicole Collida. COVID has driven more fluidity in shopping across channels. E-commerce’s share of total retail dollar sales could reach 13% to as much as 20% over the next three to five years, depending on how aggressive retailers’ strategies are. “Matching your strategy to the products your consumers are demanding will be critical,” Collida adds, sharing the keys to growing trips and loyalty: quicker, personalized, value, reality.

It’s about building trust. That’s how Harvest Sherwood’s Leon Bergmann describes the ideal retailer-wholesaler relationship: “It starts with openness and collaboration,” and includes being flexible and staying on top of local trends. Some of those trends, notes C&S’ Joe Cavaliere, include frozen food, private label and local products. AWG’s David Smith recommends leveraging data sharing for smarter decision making, reducing redundancies, improving communication and information sharing, and jointly developing technology and operations tools to drive efficiencies. SKU rationalization will gain momentum, and SpartanNash’s Lori Raya says the pandemic has prompted wholesalers “to step back, look at the assortment at shelf and reduce some of the complexity,” and to talk more with retailers “and help them reset their go-forward play.”

Products, experience and commerce. These are the building blocks of grocery’s digital future, asserts KMPG’s Scott Rankin – digital products that increase personalization, decrease friction and deliver seamless interactions. Rankin says consumers want “simple yet elegant solutions that make lives easier … that allow them to buy in the way they want, in a very personalized way.” According to KMPG’s Sanjay Sehgal, post-pandemic digital priorities include creating a digital business model, automating business processes and building new digital products and services while adapting existing ones with new capabilities.

Diversity equals success, says Jonathan Mayes, chief diversity officer at Albertsons. Research indicates companies that embrace diversity and inclusion are more likely to outperform their competitors because they attract a wider spectrum of talent that brings broader perspectives to the business. Mayes says business leaders should be asking themselves, “What can I do to make people feel more welcome?” If the goal of your company is to be the best it can be, he says, diversity and inclusion should be part of your formula for success.

Food safety equals behavior, according to Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response.  That includes employee health and safety, consumer education, and research and stakeholder engagement. “The industry by and large does a good job, but let’s work together to enhance food safety culture, to be even more effective,” Yiannas urges. One Achilles’ heel he sees is traceability, and the FDA wants to work with the industry to create a more “people-led, tech-enabled” system as part of its “New Era of Smarter Food Safety” that builds on FSMA. Yiannas says the pandemic has been the “biggest test of the food system in 100 years,” which revealed supply chain imbalances. “We learned some lessons. … As a result, we’ll have a stronger and more resilient food system.”

“Shoppers want what we do – independents have a great future.” That’s the assessment of IGA’s John Ross, who says consumers’ suspicions of an “industrialized” food supply have swelled during the pandemic, leading them to favor smaller businesses. Things like local food and enhanced sanitation, Ross says, “send a signal that we care about their families in a way that perhaps an impersonal national chain does not.” Meanwhile, categories like frozen food and center store are enjoying a rebirth, observes Cub Foods’ Mike Stigers: “All the sections that we’d given up to other channels have really come home.” Civil unrest has given grocers “an opportunity to reach out to the community,” Stigers says. “Food brings people together.” Strack & Van Til’s Jeff Strack says retailers have a responsibility to take action on diversity and inclusion: “If we’re not having uncomfortable conversations, we’re probably not addressing this the way that we need to.” Stigers notes that retailers are being looked to for leadership like never before: “We have an opportunity not only to provide for our customers the best value possible through challenging economic times, but also to reach out and find different solutions for food insecurity.”

A special thank you to our generous conference sponsors: Kimberly-Clark North America, The Kellogg Company, Freshop, Fiserv, Adsta, Aramark, BRdata Software Solutions, ECRS, Edict Systems, General Mills, HempFusion, Inmar, Itasca Retail, KeHE Distributors, The Kraft Heinz Company, Mondelez International, Navajo Incorporated, Nestle Purina PetCare, Post Consumer Brands, Retail Zipline, Rosie Applications, AR Marketing, BMO Harris Bank, The Clorox Company, Crown Poly, Date Check Pro, The Food Partners, Idahoan Foods, iTradeNetwork, National Cooperative Bank, PureRed, and ThirdChannel.

The 2021 event is expected to be a live event, the conference details will be announced in the coming months.

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