Change was happening at a rapid pace throughout the retail world prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. But when the virus happened, food retailers gained a new perspective on what an accelerating pace of change really looks like. Health officials imposed new policies that altered the lifestyle and behavior of every American, while essential retailers acted with ingenuity, instinct and a sense of purpose to serve shoppers and maintain safe operations under extraordinarily challenging circumstances. It was a display of innovation unlike anything the food retailing industry has ever seen, and it highlighted the speed at which retail leaders are capable of moving, especially when lives are at stake. COVID-19 revealed how innovation has become, or must become, a core competency for every retailer that hopes to be successful in the future. However, it tended to be a reactionary type of innovation. Moving forward, as COVID-19 hopefully soon fades, retailers will resume the more purposeful and strategic type of innovation that was gaining traction throughout the industry.
What that means can vary widely from retailer to retailer, but rest assured that innovation is alive and well, and happening faster than ever, as grocers transform their operations and the way that Americans discover, shop, buy, consume and experience food. Here are 20 retailers that are meeting the pandemic innovation challenge head-on, and staying ahead of what’s next.
STORE EXPERIENCE EVOLUTION
1 Wegmans Food Markets
Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets has just made a move that tells you everything that you need to know about the future of grocery innovation. The grocer with 101 locations is famous for its massive stores — some span more than 150,000 square feet — with quality dine-in foodservice departments. But with the COVID-19 crisis, how many consumers want to sit in a restaurant wearing a mask and positioned 6 feet apart from the next human? Now Wegmans has become one of the first food retailers to press the pause button on in-store dining post-COVID-19. In June, the retailer said that it would close all 12 of its Pub by Wegmans in-store restaurants, setting off what could be the start of a wave of grocerant closures. Wegmans is ahead of the game by pivoting its foodservice offering to be more focused on e-commerce at a time when the pandemic shows few signs of abating.
2 Stew Leonard’s
Norwalk, Conn.-based Stew Leonard’s was doing one-way aisles way before anyone had ever heard of the word “coronavirus.” Each Stew Leonard’s store, including the newest one, in Paramus, N.J., has a rustic, farmers’ market-style feel, with a single one-way aisle winding through the store in a zigzag. The company says that shoppers have always liked the one-way aisle (even before social distancing was a thing), because the design gives them an immersive food experience. The grocer prides itself on carrying an abundance of fresh food and stocks an assortment that’s more than 60% private label, another disruptive grocery trend. Stew Leonard’s adds that it’s growing its store-brand assortment to leverage skyrocketing demand.
3 Publix Super Markets
Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets’ newest format, GreenWise Market, reflects the latest thinking on how to serve natural and organic shoppers. The stores, which are opening slowly across the South, have an expanded foodservice offering, with custom-made pizzas, sushi, burrito bowls and artisan sandwiches all available for delivery or pickup. At the front of the store is the “Finds” department, where shoppers can purchase specialty cheeses, charcuterie and a wide range of wines, with some bottles costing upwards of $200 merchandised horizontally in a chilled glass case. GreenWise Market strives for a highly differentiated assortment, with about 70% of products designated as natural or organic, another 25% characterized as specialty items, and 5% considered traditional brands. This savvy mix of products enables Publix to take an innovative approach to natural.
4 Albertsons Cos.
Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Cos. gave fans a hint of how it’s thinking about its next-generation format when it opened a 100,000-square-foot plus store in Meridian, Idaho, last December. Albertsons Market Street features a popcorn station and one of the largest wine bottle collections in the state. The concept also features an expanded seafood and meat department, made-from-scratch bakery items and deli salads, four aisles dedicated to pet food, and even a drive-thru pharmacy. At a time when Albertsons is also investing in micro fulfillment centers and other digital innovation efforts, the company is still committed to delighting in-store shoppers with a whopper of a store.
Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer, builder of massive supercenters in its Midwestern market area, thinks that going smaller is the way of the future in attracting urban shoppers. The retailer debuted its Woodward Corner Market format earlier this year, and even at a quarter of the size of a traditional Meijer store, it still packs a punch. The smaller store features fresh and prepared foods, and an estimated 2,000 local, artisan items. It will also offer a Great Lakes Coffee shop; an extensive beer, wine and liquor counter; and an expansive international food aisle catering to eight ethnic backgrounds.“Our small-format stores like Woodward Corner Market and Bridge Street Market provide new ways to serve our customers,” asserts Meijer President and CEO Rick Keyes.
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