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What Did 2021 Teach You About Marketing and Merchandising?


 By Jim Dudlicek, Director, Communications and External Affairs of The National Grocers Association 

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way grocers think about marketing and merchandising, perhaps forever. Restrictions on in-person events and store capacity, and concerns for safety forced retailers to rethink how they showcased the best they had to offer.

As NGA’s Creative Choice Awards demonstrated this year, independent grocers know how to pivot in a most graceful and innovative fashion. Now, as the “end” of the pandemic keeps being redefined and pushed further down the road, what lessons of the past year will drive what grocers’ promotions look like next?

To help prospective entrants prepare more effective entries for the 2022 Creative Choice Awards, NGA hosted a recent webinar with some of this year’s winners to explore the stories behind their successful marketing and merchandising campaigns, and find out what’s influencing their future plans.

Speakers included Jared Earley, marketing director, and Sophia Belitsos, graphic designer, from Baltimore-based retailer Eddie’s of Roland Park; Joe Conley, director of center store merchandising and procurement for Associated Grocers of New England; and Mary Whitehead, NGA’s manager of marketing and digital content.

Submissions are due Dec. 3 and can be submitted here: https://www.nationalgrocers.org/creative-choice/

Here are some key takeaways from the discussion:

And you may ask yourself … What are your goals? Who are you trying to reach? What feelings are your trying to elicit from them? “Knowing your intent from the beginning is crucial,” Belitsos said. “What is the story you’re trying to tell?”

Just get started. “We have no problem flying planes that aren’t fully built but we want to know why we’re doing it,” Earley remarked. So don’t be afraid to let campaigns evolve once they’re in motion. Be sure to get early buy-in from your team to generate excitement. “Embrace the ‘now,’ roll with it and act quickly,” Belitsos said. “Any campaign must include enthusiasm, organization and a strong value proposition.”

Expect the unexpected. The pandemic and its impact on the supply chain has demonstrated that the “ability to stay nimble is very important,” Conley said. “Be prepared to pivot on the fly – and be OK with that.” For example: “Personalization was a challenge in a year of masks and social distancing,” Earley noted. “It’s jarring to have to rethink that personal touch.” And while digital marketing and social media have been gaining ground, Conley said the pandemic “grew those channels exponentially.”

It’s all about people. In the case of AG New England’s winning entry, its new private-label deli line, the program was planned before the pandemic, which hit just as line was being rolled out, Conley explained. But because it was built on in-house creativity, the team “came together as a company,” he said. “Being inclusive gave us something to rally around.” Similarly, Eddie’s of Roland Park leveraged partnerships with community influencers, which “helped deepen relationships and filled in the gaps” left when the pandemic forced the cancellation of many in-person events, Earley added. “The past year was about communicating with our customers. Listening was so vital.”

The moral of the story: “If you’re on the fence” about entering the Creative Choice contest, Conley advised, “just do it.” It’s an opportunity to recognize your team for their creativity. “You’ve been forced to be creative, whether you realize it or not, so celebrate it.” Entries don’t have to be complicated. “It’s totally worth the risk,” Belitsos declared. “Just gathering all your assets is a great opportunity to pause and appreciate the work you’ve created as a team.”

Click here for more information about and to submit entries for the Creative Choice Awards.

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