Is Automation the Answer?

“This has to be a render,” wrote Jesus Diaz, author and contributor at Co.Design, in his November 2017 article on grocery e-commerce. But what looks like a 3D depiction is actually 100% real robots zooming across a highly sophisticated product grid filling online grocery orders for real customers.

The British-based company, Ocado, is the world’s largest automated warehouse for grocery fulfillment. At its Andover warehouse, a swarm of 1,000 robots navigate a grid the size of a football field to fill orders and replace stock. The new system, which went live in mid-2017, can fulfill a 50-item order in under five minutes–well under the two hours it takes at a human-only operating facility.

Those of us in the industry know that grocery e-commerce will be an integral part of the food future, but is robot automation the answer?

WHY IT’S HAPPENING

Unemployment rates and minimum wage growth suggest automated fulfillment will become a necessity in the near future. As Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York, lamented to Reuters in August 2017, “Companies are running out of workers to hire to do the job or even train to do the work” that needs to be done1. The ratio of job openings to unemployment also hit a 16-year high in August, signaling the widening gap between job openings and available candidate skills mismatch.

Retailers are also increasingly paying more for even low-skilled positions, like those filling and delivering online grocery orders. In 2017, only 20 states match the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and nine of those introduced legislation in the last twelve months to increase their state wage2.

If both trends continue, retailers will soon be out of staff and out of dollars to continue their current service model.

WHAT WE THINK

Even the likely adoption of automated grocery ordering will still not replace the necessity of in-person shopping trips.

In their 2017 “Groceries 2.0” report, Field Agent found that 62% of U.S. consumers said they wanted alternatives to traditional, in-store grocery shopping. While consumers like the idea of forgoing the frequent trips to a grocery store, over 60% said they don’t shop online because they’d lose the ability to personally inspect sensitive items like produce.

Technology is incredibly efficient, but we’re a long way from algorithms successfully replicating the human nuances of grocery selection.

WHAT’S NEXT

Knowing that both online and in-person grocery will be part of our customer’s future, we as food marketers should adjust our e-commerce strategies based on where our brands/products reside in brick-and-mortar stores. As The Nielsen Company found in its 2017 research, traditional center-store items are migrating online, while perimeter and fresh goods remain in-store purchases3.

Graph showing which center store shopping categories are moving online

Center-Store Brands/Products

  • The Challenge:  Online shoppers are less brand-focused compared to when they shop in-store, meaning they’re more likely to switch to another national brand or store brand during e-commerce shopping trips.
  • The Opportunity: Consumers who frequently shop online are more willing to try new products in many shelf-stable categories than in-store shopping consumers. Online shoppers are also more likely to make online impulse purchases in center-store categories than their in-store counterparts. These insights should be leveraged, particularly with new-product launches.

Fresh Perimeter

  • The Challenge: With online shopping available, basket size at in-person visits continues to decline.
  • The Opportunity: Shoppers are craving more surprise and innovation at in-person retailer visits. Brands and retailers must work together to build basket rings by providing more excitement, and more day-to-day enjoyment of food than what’s being offered today. Case in point: Sainsbury’s “Try Something New Today” campaign transformed their business by persuading customers to add just one more item to their basket.

Just some Thought for Food

1 “U.S. Job Openings at Record High; Labor Market Tightening.” Reuters. 8 August 2017.
2 “2017 Minimum Wage By State.” Bankrate. 2017.
3 “What’s Next in E-Commerce?” The Nielsen Company. 2017.

Private Label is in the Public Eye

The Brandless Company Model

Calling itself the “Procter & Gamble for Millennials,” San Francisco e-commerce company Brandless™ made its U.S. debut this past July eager to disrupt the CPG industry. The startup, which has secured over $50 million in funding, sells a variety of organic food and home goods all for an everyday low price of $3.

Brandless™ says it’s able to keep its prices low by eliminating the BrandTax, a moniker the company hopes to trademark and defines as the “hidden costs you pay for a national brand.”


Aldi's Award Winning RoséAt the 33rd annual International Wine Competition in United Kingdom, The Exquisite Collection Cotes de Provence Rosé 2016 won a silver medal. Judges gave the wine top honors after two weeks of blind taste testing, describing its flavor as “ripe summer stone fruits with a generous acid palate and crisp bright finish.”

But what surprised judges–and wine spectators–the most wasn’t its $8 price point or French origin. It was that the wine belonged to Aldi’s.


