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Emerging Technology Doesn’t Have To Be Threat To Independent Grocers

John Ross

by John Ross / President and CEO of IGA

In my line of work, I see great customer service almost daily. I will be visiting an IGA owner or an unaffiliated independent grocer, and they seem to know the names of every shopper we pass in the aisles.

It’s a warm and personal experience where the grocer and their shoppers have more than just a transactional relationship. It’s the very definition of great customer service. And it’s an experience national chains have a hard time replicating. At best, they deliver an impersonal shopping experience and, at worst, they make shoppers feel like commodities. 

And then along comes digital. 

With a good digital interface and analytics engine, even a large and impersonal grocery retailer can replicate the effects of incredible personalized service. Everything a shopper looks at or interacts with can be recorded, analyzed, sorted, stored and then harnessed.

Here is what they can do:

 Look at changes in eating patterns, identifying shoppers who are going on a diet, switching to gluten-free products or low sugar/sodium. And then send them offers that help them meet their goals.

 Find first-time buyers of diapers, formula or other baby products and then enter those shoppers into a new parents’ club.

 Note how long it typically takes for a shopper to run out of commodity products like laundry detergent, paper towels, etc. and time offers to coincide with anticipated replenishment cycles.

 Set up an “early warning” system that allows the front end to notify shoppers with peanut allergies or gluten issues that they are about to buy something that could harm them.

This isn’t theoretical, it isn’t impractical. Big brands are using the technology to trick shoppers into believing they truly care about them. 

As an independent grocer, it can be overwhelming to think about having to compete against large companies with big data systems and marketing budgets to harness them, but it’s important to realize the costs are dropping. 

The effort to harness the data isn’t nearly as daunting as it used to be because the software – and the companies that provide it – get progressively easier to work with. 

In fact, an independent grocer can begin to use big data tools every bit as powerful as the largest national retailers for just a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising tools – and they work. 

Often a good customer data-driven marketing program can generate sales increases for a fraction of the cost of traditional tools. They also are sustaining. True loyalty programs build shopper engagement over time, increasing repeat visits and average baskets while lowering shopper churn.

But they can’t be harnessed without data. That means a digital relationship with shoppers. Engage them electronically, so they are identified and their transaction data is stored. 

Even without a full shopper loyalty solution, building the data for future use prepares independents to defend their most loyal shoppers against big chains. It also grows the supply of new shoppers. 


How to create digital relationship

 First, give shoppers a reason to share their mobile phone number with simple tools such as digital coupons or receipt-based rewards. These systems, available from many vendors for a low cost, give shoppers an incentive to supply their contact information.  

 Second, get a partner. Many technology companies offer simple CRM systems that are priced for the independent market. Start small, with an email program or weekly testing system, and grow over time into more complex tools. Realize that the full cost of serving shoppers digitally is not the cost of the software or agency, but the risk of losing shoppers to other retailers who use these tools to steal them away. 

 Third, develop a vision for how your brand should behave online. If your store is known for quality meats, local produce or scratch bakery, then imagine how those differences should play out online. One successful retailer texts a photo of freshly cut steaks to online shoppers to ensure they’re what they want. Another travels to local farmers’ fields and shoots a quick video, telling shoppers the crop is about to harvested and in his stores. 

Your brand online is still your brand. The software doesn’t matter nearly as much as the brand message. 

Digital technology is here, and it is working. Rather than something to be feared, it’s an opportunity for retailers to embrace. Combine online branding with in-store service quality and no shopper will be able to resist. 

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