Category Archives: Retail Concepts

Instore Robots Are H-E-R-E!

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Marty the robot is being tested at Giant Food Stores on Union Deposit Road in Lower Paxton Township, Pennsylvania.  (Photo: PenLive.com)

An increasing number of food retailers are using, or planning to use, instore robots – not to replace existing workers, but to do some of their tasks more efficiently. In the end, the theory is, everyone benefits: The retailer can keep a better handle of out-of-stocks at the shelf level, be quickly notified of spills and other issues requiring special attention from a worker, and check prices from shelf labels, to ensure prices posted and those in the front-end system are in sync; Employees get help keeping track of where stock is needed; Customers are more likely to find shelves fully stocked (or being restocked, as they shop), enjoy a safer shopping environment as spills, etc. are dealt with quicker, and, as a bonus, get to watch a so-far-unusual piece of technology work their favorite store’s aisles.

AndNowYouKnow, the produce blog/newsletter, reported a few days ago on a pilot robot-using program in a Giant Food Store in eastern Pennsylvania. This Ahold USA store is running the pilot in association with Badger Technologies. They intend to have the robot, called Marty, up and working in 12 stores by sometime next year.

The ANUK also noted that other retailers considering or already employing robots include Walmart, Amazon, and Target. A Digital Trends story in September of last year noted that Walmart is planning to shift some workers to other roles and let some 7,000 go as robotic or newly-automated systems are introduced for ‘back room’ operations such as billing and accounting. The Wall Street Journal noted that one objective of the new hands-off processing of invoices and cash, among other things, is “to put more staff in contact with shoppers.”

CNBC, in a report primarily about Amazon’s growing home delivery services, noted that Walmart also has announced a deal with smart doorbell maker August to provide customers an in-home delivery service: It will enable Amazon delivery personnel to have one-time access to home so they can deliver and put away, where appropriate (as with frozen or refrigerated items), at least part of an order.

Services such as these, plus driver-less trucks, are going to play increasingly important roles in stores and households of the surprisingly near future.

Watch this space.

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Gambling Machines Among Latest ‘Added Values’ Items In US Supermarkets

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Generally speaking, grocers aren’t gamblers: Traditionally, they’ve tended to hew to fairly traditional approaches to marketing and selling food. At least they did until a few years ago.

Then, faced with new competitor types – such as hard discounters such as Aldi and Sav-A-Lot (and now, Lidl) – and an increasing emphasis on store periphery departments, retailers started stepping up their game, expanding their offerings and, most recently, paring prices to the bone.

A growing number, including New York State-based Wegman’s, and Connecticut-based Stew Leonard’s, added an entertainment factor by bringing ‘backroom’ business to the store floor: Putting in-store baking operations front-and-center; providing a window into juice- and milk-bottling operations (Stew Leonard was a pioneer in this); taking sampling to a new level with educated offerings of featured wines … the list goes on.

But following at least two other Illinois grocers in truly breaking new ground recently was a Piggly Wiggly store in Antioch, where several video gambling machines were introduced. Store owner David Karczewski told the local Daily Herald newspaper that while the machines hadn’t been part of his original plan when he applied for a license to sell alcohol within his store, he quickly realized that the liquor permit, which also allowed him to introduce video gambling into his grocery store, sounded like a good idea.

He’s subsequently said he’s been proved right: He told the Daily Herald that they’ve earned him a number of new customers.

Hardly surprisingly, some community members have objected to the presence of gambling machines in a family-focused establishment, while town board members say allowing gambling wasn’t their intention in approving the store’s liquor license. Store owner Karczewski, meanwhile, said he installed the machines to give his location a competitive edge against larger competitors, and he’s been pleased with the many new shoppers he’s seen in the store.

His innovation, Food Dive noted a few days ago, isn’t all that different from other food retailers’ innovative efforts to attract new customers, or, at the least, new income from existing ones. (Banking, parcel shipping, Coinstar machines and even the occasional Department of Motor Vehicles branch as well as restaurants and bars being among them.)

In all such instances, retailers are fighting as best they can to overcome competitive threats. Even more extreme, though, are the approaches of such disrupters as Lidl and Aldi, in particular, whose strategies revolve around limiting selections (reducing the need for backroom space) and cutting costs – internally and to consumers – to the bone.

