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Industry Viewpoint: Independents on trend

Like almost everything else these days, grocery stores are in the midst of rapid change. While the traditional grocery store is still the center of the food shopping experience for most U.S. consumers, it is by no means the only source for food. Consumers from Denver and Knoxville to Hartford and Ames are seeking new food experiences, particularly those associated with fresh, convenience and customization.

These trends are not new, but they’ve accelerated over the past few years and show no signs of dwindling. The entire food industry is looking to adapt to these changing tastes and craving for convenience. As for independent supermarket operators, there’s hardly anything traditional going on these days.

New technologies are making online shopping more convenient, while in-store tech enhancements enable customers to shop more quickly, taking full advantage of what they want, when they want it. A report done by eMarketer, shows that nearly 18 million adults in the U.S. used a grocery app at least once a month in 2018, which is up almost 50 percent from 2017. Technology certainly has been a disruptive force, and in the aggregate, it holds the potential to transform, if not revolutionize, the way food consumers interact with retail grocery stores.

Retailers large and small also are deploying click-and-collect and or home delivery services, in part to counter the decline of the one-stop shop and the competition from new retailers who view food and perishables as their next big market. Many independents have long experience with e-commerce solutions so as consumers grow ever more tech-savvy, family-owned retailers are ideally positioned to further develop and enhance this service. Independents understand that a good customer experience with e-commerce, from online to fulfillment, is imperative.

Product selection is becoming more diverse and exciting, while perimeter departments are capitalizing upon consumer demand for authentic and fresh items. Independents can take advantage of their relationships with community suppliers to stock local and unique food items that their customers request and that the national chains don’t always have. Shoppers expect freshness, convenience and helpful, knowledgeable service, and today’s independent grocers are equipping themselves with the latest technologies to address those shifting consumer demands.

The smaller ex-urban and suburban markets served by independent grocers also are experiencing growing diversity. Given the independent grocer’s advantage of community roots, they are ideally positioned to meet the needs of new ethnic and cultural households.

In sum, the changes we’ve all seen developing in our industry over the past several years will continue and intensify. But independent supermarket operators, nimble in their nature, are well prepared for this hectic, but also, exhilarating ride. That, in turn, reinforces a broader retailing fact-of-life: today’s full-service supermarket is thought of as not just a store, but also as a community resource for food — and much more.

(Peter Larkin is the president and chief executive officer of National Grocers Association)