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Groceryshop 2021: Celebrating the Thriving Resilience of the Grocery Industry

After 18 months of tremendous change and uncertainty, grocers, mass merchants and CPG retailers reconvened at the Groceryshop 2021 conference in Las Vegas, Nevada last week, marking a celebratory milestone for an industry that has endured more than its fair share of friction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Held at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, September’s Groceryshop conference brought in hundreds of industry leaders who were hungry to hear what their peers had learned from the bedlam of supply chain issues, workforce challenges and shifting consumer expectations that plagued 2020.

During an interview with RETHINK Retail, Joe Laszlo, vice president of content at Shoptalk, joked that the conference was part education event, part surrogate “group therapy session” for the attendees.

“I think grocery and CPG have been through a hell of a year and seen a ton of change,” Laszlo said. “For some companies in this industry, it’s been the best year they’ve ever had; but that comes in the midst of tremendous personal and professional challenges, hardships, and of course, all of the suffering that’s come with the pandemic.”

The topic of convenience and how to redefine convenience was one of the key themes throughout many of the event’s main stage conversations with a spotlight shining brightly on last-mile logistics.

National grocer Kroger dove into its plan to roll out a fleet of automated online grocery warehouses as part of its strategy to meet its customers’ rapidly increasing demand for home delivery.

“I think the buzzword of the show is convenience, said Laszlo. “But not convenience just in terms of making things faster for the consumer, but making things faster and more personalized, faster and exactly what you want—and I think that’s something this whole industry is going to be focused on going forward.

Also sharing its notable enhancements to convenience and fulfillment was Gopuff, a snack and beverage delivery company that went from delivering late-night munchies to college campuses just a few years ago to now operating a network of over 500 micro-fulfillment centers across the US and Europe.

“I think being vertically integrated is truly the only model that will win long-term,” said Yakir Gola, co-founder and co-CEO of Gopuff. “Once you have too many parties involved, the store, the driver, the delivery platform itself, you just start to erode margin and the customer experience is not flawless.”

Ben Jones, co-founder and CEO of Ohi, another micro-fulfillment company that works primarily with direct-to-consumer brands, expanded on the trend during an interview with RETHINK Retail.

“COVID has caused this paradigm shift in consumer expectations,” said Jones. “It used to be that consumers were happy buying things online and getting them in two days, aligning with the Amazon two-day promise. But now with COVID, consumers now really are expecting things instantly.”

Sherry Smith, managing director, retail media at Criteo, a global technology company that provides a leading Commerce Media Platform., shared results from a recent study that revealed 60 percent more online grocery transactions are happening this year than in 2020.

“Consumers are rethinking their shopping behavior,” Smith revealed. “One thing we know for sure: online shopping is here to stay—especially for the CPG category.”

And while the pandemic brought great challenges to the industry it also ushered in sustained behavior shifts, such as at-home cooking trends, that will largely benefit grocery and CPG.

“We expect that consumers are going to be cooking at home at a greater rate than they were pre-pandemic,” said Barbara Connors, vice president of commercial insights at 84.51, a retail data science, insights and media company that works with CPGs and big-name grocers like Kroger.

“And this is really driven by two key factors: One is that those customers that have found that they enjoy cooking are now going to build this into their new routines,” she said. “The other is that customers are choosing to make healthier lifestyle changes.”

The three-day conference also focused on critical topics such as sustainability as well as diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I think we’re all doing a lot of soul searching these days, Laszlo said. “I think it’s really interesting to see companies, whether they be small startups or companies on the scale of a Kroger or an Albertsons really thinking about: Why are we here? What are we doing? What is meaningful to our customers and how can we live those values in the services and the products that we provide?”

During a track on “embracing sustainability,” Zuleyka Strasner, founder & CEO of Zero, a sustainable e-commerce supermarket, spoke on how the pandemic has increased consumer focus on public health as well as health-adjacent topics such as consumption and sustainability.

“Environmentalism is no longer a tagline,” Strasner said. “It is a baseline that is going to be demanded by consumers.”

Also top of mind for attendees was the supply chain. Leaders spoke about how their supply chains have changed and grown more resilient since the start of the pandemic while others highlighted the work their companies are doing to source and transport their materials in a more sustainable way.

And when the sessions were done for the day, attendees were spotted laughing—masks and all—among friends old and new at the event’s after-hours mixers.

On the final night, among the lights and cheery noise of the grand casino, our team watched as one grocer, down to his last chip, placed it on the blackjack table and hoped for the best. And wouldn’t you know, he won it back—and then some.

“This is an industry that has been through tremendous challenges,” Laszlo said.  “And yet, it has come through on the other side far stronger, far more adept and far more flexible than it was a year and a half ago—and that’s definitely a reason to celebrate.”

As we learned from our friend at the blackjack table, when grocery’s resiliency is on the table—we’d bet on it.