Taking food retail marketing to the next level

by Bill Bishop

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For the past several months I've been watching Bob Wheatley bring a fresh consumer marketing perspective to a retail reinvention project, and I'm impressed with his ability to see where consumers are headed. He combines the skill and discipline of an accomplished CPG marketer with the quick reflexes of a successful retailer – important talents to bring if you want to play successfully in the brick meets click space.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with him to explore his perspective on how retailers can take their marketing to the next level. Wheatley is CEO of the brand strategy company Emergent Healthy Living. Here's our conversation.

1. What excites you about retail?

There’s just so much opportunity to refine strategy and implement productive change at retail: The experience, environment and management attention should be laser-focused on cultivating lifelong customer relationships – and understanding how this relationship approach will impact conversion in the purchase cycle.

Retailing is about that moment of truth when consumers are thinking actively and thus paying attention. So the question is, what can we do in that moment to be of help? “Help,” by the way, is the marketing axiom of this era, as self-interested “hype” fails to deliver any traction. Recognizing the business behavior differences between help and hype is critical to retail brand development.

2.  What are the main differences in marketing a product vs. a retail store?

I think the gap between product and retail marketing is rapidly closing. There was a time when retailers focused primarily on stock assortment, price point management and engineered traffic patterns. What was missing was a devotion to customer anthropology that could inform the entire experience of a store, including its marketing. Apple and Nike have mastered this connection beautifully – marrying strong, meticulously built brand equity with a shopping experience that reinforces their allure, community and exclusivity.

If the business paradigm is built solely on pushing transactions, it leaves no opportunity to form relationships that transcend the wallet. When the store experience, communication, and environment mirror shoppers’ lifestyle aspirations and interests, then the entire relationship starts to spin on a different and more productive axis.

Retailers also have a remarkable opportunity to cultivate community experiences. Whole Foods and Wegman’s have done this brilliantly – both have built in-store environments that invite people to linger. Starbucks calls this the “Third Place.”

3. How do you see the potential for online relationships between retailers and customers today?

This quote from Google’s Zero Moment of Truth study points out how critical it is to be able to interact with customers in online communities before they set foot inside the store.

Engagement with the customer today isn’t just pouring a message down on their head and hoping they get wet. It really is understanding that you must be present in a conversa­tion when they want to have it, not when you want to. Pre-shopping before buying has become a huge, huge part of customer behavior. Now people engage in discovery before shopping on very small things.

The shopping and community experience is as much digital as it is physical today – so online community cultivation and management is one of the most important marketing challenges facing retailers over the next five years.

Retailers can cultivate and participate in this community – or not. The community and conversation will happen anyway, with or without the their involvement. 

4. You focus on health and wellness trends a lot.  How do you see this intersecting with food retailing, and what does it tell you that retailers need to do?

 Health and wellness has moved beyond trend. It's a full-scale culture shift that's rapidly altering the entire face of the food and beverage industry: Consumers want higher quality food and beverage experiences to go along with their higher quality lifestyles. They have determined there is a direct link between what they consume and their wellbeing.

Brand  preference and outright rejection is now being made symbolically – people assess whether or not store or brand X vs. Y mirrors their desire for a healthier life. Does purchase of this item make the right statement to themselves and others around them? The goal is to stay in control of one’s health and wellbeing. This is a powerful sea change, and products are now seen as enablers of healthy living or working against it.

In my opinion, pressure on center store grocery aisles will continue to escalate as consumers move further away from what’s perceived as “factory food” to the perimeter of the store where fresh, “real” food items are found. 

Food retailers are enormously relevant to healthy lifestyle aspirations. They need to ask how they can help, inspire and support this behavior. What can we do inside the store to help consumers make better decisions, know more and be informed? For example, I love how some supermarkets offer shopping concierges that perform in-store tours to help consumers learn how to make better choices when they shop.

5. As the market continues to segment on different dimensions, what do you see as the hot areas of opportunity for retailers today and three to five years out?

