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    The Digital Age

    The challenge for independents is sorting through the available digital tools to find what’s right for them.

    By Peter Larkin

    As I walked the expo floor, or sat in on a workshop or a panel of industry experts during the 2014 NGA Show, I was struck by a sense of confidence that prevailed among those present. In light of the challenging economic times we’ve recently endured, it’s a huge positive to see everyone so driven to serve their customers and communities and build their businesses.

    With more than $130 billion in sales and nearly a million jobs, independents are the backbone of the national economy and local communities. Today’s healthier economy, dovetailed with the unique ability to connect on a local scale, has independent grocers well positioned to launch a period of growth.

    During the 2014 NGA Show general session “Convergence of Digital and Physical Worlds,” John Phillips, SVP customer supply chain and logistics for Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo, encouraged independents to “drive disruptive, transformative thinking.” His presentation created a buzz that continued throughout the show, and offered many insights on how technology is changing how retailers communicate and interact with consumers.

    Cited as the single greatest catalyst of change by a group of grocery and manufacturer executives, technology is an area that independents must understand and embrace. With the proliferation of smartphones and other technology, consumers are becoming more sophisticated.

    As Phillips pointed out during his presentation, consumers don’t want to be talked to — they want to be a part of the conversation. They are demanding instant information, transparency and convenience.

    While the landscape is quickly evolving, many independent grocers are taking advantage of cutting-edge technologies to reach new customers and better meet their needs. Independents are making their move into digital. They are hiring dedicated digital staff, earmarking almost one-quarter of their marketing budgets for digital initiatives, and more effectively leveraging social media platforms.

    The recent study “Technology and the Independent Grocer,” launched by Progressive Grocer Independent, the Center for Advancing Retail (CART) and NGA, provided a glimpse of how independent grocers are using and adapting to the new digital world. According to the study, published in the February 2014 issue of PGI, 91 percent of independents leverage their websites for marketing purposes, and 79 percent of grocers have established a presence on social media.

    Among the challenges of making that transformation into the digital sphere, the study revealed that it’s not a lack of digital tools, but rather an overabundance of them. Those independents surveyed expressed uncertainty on the best approaches to engage consumers effectively, while finding the right balance to bridge the gap between those consumers who are comfortable with digital, and those who still expect traditional marketing materials.

    The study reflects a time of transition for the independent retail industry, but independent grocers have a lot to build on, as was plainly evident during the show. We have heard from our members regarding the need for resources and additional information on best practices for integrating the latest technologies into their business strategies. Those retailers that are on the forefront of implementing new technology and embrace the hyper-connected, tech-savvy consumer are positioning themselves for success.

    As with this year’s event, next year’s NGA Show will continue on its mission of providing top-shelf education for independent grocers as they move into an increasingly digital age. It will be held Feb. 8-10, 2015, at the Mirage in Las Vegas. We’d love to see you there!

    By Peter Larkin
    • About Peter Larkin Peter Larkin is president and CEO of the Arlington, Va.-based National Grocers Association (NGA), which represents the retail and wholesale grocers comprising the independent sector of the food distribution industry.

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