Redefining ‘Local’ Means Wins for Grocers and Student Team

March 31, 2021

Jim Dudlicek, NGA Director of  Communications and External Affairs

Redefine “local” to expand your supply chain.

Diversify your suppliers to find new sources of local products.

Gain a competitive edge by having unique offerings and demonstrating your value to the community.

These basic steps proved to be a winning recipe for California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), the winner of the 2021 Student Case Study Competition hosted by the National Grocers Association Foundation.

The competition, usually held annually at The NGA Show, featured teams competing virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over three days in early March.

This year’s case study scenario required students to create – and present for a four-judge panel – a strategy for taking better advantage of consumer demand for local food products for Karns Foods, a nine-store independent supermarket chain in central Pennsylvania.

Students from Western Michigan, Fresno State, Auburn and Niagara University, as well as Cal Poly, faced these challenges: How can Karns remain competitive in a pandemic-driven recession? How can the grocer compete with “local” differentiation when the customer is focusing on the utilitarian aspect of grocery shopping? How does it maintain, increase and market “local” procurement as the traditional supply chain attempts to re-establish itself?

“With the onset of COVID and more price-conscious shoppers, how can retailers still leverage local?” remarked Maggie White, director of the NGA Foundation, introducing the final round of competition on March 10.

The Cal Poly team, composed of four agribusiness students, bested the competition by answering that question with a four-phase plan centered around an innovative subscription box program, the Karns Krate, that would introduce consumers to a weekly selection of local produce items, packaged goods and prepared foods, along with recipes and stories of farm-to-form provenance.

Their plan leverages key consumer trends that are driving sales and loyalty in the grocery channel, including a growing demand for local products, a desire to try new and healthier foods, and a hunger for more information about what one eats.

Noting the lack of a universal definition for “local,” Cal Poly’s plan extends its parameters to 100 miles beyond Karns’ home state of Pennsylvania, allowing the grocer to tap new suppliers in neighboring states and broaden its offerings. The plan calls for partnerships with emerging companies and farm-to-table restaurants whose products would be included in subscription boxes. The team further recommended that Karns actively engage shoppers through social media as well as surveys to ensure their needs and preferences are being met.

With Karns Krates filled with compelling products; delivered in sustainable, reusable cardboard produce boxes; and sold at competitive prices compared to similar market offerings, plus active engagement of suppliers and consumers, the grocer would be able to grow its business based on this renewed brand message.

Click here to view a video of the final round of the Student Case Study Competition.

The NGA Foundation Student Case Study Competition strives to further the professional development of collegiate students pursuing degrees in food and retail programs and provides student teams the opportunity to creatively address a real-world issue currently impacting the industry. The competition, hosted by the NGA Foundation and generously funded by the Asparagus Club, awards up to $4,000 each to the winning team of students and their university.

More information about the Student Case Study Competition can be found here: