Members also assess e-commerce, other trends likely to stick around
by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer
With 2021 in full swing, ROFDA Chairman David Bullard said the association’s membership has expressed three major concerns.
“One is the labor problem. Finding enough quality workers with a good work ethic gets harder and harder to do. Labor challenges are consistent from one end of the supply chain to the other,” Bullard explained.
“Next, is the continued shortage of product from manufacturers. Consumer demand has greatly increased during the pandemic while the supply chain has been tremendously challenged. Though it has improved, continued shortage of product keeps us from meeting those demands.
“Additionally, the ROFDA members acknowledge that in many cases the largest chains get priority in fulfillment, at the expense of the cooperatives. We all fully support the work done by NGA in moving forward with anti-trust efforts to rectify this problem.
“Finally, though we may see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we are still in the midst of it. Many states are at record highs of positive cases, even while the vaccine is beginning to be distributed. Thus, the uncertainty that comes with the pandemic will continue to be present well into 2021.”
However, Bullard pointed to an under-reported challenge that grocers are facing.
“When the pandemic hit us initially, the importance of the local grocer became magnified,” he said. “They, and others in the supply chain, were recognized as “essential” workers. They were given a lot of credit that they deserved.
“As time has passed, less attention has been paid to the grocery store associate. You hear less and less about them being ‘essential’ workers. They should be recognized as ‘frontline workers’ and put in one of the higher priority tiers for the vaccine.”
And with COVID cases rising, Bullard said many more operators are recognizing what will stick around in 2021.
“They realize that if they do not embrace the realities of online shopping, pickup and delivery, they will be left behind,” he said.
“Additionally, you will continue to see acceleration in the importance of the perishable departments and the store’s perimeter. Though grocery items have been hard to get, produce and meat supply has held up really well. Independents have performed much better than the larger chains in these areas.
“As more people have become accustomed to eating at home, it is the perishable areas that will mark the success of the store. It is these areas that the independent grocer has always differentiated itself from the larger chains, and they should certainly be able to continue to do so.”
So what’s the biggest takeaway to date from the pandemic? It all comes back to independents, Bullard said.
“I believe the legacy of the pandemic in our industry will be the spirit and dedication shown by our independent retailers and their associates,” he said. “They have stood tall and met the challenges of the pandemic.
“Independents are about community. They have served their communities very, very well. They have demonstrated how important they are in their communities. I also believe their efforts will build customer loyalty that will serve them well for many years into the future.”
Organization’s work stands tall
ROFDA is a group of members, associates and suppliers dedicated to helping each other and independent retail grocers achieve advantages, growth and success. And ROFDA did just that throughout 2020.
“The board members of ROFDA have communicated more than ever, and shared information with each other that has helped us serve our retailers during the pandemic,” Bullard said.
“ROFDA has become a leaner, more efficient organization. We were very pleased with the Virtual ROFDA Conference held recently. It proved to be an effective and efficient way to bring value to both our associates, as well as our warehouses. We plan on another virtual conference in the spring and then we hope to have an in-person conference in the fall.
“We have markedly improved the participation of our share groups. They are meeting virtually every quarter to share information and to bring opportunities to our retailers.”
Associated Food Stores CEO Bob O’Bray is the newest ROFDA board member, effective Dec. 31, filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Neal Berube. But while he is new to his current positions, O’Bray has been with Associated since 2004 as well as affiliated with ROFDA for several years.
“I really, strongly believe in ROFDA…what it means, what its mission is, how it brings us together as cooperatives, as grocers throughout the United States, how it gives us a platform to share, to collaborate, to aggregate, to learn from each other, to associate,” O’Bray said.
“Probably what makes me the most excited is the opportunity to work more closely with great men and women throughout our industry – both other CEOs, other executives from companies that are members of ROFDA, but also the vendors and service providers that support us through ROFDA. Just to be able to deepen relationships and, hopefully, make a bigger impact on our cause, our mission, our purpose.”
And this mission, as Bullard has pointed to, has proven essential amidst the ever-present pandemic.
“Some of [independents’] best sources of learning, of improvement, of knowledge gaining, come from other companies like ROFDA. We’re essentially traveling down the same roads, maybe just a different geography,” O’Bray said.
“If there are things that we’re doing that are similar, let’s share best practices. Let’s share successes and failures. Let’s collaborate to the extent we can. Let’s share resources. Let’s bind together and be stronger and more united.
“It’s usually through a crisis or struggle, when you’re working with somebody, you strengthen relationships, maybe your vulnerabilities are exposed a little bit, you get to know each other better in a different way. Hopefully, that’s how it occurred. I think that will have a lasting impact on our relationships.”
And to put 2021 in greater context, O’Bray also hopes ROFDA’s work can help to move the nation out of a discordant time.
“We’re fortunate to live in a great country, and I think the division that exists right now is having an effect on us. But if we change our perspective and find some positive out there, some things that can bring us together and give us hope for a better future, we’re all going to be better,” he said.
“And that’s my hope, as a leader in the industry, is that we can be a bright spot. We can be positive.”