Technology takeaways from FMI Midwinter

Lessons from Grocery’s most innovative executives

January 25, 2023

Grocery. Has any industry dealt with more challenges and crises lately? Supply chain snarls, rising inflation, labor shortages … and all of that after adjusting to the crazy disruption that was Covid-19. 

Fresh off of NRF, some of us at Zipline were lucky enough to snag a front-row seat to FMI Midwinter – an annual gathering of grocery’s best and brightest executive leaders. 

What we found wasn’t surprising: grocers large and small are rapidly innovating to combat rising economic pressure and meet new consumer demands. Here are three takeaways from our time at FMI Midwinter:

In defense of robots

Dave Steck, Schnuck Markets’ Vice President of IT Infrastructure and Application Development, kicked off Friday’s Tech Talks by underscoring the importance of transformative technology on the grocery store floor. 

In Steck’s mind, regional grocers like Schnucks, a family-owned retailer with 112 locations across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, will never be able to replicate the environment of an Amazon Go store – “that infrastructure is just too difficult to build at scale,” he said. 

However, regional grocers can reap similar efficiency benefits by implementing smaller, localized technology. Namely: robots.

Steck, in partnership with the Schnucks Store Operations team, recently led the implementation and rollout of shelf-scanning robots across all stores. The results have been overwhelmingly positive, especially when it comes to reducing the operational burden on frontline associates. 

“Scanning outs while also taking care of customers is hard,” said Steck. “Thanks to the robots, we’re sending teams to the shelf only when we know a product is truly out.”

After experiencing the benefits, Steck is clearly on Team Robot. “I’m surprised more grocers haven’t invested in this tech,” he said, and encouraged his fellow grocery technology leaders to think beyond the “out on shelf” use case. “There’s a ton of data coming back,” he said, “that has implications for driving productivity gains and customer satisfaction, too.”

On the importance of a greater purpose

Suzanne Long, Chief Sustainability and Transformation Officer at Albertsons, shared betting big on the right innovative technology solutions isn’t just good for business – it drives employee engagement, too.

While speaking about the recent launch of a new fresh inventory platform, Long outlined three principles that Albertsons follows in order to put the associate experience at the center of all new store innovations: “We want to make sure our associates can do their jobs. We want them to feel like we, at headquarters, are enabling their success. And we want to make sure they understand what we as a company care about.”

Learn how to bring the greater purpose behind your own store initiatives to life in the field: The Complete Guide to Aligning Retail Teams

In the case of the recent inventory platform launch, Long made sure that associates didn’t just understand the tactical implications, but the societal implications as well. 

Today, almost 40% of the United States’ food supply is wasted. Albertson’s new technology will help improve ordering and better manage inventory of fresh fruits and vegetables, significantly decreasing food waste. 

“We’re now able to make meaningful progress toward achieving our goal to have zero food waste going to landfill by 2030,” said Long, “and we want to ensure our associates know that. They should think ‘I’m doing something that’s good for the planet.’”

“If you’re doing something in service toward a greater purpose, it shows. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

On continued uncertainty – and putting people first

During the conference keynotes, FMI identified a number of factors influencing an acceleration of technology transformation in grocery: Supply chain disruption, labor shortages, changing societal dynamics, evolving consumer behaviors, and rising ESG expectations.

That’s… a lot to deal with. With all this disruption, does anybody know what grocery will look like a year, two years, or five years from now?

Craig Boyan, CEO of beloved Texas grocery chain H-E-B, isn’t ready to make any strong predictions. “If the pandemic taught me anything,” he said, “it’s that my crystal ball has a big crack in it.” He emphasized that technology will play a huge role in the future of grocery. As regional grocers go toe-to-toe with the likes of Amazon, Boyan rallied his colleagues, asking “How can we become great tech companies before tech companies become great retailers?”

One answer? Invest in people.

“What’s fundamental to our success is to be a people organization,” said Boyan. “That doesn’t mean we won’t bring in automation. But above all, we need to maintain our core of being a fantastic people business.”

(Take that, Amazon Go.)

Zipline is how best-in-class grocers bring brand strategies to life in stores. A unified platform for operational excellence, Zipline brings together frontline communications, task management, resources, insights, and more—so everyone feels connected to the brand and inspired by their work. Today, nearly 80 brands like The Fresh Market, Hy-Vee, and Festival Foods depend on Zipline to align and empower their store teams worldwide. Reach out to learn how Zipline can help you outsmart your competition today.

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