Supermarkets are no longer a four-walled pantry-stocking business – they are (or ought to be) in the food and culinary experience business. The distance between restaurants and supermarkets is shrinking, and as foodservice and supermarket models coalesce, the business opportunities and margin growth this creates is truly exciting.

Food culture has changed, and the food and beverage experience is elevating all around us. There’s an increasing desire for scratch cooking, partial scratch cooking or chef-inspired grab-and-go meals. (Looking for evidence? A recent study showed that a site devoted entirely to food and its preparation –  – was the eighth most visited site of all social channels.)  A high-profile celebrity chef describes the human and emotional essence of the change this way:

We taste with our hearts when we receive the gift of someone’s cooking. Cooking for family and friends allows us to celebrate their presence and helps keep them close. Shared food creates shared memories. The times spent in the kitchen and at the table are among the most meaningful moments in life.

Food retailers can look at their role as enablers on this journey, as providing the means to this very emotional, rich end. Or they can stick with a singular focus on managing price points to the competition’s deals/offers by category. The opportunity is to unlock a sustainable growth model built on relationship and added value. Looking at the business through a consumer lens that’s focused on lifestyle needs will open up ideas for new business platforms. 

6. What should retailers who want to be successful in five years be asking themselves today?

Have you been inside your customers' homes to see how they live, what they care about, what's in their fridge and how they navigate the kitchen and eating experiences? Work backwards from these insights to create merchandising strategies to match shoppers’ needs.

Have you done a strategic assessment of your business to define a higher purpose – or strategic mission if you will – that can inform company/brand behavior and bring closer alignment between the store and its relevance to core customer lifestyle needs? Brand relationships are more “humanlike” than every before, and those relationships are founded on emotional ties, not rational judgments.

Is digital strategy now at the core of your marketing platform? Online, mobile investigation and assessment is happening BEFORE the customer sets foot inside your store on everything from band-aids to strawberries.

Have you unlocked community creation opportunities inside your building? Inviting people to linger and enjoy social experiences on premise is powerful.

Are you incorporating personalization?  Collect shopper behavior data and work to translate that information into offers and communications that marry the right offer at the right time to the right person.

Is your corporate culture forged around answering lifestyle needs and concerns of your customers? Helping and enabling them to achieve their lifestyle goals creates a form of engineered reciprocity in your operations. And that, in my opinion, is an essential part of the recipe for sustained, profitable growth. 

Bob Wheatley is a BMC Black Belt and CEO of Emergent Healthy Living

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Charlie Baggs said:
I agree the need for consumers to better understand how to use a grocer as a solution. A concierge may be the answer. When I teach cooking to a general consumer that wants to take charge of their families menu we always start at their grocery store. We teach them how to navigate the store for fresh and other ingredients to gather ingredients for their pre determined menu. I also agree that some consumers want to scratch cook and others assemble a meal. Some need both depending on meal occasion. Often the mise en place is different and they need to understand the difference.
BlackBeltMike Spindler said:
A very interesting perspective.

Early on Bob says "Retailing is about that moment of truth when consumers are thinking actively and thus paying attention." I kind of blew by that line accepting the premise to get to his view on what one must do to engage in this. Then I went back to the line and thought.....what if that is not really what retailing is about, but instead what if retailing is about meeting all consumers day to day needs without REQUIRING that they think actively and pay attention?

Giving a consumer a predictable result (the items I wanted, when I came in the store, for about the value I unpleasant surprises) might actually be more important week in and week out than offering a superlative experience the few times they actually want to engage.

Am I all wet here?
Dave Krause said:
There are so many really thought provoking concepts in this piece. Not the least of which is what should grocers be doing to prepare for this current/future. The implications for Marketing, Operations, Store Design, Merchandising, etc is immense.
I don't see that the struggle is getting company leadership on board or to agree that these are important topics, it's more the incredible coordination and commitment to actually get moving down this engagement path with our customers in such a way that we can start to get some actual wins that can be shared throughout the organization - thereby rallying more folks around this marketing vision and customer engagement strategy.
I really do connect with this work.

Thanks, Dave

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