The latter’s strategy is disrupting the food retailing industry more dramatically than anything before it came close to doing. The club stores – Costo, Sam’s Club – caused a lot of shoppers to rethink shopping patterns a couple decades ago, but the careful among them quickly realized that the key to successfully shopping those stores – to save money – is to ‘pre-shop’ prices of things you want at other outlets. The clubs aren’t giving anything away, so some of their prices are far from the best out there.

And that concept was further complicated as Amazon introduced an ever-broader range of products online. Now, the click-and-collect concept that Walmart, among others, are greatly promoting are presenting further challenges to walk-in-and-buy oriented retailers.

It’s only a matter of time before Walmart and others figure out how to profitably do click-and-collect on food items. Fresh and frozen food items, that is: Offering click-and-collect on dry groceries is as simple as doing it.

Meanwhile, dollar stores also are becoming more competitive against grocers. Dollar Tree, for example, has been featuring – via a big store-front banner – a several-ounce ‘pre-conditioned’ steak for around $4.00. But this is a real ‘buyer beware’ item: The product looks good, but the ‘pre-conditioning’ has involved a form of pounding that’s beat the … flavor out of the product.

Still, to some shoppers, something called a ‘steak’ is still outside the range of what they usually consume for protein. And that’s the key issue on all the retail changes the industry is undergoing: The value is in the eyes of the beholders, and consumers, having an amazing assortment of tastes and concepts of what’s good, and good for them, will respond to grocers’ changes with their own ideas of what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Watch this space!

Delivery Services, Smaller Stores, Point to Future of Food Retailing in America

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Grocery retailers who’d like to get into the home delivery game, a business so far dominated by such big players as Amazon, Instacart, Jet, Peapod and the like, are being offered an opportunity to “play” – in a very serious way – by Deliv, a crowd sourced startup that earlier this year got a $28 million cash infusion from UPS, undoubtedly the most experienced last-mile (from wherever to the customer’s door) delivery service in the US. Just-launched Deliv Fresh claims it can “offer same-day delivery from {retailers’] own branded sites,” according to an article in DC Velocity, which describes itself as “the market leading multi-media magazine brand serving the specific informational needs of logistics and supply chain managers and executives.”

Deliv says that while Amazon Prime “takes ownership of the customer transaction,” moving products from its own or partners’ warehouses direct to customers, the Deliv service “provides same-day service to grocers, meal services, and other perishable e-commerce providers such as FoodKick by FreshDirect, GetFedNYC, GreenBlender, Plated, BloomThat, The Cheese Store of Silverlake, Plum Market, and Eataly Chicago.” The company currently operates its core service in 18 markets and more than 100 cities, providing same-day, last mile delivery services for retailers and businesses including Macy’s, Best Buy, Kohl’s, and PetSmart.

Smart: They’re starting with a broad range of retailers, in a limited number or markets, testing the market, as it were, and preparing to roll out its service as and when appropriate.

The grocery retailing business is undergoing seismic changes these days, and will continue to do so as the likes of Aldi and upstart Lytl – like Aldi, a huge success as low-price-leader food stores in Europe – gain ground in the US. (Aldi’s been here for a long time, but has, for the most part, flown under the radar, since stores are, in a sense, struggling to get their low-price message out into their various communities.)

A surprisingly long article in the May 16 New York Times went well beyond reviewing a new book on the state of supermarket retailing (“Grocery – The Buying and Selling of Food in America”). The paper’s reporter went with book author Michael Ruhlman on a tour of a ShopRite store in New Jersey, getting an up-close-and-personal education on some of what’s happening in supermarkets today and, as or more important, what’s likely to happen in coming years.

One interesting point was that grocery deliveries will help influence an emerging trend – of stores getting smaller, and going back to being more customer-centric and less packed out with packaged goods of the type people are increasingly buying less of.

This is a topic you will see discussed more and more often on this blog. We also will talk more about what Aldi and Lydl are all about, and how they are likely to be big players – in way smaller stores than today’s typical ones – in the reshaping of American food retailing.

Watch this space.

Cutting Produce Waste Gains Fans, At Farm and Store Levels

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There is a growing movement to reduce wastage of pre-store and store-level waste of produce that is just past its prime.