WHY IT’S HAPPENING

In its August 2017 Private Label Report, IRI reports that 49% of consumers say they are making sacrifices to make ends meet, with 29% reporting difficulties in affording groceries.

Consumers in all income and generation groups report buying private label

Consumers are embracing a variety of money-saving strategies to cut down on household costs, but opting for private labels is common across all generations and income brackets.

The cause is twofold:

  1. Despite the creation of two million jobs in 2016, which brought unemployment to 4.5%, wage growth has been stuck at 2.5%[1] for the past two years. It’s hitting younger consumers the hardest. On average, full-time, year-round working millennials are earning nearly $12,000 less per year than the national average for workers age 35–65.[2]
  2. Private label has, in many instances, managed to bridge the quality gap with national brands. With a focus on premium and even super-premium tiered items (all natural, organic, non-GMO, etc.) private labels are delivering a better product experience to customers.

WHAT WE THINK

The value proposition of national brands vs. private label is being aggressively questioned by today’s savvy consumer.

As private label brands have improved their quality and consumers are finding themselves with less discretionary income, shoppers are questioning if national brands are really worth the extra cost.

WHAT’S NEXT

To stave off private label encroachment, national brands must do a better job of demonstrating why their products are worth the extra investment.

Deliver on both sides of the equation

The majority of national brands built their reputation–and consumer preference–on signature product formulations that taste great, perform reliably and consistently deliver a high-quality experience again and again. And that used to be enough. But today’s consumer also wants more transparency with shorter, cleaner ingredient statements. Private labels often struggle to successfully deliver on both sides of this value equation. If national brands can consistently deliver an exceptional product experience while making it with cleaner ingredients, consumers will pay the extra cost.

Focus on customer engagement

Younger customers, particularly millennials, want more from brands than just a high-quality, good-tasting product. It’s about what else that brand brings to the table to enrich their lives. Advertising, event activation and social media strategies can bring the value-beyond-product story to life through personal connections.

Be purposeful with price promotions

While strategic price promotions are important in driving incremental purchases, long-term discounts undermine the value of a brand. They also position your brand as competing directly with a retailer’s own brand.

Invest in strategic retailer programs

Unlike private labels, which traditionally have very low marketing funds, national brands possess highly coveted marketing and advertising dollars. As traditional retailers face ever-increasing competition from non-traditional players like Amazon and Brandless™, national brands investing in ad campaigns—that drive customer visits and higher basket rings—are incredibly valuable.

[1] “Why Wage Growth is Too Slow and What To Do About It.” Washington Post. September 1, 2017.
[2] “Here’s How Much Millennials Are Making in One Chart.” Fortune Magazine. March 29, 2017.

The Customer Insight Behind Lidl’s Success

German grocery-discount chain, Lidl, recently announced the locations of its 20 six-aisle small-format stores opening this summer. But what struck me most was Lidl’s U.S. CEO’s comment on the new stores:

Lidl's new U.S. small-format store

"When customers shop at Lidl, they will experience less complexity, lower prices, better choices and greater confidence." Lidl U.S. CEO, Brendan Proctor


Lidl’s new U.S. small-format store

Less complexity. Meaning, fewer choices. At first this sounds counterintuitive to what we know about customers demanding choice and customization at every turn. But choice requires decisions, and that activity is increasingly causing anxiety.

Why It’s Happening

In her 2017 Iconosphere address, Kathleen Vohs, Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota, argued that people today are increasingly choice-fatigued. In fact, she revealed the average person makes 225 food decisions per day.

Similarly, Gartner (formerly CEB) found in their 2016 research that 20% of U.S. consumers experience anxiety in everyday decisions, with younger generations reporting even higher levels.

What We Think

Curating customer decision-making must be a pillar of today’s customer-service framework.

Rather than simply providing choice, we should strive to curate relevant solutions. That means understanding our customers’ needs, and their customers’ values, on a deeper level. Executed properly, brands have the opportunity to differentiate themselves as a true business consultant.

What’s Next

In theory, it’s simple: make it easier for customers to buy your products.

  • SKU rationalization: Eliminate underutilized items or expand offerings based on customer needs.
  • Optimize the decision-making process: Make it efficient to find – or proactively provide – only the most relevant product/brand information for your customers.
  • Understand strategic sacrifice: All choices require sacrifice. Understand the ‘must have’ and ‘nice to have’ criteria of your target customer to make more meaningful recommendations.

Because sometimes, less really is more.

Just some Thought for Food

Questions, comments or want to learn more? Let's connect! weshouldtalk@jtmega.com

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