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Retail embracing technology on many levels

ifpa town hall 8-31-22

E-commerce in grocery got a massive boost during the pandemic, but many retailers realize technology can help them throughout their business, especially as labor gets tighter.

During an August 31 town hall webinar by International Fresh Produce Association BB #:378962, panelists told how their organizations are improving through the use of technology.

Jonna Parker, principal and fresh foods team lead at IRI Fresh Foods said technology at retail is much larger than three years ago, as 26 percent of growth this year is from e-commerce. Digital sales share is 11.7 percent so far this year, up from 5.6 percent in 2019. And the growth is similar in foodservice, rising from 6.2 percent in 2019 to 14.6 percent this year.

Retail representatives on the panel said they see technology changes in ways beyond e-commerce.

“Technology will change more behind the scenes in ways that weren’t possible before,” said Dorn Wenninger, senior vice president at UNFI. “Grower-shippers are very good at [quality assurance and quality control] technology and data, more than receivers. As we get better at this, we will be able to buy better and sell better.”

“Some of the best technology is non-sexy stuff, like automated pallet machines,” he said.

Heather Paquette, vice president-retail at the Innovation Center of Excellence, Retail Business Services, said retail shoppers still want interactions with store associates.

“We’re shifting them to move consumer-facing positions and automating back-end as much as possible,” she said. “Anything transactional doesn’t need an associate’s touch, like self-checkout. We have much better tools now.”

Dave Steck, vice president of IT infrastructure and application development for Schnuck Markets Inc., said his company’s technology investments have helped them translate a great customer experience in store to delivery.

“Technology improves customer experiences if we use it,” he said.

While many large retailers have made massive investments in technology and took the lead in the space, Wenninger said e-commerce has become democratized, with smaller chains getting involved and driving innovation.

“Smaller chains have been slower to embrace technology, but suppliers have gotten better at helping them,” he said. “As technology moves so quickly, some smaller chains are leap-frogging” larger chains because they can change directions much easier.

Steck said as he looks to the future of technology in retail, he can see a time when consumers could shop using virtual reality and choose items from within a virtual store, and then robots could fulfill the order, or consumers working with a personal shopper that has a camera on them, so the consumer can choose individual pieces of fruit.

“But these are three to ten years out,” he said.

Fresh food has always been trickier in e-commerce, but Parker said younger generations trust store associates and personal shoppers to pick fresh produce properly, much more than older generations.

When it comes to increasing fresh produce sales through e-commerce, she said the best thing a retailer could do is improve suggestive selling.

“If we got one more produce purchase on each order, the sales would be astronomical,” Parker said.


Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services