Perhaps the leader in the pre-store sector of the movement is Imperfect Produce, which sources from farms and delivers to householders through the San Francisco Bay area and, increasingly, in and around Los Angeles. Whole Foods Market introduced a program a year ago to sell “cosmetically challenged” fruits and vegetables that, despite Iooking less than perfect, are as fit for the table, lunchbox or ingredients-prepping table as their better-looking counterparts. In March of this year, Maine-based Hannaford Brothers   joined the increasing number of retailers who are offering, at discounted prices, what Hannaford calls “The Misfits – Beautifully delicious and Nutritious” but slightly over-ripe or less-than-ideally-shaped produce items.

Now, Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health has come out with a detailed primer advising shoppers and would-be eaters ways to make it more likely they will waste less of produce they buy with the best of intentions – to prepare/eat it in a timely fashion – and then don’t do so.

Whole Foods and Hannaford, no doubt like others, pull ‘misfit” produce from their own stock. Imperfect works with an assortment of farms, many of them family operated, around California. They buy what’s in season but a little “off,” cosmetically.’

Their website says, “The produce we source is rejected purely for cosmetic reasons, meaning that taste and nutrition aren’t affected. Common reasons for produce being classified as “ugly” are: too small, wrong color, misshapen. We only source the most delicious fruits and vegetables, and we have strict quality-control measures in place to ensure that what ends up on your doorstep is fresh, delicious, and nutritious. If we wouldn’t eat it, we won’t sell it. We’re redefining BEAUTY in produce, not taste!” They also have a “like it or don’t pay for it” policy in the event a client feels something in their weekly box – the program works on a subscription basis, with boxes of pre-selected sizes and mixes being delivered weekly – is too ugly, they get credit for it in their next shipment.

It is likely more such programs will be initiated in coming years, and well they should be, Anything to reduce the amount of produce being wasted is a good thing!

Supermarkets Are Replacing Department Stores in US Malls

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As department store chains shrink, their former stores in malls have remained empty, making mall operators unhappy and customers wary of all the dark anchor spaces – those at either end of the mall, once the hustling, bustling home to this Big Name Chain or another one. What’s a mall operator to do?

Increasingly, a Philadelphia Inquirer article noted last week (April 11), supermarkets are increasingly being invited – or independently exploring opportunities – to take over spaces once occupied by J.C. Penney, Sears, Macy’s or another once-popular, now-fading national or regional department store outlet.

The malls offer several serious pluses to food sellers: [1] They have the right zoning; [2] they were designed for high traffic, and have parking lots to accommodate it, and [3] they tend to be in easy-to-get-to/from locations. (A notable exception to the latter is Virginia’s Tysons Corner area, just outside Washington, D.C. When I lived in that area 40 years ago, after a few harried visits, I wouldn’t go near the “place” – actually an accumulation of shopping centers positioned so close to each other that getting from one to another was a nightmare and avoiding the entire mess was all but impossible.

(The Tysons Center website lists more than 300 stores, including an Amazon kiosk. And that’s in just one of the shopping centers!)

In the Philadelphia area, a Whole Foods already has replaced a department store at Plymouth Meeting Mall. Another Whole Foods is due to open later in the year at Exton Square Mall, and a Wegman’s is in the works for the Montgomery Mall. The article also noted that “Jimbo’s, a specialty food chain much like Whole Foods, opened at Westfield Horton Plaza in San Diego; Wegmans is replacing a Penneys near Boston; and College Mall in Bloomington, Ind., will welcome 365 by Whole Foods Market this fall.”

Expect to see more such activity in coming months and years.

Kroger Trims Store Development Plans, Ups E-Commerce / Technology Activity

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Noting that its competitors are increasingly following Kroger’s store-building and stocking approaches, the nation’s 2nd largest grocer (after Walmart) said in a Securities and Exchange filing that 2017 will see fewer stores developed and more done in the areas of technology and e-commerce.

A Food Dive analysis said this past weekend that financial analysts more than likely view this move as a savvy one, demonstrating Kroger’s ability to flew with the needs of its markets. (The company operates a number of store names scattered across the country.) Food Dive noted that Kroger has been aggressively expanding its Click List e-commerce service as it works to establish itself as the go-to company for online sales across the country.

