Written by CMX's CMO, Jim Hardeman, this article first appeared in Food Industry Executive.
It’s impossible to separate the onslaught of industry changes and trends in the last two years from the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent labor shortages and supply chain disruptions. Grocers’ successes or failures largely depended on their supply chain and operations teams, as well as their stores’ agility and ability to respond quickly to changes.
So, what’s in store for 2022? Though it’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen, a handful of trends have emerged in grocery stores that look like they’re here to stay.
1. CX = Cleanliness and hygiene
Store cleanliness and hygiene have become inextricable from customer experience. Back in August 2020, McKinsey research found that the importance of these foundations of the consumer (or guest) experience was already shifting.
“It is becoming increasingly important for stores [and restaurants] to not only follow hygiene protocols (thorough cleaning and masks for consumers and employees are top priorities),” the report noted, “but also communicate effectively that they are following those procedures.”
While mask requirements may vary from state to state today, an increased focus on cleanliness – and customers’ awareness of it – brought about changes in the supermarket industry, including rigorous contactless standard operating procedures, is here to stay. As customers have begun re-entering physical stores, the importance of what McKinsey called “hygiene transparency” doesn’t seem to have changed.
Automating and digitizing these sanitation steps, whether employing digital checklists or running regular internal audits, can help grocers consistently execute hygiene operations with precision and maintain higher levels of cleanliness. Those who continue to focus on this aspect of the customer experience should hold onto an advantage, regardless of the pandemic’s ebbs and flows.
2. Digital can drive labor savings
Labor shortages became a huge burden during the pandemic for a host of reasons, from more workers retiring early to direct COVID safety concerns, and more. Of course, stores still have to operate at high levels and not only meet but exceed previous health, safety, and operational standards. In response, chains around the country had to make big adjustments: Recently St. Louis, Missouri-based Schnucks announced that the majority of its 100-plus retail locations would close an hour early due to staffing and labor shortage issues, and Ontario, California-based Cardenas Markets offers $1,000 signing bonuses for new retail workers.
Essential businesses like grocers continue to grapple with how to quickly recruit, hire, and train employees on constantly changing operating standards and procedures. One of the most efficient and effective tech solutions is to digitize standard operating procedures and store policies – upgrading the traditional paper binder for a modern approach assists in quick, thorough training for employees and helps ensure that evolving standards and best practices are communicated effectively and followed consistently and maintained.
3. Consumers are leaning into innovation
Innovation has become top of mind for customers, as they continue to lean heavily on food services they may not have used at all or may have considered a luxury, before the pandemic. An Acosta Shopper Community Survey report from October 2021 showed that online subscriptions for everything from coffee and tea to fresh family meal kits took off – 31% of shoppers have at least one, and about 90% plan to keep them throughout the year. The real star of the show may have been online grocery ordering and contactless delivery or curbside pickup, which became commonplace (the same Acosta survey found that 51% of current online shoppers began doing so during the pandemic.)
People who were in lockdown, newly self-aware of their eating and food habits, also started to embrace healthier options. Stores that were competing with restaurants for food service dollars and met that demand with healthy, convenient product innovation found themselves in a good position that’s likely to continue.
4. Food safety is the future
With the boom in e-commerce, delivery, meal kits, ready-to-eat offerings, and new private label products being developed, grocery stores and supermarket chains are dealing with more food safety risks than ever.
And because of the varying grocery store conditions and an almost endless number of products and food preparation methods, food safety management is especially challenging. Grocery stores should look to and follow the same HACCP principles for food preparation as restaurants. The FDA endorses voluntary implementation of food safety management systems. In the past, implementing these systems could be challenging. Fortunately, implementing HACCP-based safety systems can now be streamlined through digitization – especially important given the multitude of hazards and critical control points in stores, as well as varied locations, food items, and staff turnover. Stores can create operating procedures in their food safety management plan for everything from personal hygiene (an improvement on employee wellness screenings) to monitoring food preparation procedures and corrective actions.
What do these trends mean to grocery retailers?
This pandemic has taught us that customers rely on grocery and convenience stores and supermarkets in even the most unstable times. The common thread on each of these four trends is that retailers would do well to modernize and digitize operations whenever and wherever possible. We can’t always predict when new challenges will come, but stores can put their operations in a position to be nimble, adaptable, and reliable, meeting the needs of the customers and communities they serve while helping their businesses and team members thrive.