By Joseph Tarnowski
PG Tech's Innovation Award winners deployed solutions that made shopping, ordering and securing easier.
As the headline notes, "easy" seemed to be the theme that spanned the innovations of Progressive Grocer Tech's second annual Innovation Awards.
Geissler's developed an online platform from which it could centrally deploy all of its multimedia initiatives, wholesaler Laurel Grocery deployed a network appliance that reduced the efforts needed to protect its infrastructure from outside attacks, Loblaws' new iPhone app was so easy to use that Apple featured it in its Apple Store, and Rollin' Oats' new computer-assisted ordering system makes accurate ordering and store-level inventory a snap.
But while they made lives easier for users, none was easy from the standpoint of implementation and often had to overcome hurdles such as legacy systems, cost and — usually the toughest challenge — change management. Still, each of this year's winners managed to fight through these challenges and generated real ROI with their solutions, and, what's more, they've pushed the envelope and shine as examples for other retailers to follow.
Congratulations to our winners!
Jim Nilsson, CEO of East Windsor, Conn.-based independent grocer Geissler's Supermarkets, wanted to reach new customers, increase items per trip and increase the number of weekly trips they made. He reached out to his staff and suppliers for suggestions and formed an ad-hoc team with a common objective: to explore both new technologies and work methods to reach these goals.
Nilsson and wholesaler Buzzuto's Retail Technology Services division in Cheshire , Conn., along with Buffalo, N.Y.-based vendor ShoptoCook, decided to build an integrated network of interactive devices delivering valued content across multiple shopper touchpoints.
To do this, they used ShoptoCook's Interactive Meal Planning and Marketing platform, an integrated suite of solutions that delivers coupons, recipe ideas and weekly ad circular content over any interactive device, in-store interactive displays, or online via the Web, mobile, e-mail and social media.
The implementation employed an innovative centralized content management platform to deliver timely promotional and information features across an entire array of interactive devices, using a single point of contact. As a result, all content available in-store was simultaneously available on Geissler's website, tablet PCs and mobile phones. In addition, the centralized network remotely monitors all in-store interactive displays, alerting store staff of paper outages and assuring maximum uptime for a great shopper experience.
This was no easy task: Converting programs from paper to digital required weekly efforts to keep current customers "in the loop" while introducing the new interactive recipes and nutritional content now available on the kiosk, mobile devices and at home via the website or weekly e-mail campaign.
By spring, however, the digital impact began to reveal new trends. When shoppers found the weekly ad online, the new technology allowed them to "opt in" for e-mail alerts and special access to other deals. This created more "pre-shopping" views, gave users more time to plan meals and drove increased frequency of store visits. To enhance the new digital experience, Geissler's also launched a mobile rewards program, using the mobile phone number to communicate special rewards and reach customers in new places — car pools, ball fields, meetings and kitchens — to improve program awareness.
The social side of the new platform was also addressed. The new digital content allowed the recipes, rewards and meal solutions to be posted, blogged, liked, retweeted and linked throughout the Geissler's digital community. The marketing team developed a schedule to provide relevant and attractive content for these instances and began to leverage the improved digital technologies to build content around these themes. The large in-store digital screens and new Retina touchscreens displayed compelling images of local produce, premium meats and gourmet meals.
All shopper activity across all interactive displays is captured daily, providing detailed insight in terms of shopping patterns. In addition, shopper activity on the in-store interactive display can be correlated with POS sales data to evaluate incremental lift of featured ingredients, providing solid evidence that delivering meal ideas in the aisle generates incremental sales lift. In addition, the new mobile website was quickly adopted by the local community and is now preferred by 14 percent of users. Another benefit of the mobile content is that the recipes and the interactive Geissler's shopping list on tablet computers were designed to be the perfect kitchen assistants.
By late summer, Geissler's had honed the ability to target advertising dollars of specific items to preferred online/mobile media. Suppliers provided insights to grow traffic and appeal to these channels. While actual sales and customer traffic increases are confidential, Geissler's reports that the growth has been substantial.
Laurel Grocery Co.(Wholesaler and Retailer)
Laurel's goal was to identify and successfully integrate a cost-effective security appliance and/or service that was effective against a broad spectrum of common security threats, while resulting in the least amount of modification to its existing network infrastructure and perimeter defense.
"Laurel Grocery is continually working to protect network resources by understanding the attack surface and finding ways to limit access to potential attackers," says James Wilder, VP of IT at the London, Ky.-based wholesaler and retailer. "With the overwhelming majority of botnet, spam and malware traffic coming from countries outside the United States, the obvious place to start was finding a way to block IP traffic from countries we do not do business with."
The challenge Laurel faced — one that any business faces in doing this — is trying to secure and harden the parameters and looking at internal weak points of trying to do a security assessment. Laurel isn't a high-value target, especially compared with organizations like government or financial institutions. Rather, it's more of a target of opportunity. If the initial probes into the defenses of these types of organizations yield a lot of weak spots or openness, they'll be revisited with the more aggressive techniques.
"Once that you're on the radar of attackers from these countries, they begin to hammer you," says Wilder. "The former Soviet bloc was a big originator, and most certainly, the Asian block from countries like China. So we needed a nuclear, unconventional option to block IP addresses without taking our already strained staff hours to manage."
"Once that you're on the radar of attackers from these countries, they begin to hammer you."