In the SEC filing, company executives noted that their first same-store sales slip in 52 quarters was due to food price deflation couple with an active development program. The company said it will be growing its footprint at a slower pace – by 1.8% compared to last year’s 3.44% – as it cuts back to 55 new projects, compared to 2016’s 85. And capital expenditures, the company said, will fall 13% to between $3.2-3.5 billion, compared to $3.7 billion in 2016.

A Review: Mobile AL Restaurant Demos Customer Service As It Should Be

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Sadly, this is not a trend: A restaurant where team members actually work as a team, sharing responsibilities for getting dishes to tables, making customers feel important, helping, quietly, without seeming to do anything out of the ordinary, to see tables are promptly cleared and that, overall, the ebb and flow of a meal period flows without incident; with customers none the wiser that they are enjoying an unusually superb example of what good customer service is supposed to be about.

We witnessed that on Friday, March 10, at Felix’s Fish Camp, an outstanding seafood-dispensing establishment in Mobile AL. Having driven there from New Orleans, a couple of hours and a bit away, we arrived somewhat later than planned. We were promised we’d be seated in five minutes. It took less than four for our ‘caller device’ to vibrate, and our adventure was underway.

Courtney seated us, at close to 1 pm., at a table with clear views from both seats (I had to turn a bit to take in the totality of the view over the Gulf of Mexico shallows, with shore birds busily securing feasts of their own; My wife with had the entire panorama laid out before her.) If you’re fortunate, you might also see alligators moving about or nesting in the shore side reeds and grasses.

Drinks were ordered (a glass of pino grigio for me, a ‘fancy’, foamy concoction for her) , then orders were taken – a cup of crab soup for me, followed by the been-waiting-all-week-for boiled jumbo Gulf shrimp; a taco specialty for her.

Already, I was looking around, observing, having been attracted by a parade of servers heading for a table just beyond us. Fully coordinated, smooth as you’d wish, food-to-table service. I watched this display of in-snych service several times, as a silent row of servers slid between tables toward their destination then, as quietly and unobtrusively, slip away.

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I happened to be facing the dining room entrance, and was intrigued to note a staging area set up just beyond that entrance way. Orders were delivered from the kitchen to a large table there, to be dispensed to servers close to their stations, and well away from the kitchen itself, where their presence, as is often the case in commercial kitchens, is something to be endured by cooks and their assistants, but only grudgingly tolerated. The staging station eliminates that issue, helping back-of-the-house operations run smoother, with fewer distractions.

The staging station also enables the multi-server food-to-table operation so successfully employed by Felix’s. This system also reduces the apparent to-ing-and-fro-ing of wait staff, trimming – both apparently and in fact – traffic in the dining room, and enhancing, in the process, clients’ dining experience.

This was, you’ll recall, a Friday afternoon in early March – a March when, in fact, spring sprung early, and the leaves were out and the temps were up (into the upper ’60’s). Still, it was a weekday.

When a restaurant, even one so ideally positioned as this one, with a local reputation beyond repute, keeps turning lunch-period tables well beyond 2 pm, maintaining a near-full dining room at a time when most competitors’ kitchen staff are on break and the wait staff count is shrinking, you know the place is doing something right.

Peeling and consuming fresh-boiled shrimp is a messy business. By the time I (willingly) fought my way to the end of my very generous portion, my large cloth napkin was a mess, as were my hands. Two soapy hand-washes later, I’d largely dealt with the messy hands issue. Meanwhile, Courtney had dealt with the messy napkin one by providing, where my shrimp-shell bowl so recently sat, a fresh one.

But though we had to decline dessert, Felix’s wasn’t through with us.

While our arrival hadn’t been at a terribly busy time, there was a more or less steady flow of people presenting to the hostess station. I’m guessing she dealt with no fewer than 50 people between the time we entered and the time we departed. Yet, somehow, she was able to greet my wife by name as we did so! A crowning touch on a royal experience.

The restaurant’s website gives no indication of how long Felix’s Fish Camp has been in business. It’s undoubtedly been in place for many decades. But it doesn’t take those factors for granted, nor does in treat lightly the fact that its generations-spanning clientele was (and still is being) acquired one customer at a time.

The reviews on the website say it all – or almost all: To them, though, I add: Despite living nearly 800 miles from Mobile and Felix’s, I’d seriously consider taking a Thursday-to-Tuesday break to twice endure a long road trip just to enjoy the food and the atmosphere there.