The only known way to block IP ranges by country was to load into a firewall control lists to which users have access, as well as types of access to various files and functions within a network. "Evaluation of this method showed that managing the country-assigned IP ranges and updating the network devices enforcing the rules would be a full-time job," says Wilder. "The question we needed answered was, how do we process millions of blocked IPs without bogging down the performance of the firewall?"
In the Poliwall Threatblocker appliance from Lake St. Louis, Mo.-based TechGuard Security, Wilder found his answer. "PoliWall is a perimeter security plug-and-play appliance that could block countries with a click of a map, and for less than $5,000," he says. "It filters both IPV4 and IPV6 traffic at line speed, while automatically updating IP country ranges without any intervention by our system administrators, fully obviating the shortcomings of blocking IPs in our firewall."
Indeed, within just 24 hours of installation, PoliWall's reporting dashboard allowed Wilder to quantify the alarming number of threats scanning Laurel's enterprise network for vulnerabilities. (While Laurel asked for specific numbers not to be published, it did share the data with Progressive Grocer, which validated their significance). "We can track dropped/allowed connections by country, monitor where any data leaving our network is headed and get specific IP intelligence on out-of-compliance traffic flows," Wilder notes.
Grocery Gateway is Longos' Internet grocery delivery service based in Toronto. The Canadian grocer developed a new mobile app that would allow shoppers to order groceries on the go, using an intuitive new user interface and personalized recommendations.
Longos and Unata had several goals for the new app: First, it had to provide the same functionality as Longos' Grocery Gateway website in a simpler, mobile-friendly app (both in an iPhone app version as well as a mobile Web version) that allows users to save payment info. The app had to integrate with a third-party service provider and launch within five months. Finally, the app had to drive new business.
Development of the app began in mid-May 2012 and was completed just four months later. According to Toronto-based Unata, it was extremely challenging to take all of the features of a website that was built more than a decade ago and represent these features on a smaller screen with a new interface that would be easier to use, while at the same time not alienating existing users, and attracting new ones.
The app provides a completely new user interface for shoppers that reduces the number of "clicks" required for various features and makes the shopping experience more pleasant, according to Unata. It also uses the vendor's technology to provide each shopper with personalized product recommendations (whether on sale or not) based on the user's previous purchases. Combined with an easy transaction purchase experience, the new app has led users to spend more via the mobile app than the website has.
The iPhone app is currently rated 4.5/5 stars on the iTunes App Store and was hand-picked by Apple to be featured on the iTunes homepage at launch time. Preliminary data indicates that in addition to users' spending more via the mobile app, it's also generating many new customers.
Rollin' Oats Market & Café
While this is the second year in a row that an ECRS customer has won a PG Tech Innovation Award, both the customer and the solution are different for this year's entry, which featured Rollin' Oats deployment of the DemandFill computer-assisted ordering system from Boone, N.C.-based ECRS.
"Our ordering used to require 40 hours or more per week prior to deploying the new system," says Mike Asher, COO of Rollin' Oats, an independent natural and organic foods retailer in Tampa, Fla. "We can now generate and transmit our orders in around 10 to 12 hours per week. Additionally, we spend another five to eight hours per week ensuring that our inventory is correct and enabling the automatic ordering to work as intended. Overall, we save at least 20 hours per week that we can rededicate to customer service."
According to Asher, the grocer orders through 85 suppliers via the Gateway, ECRS' integration that links the POS to suppliers. "This represents over 95 percent of our inventory, including frozen and perishable items," he says. "We automate with a variety of vendors from large national distributors to our local small-business suppliers via direct EDI connection, or e-mail and fax orders, through the Gateway. Roughly 90 percent of all auto-ordered items are DemandFill. We utilize a min/max or maintain constant level on slow-moving items which otherwise could be missed. DemandFill is definitely the preferred option, as it addresses the seasonality and trends of our inventory."
As with any system that replaces manual efforts, the biggest challenge Rollin' Oats faced was getting its employees on board with the new system, particularly experienced buyers used to outdated methods of ordering, such as walking the aisles with clipboards, using antiquated order machines, relying on sales reps to place orders and ordering by gut instinct. However, once they saw how science-based decisions, while seemingly counterintuitive, are often better for the business, they embraced the change and have seen the resultant growth.
According to Asher, Rollin' Oats has seen growth increase from 12 percent before the implementation to 20 percent since. "Profits have significantly increased, since we are buying better — spending more time seeking deals and promotions — and, more importantly, we're enjoying more face time with our customers. The reduced amount of time it takes to write orders has made this possible."
"Profits have significantly increased, since we are buying better."
All of this has not only delivered ROI, but has driven bottom-line growth as well. "With the number of vendors we use, and the cumbersome and wide varieties they require receiving orders, we met the ROI very quickly," says Asher. "The convenience and ease of the Gateway, along with the various methods of inventory replenishment, have definitely taken the hassle out of ordering and allowed us to focus on growing our business. I feel that ECRS' Catapult, Gateway and other systems have allowed me to [add] tens of thousands of dollars per year to my bottom line. Not only have we saved on the ordering side of the equation, but we run a full perpetual inventory which has seen tremendous benefits as well. The integration of our major suppliers via EDI has provided updated electronic invoices, which have dramatically reduced data-entry processing time."
When it's deployed properly, Asher declares, "You can't afford not to implement this system."
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