When Walmart began to roll out supercenters across America, it had various special needs. It wanted product placed in RPCs and hoped to benefit from the brand equity of well-known consumer brands. It made inconvenient demands, and many produce companies refused to cooperate.
Their refusal to cooperate was a mistake. Those who hitched their wagon to Walmart’s star grew with the company and, in more than a few cases, made significant fortunes while also becoming stronger companies, better able to serve many customers.
The key was that the companies that played ball were willing to look beyond short-term profit maximization and, instead, position their companies for success in a new industry future.
This year The Amsterdam Produce Summit is calling for a new generation of visionaries — thought- and practice-leaders both — who are able to look beyond the short term and, instead, position themselves, their organizations and their businesses for success in the brave new world of an omni-channel future.
One of the presenters at the Summit, on November 13, will bring the substantial research resources of Cornell University to Amsterdam to get the juices flowing and the minds percolating as to how retailers can use produce to optimize their omni-channel efforts and to inform the supply base how it can position itself to profit in this rapidly evolving retail world.
Professor Miguel Gómez (Associate Professor, Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and Faculty Fellow, David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Affiliate Faculty, School of Management, Universidad de Los Andes, Bogota) is a battle-tested thought-leader, having explored many ideas with us, including these:
Now, Professor Gómez has a never-before-seen discussion about omni-channel, what it means for the produce supply chain and where the opportunities lie for all sectors in the omni-channel world.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get us a “sneak preview” of the good professor’s presentation:
Q: We’re so privileged to have you present your research on omni-channel retailing and its implications for the produce sector at the new Amsterdam Produce Summit. As a veteran master speaker at our New York, London, and Amsterdam shows and conferences, attendees laud your keen analysis and stimulating interactive discussions. You’ve always tackled a wide swath of dynamic issues confronting the industry, with an eye towards the future and solution-driven insights.
A: At Cornell, researchers have long had an eye on the retail scene: New store formats, online, multi-channel, omni-channel and more. For about a year-and-a-half there has been a real deep dive into omni-channel being pursued. This is the hottest topic today in retailing, not just for produce but for all retail categories. We have done exploratory work and are ready to continue to work on this in the future. This is transformative and there will be continuous research as time goes on.
Q: How will you be approaching your presentation? What are the main areas you’ll be covering? Will you be capitalizing on the wealth of in-depth research and expertise you’ve amassed with your Cornell colleagues?
A: Yes. First, I’ll give a little background on why we talk about omni-channel as opposed to multi-channel, and how these differ. Second, what is driving this new concept of omni-channel — which is basically technology-driven with disruptions happening in recent years. Third, everything must focus on the consumer. What do we know about consumers buying online and offline? The fourth point will be how retailers are responding, in general, but specifically in the produce department. And then, some lessons for the produce industry.
Q: That certainly covers all the bases…
A: We know retailing has changed dramatically in the past two decades due to the advent of the online channel and ongoing digitalization. The impact has been less disruptive in food retailing and in Produce, but there has been a dramatic change in the past five years. The issue of having online and offline players competing for customers in the food industry is relatively recent.
Q: Could you discuss retailers’ evolving strategies to compete in this new environment? Does it behoove retailers to move from a multi-channel to omni-channel approach? What are the differences?
A: Knowing consumers want to buy food in different channels, online and offline, many retailers developed multi-channel strategies. However, the channels are treated as separate entities — the design, deployment, coordination and evaluation to enhance customer value through customer acquisition and retention. Often these channels are developed and managed separately within firms with only limited integrations.
The concept with omni-channel is there is synergetic management of the numerous available channels and customer touchpoints, in such a way that the customer experience across channels and the performance over channels is optimized. We cannot keep these channels separated. That’s the simple explanation.
Q: Could you provide examples of the major contrasts?
A: In research with my colleagues, we try to understand the differences… In multi-channel management, you have interactive channels only, which are separate with no overlap; whereas in omni-channel management, you have interactive and mass-communication channels, integrated to provide seamless retail experiences.
The channel scope is different as well. For multi-channel, you have the retail store, online website, and maybe direct marketing. In omni-channel, the scope is expansive with all the tools of communication we have: retail store, online website, direct marketing, mobile channels (smart phones, tablets, apps, etc.), social media, customer touchpoints (including mass communication channels—television, radio, print, C2C [Customer-To-Customer], etc.).
Q: How does this change the retail objectives…
A: With multi-channel management, the channel objectives would involve sales per channel and experience per channel. With omni-channel, you would have cross-channel objectives looking at overall retail customer experience and total sales over all the channels.
Q: In the omni-channel synergistic approach, is there a need for the same branding, or product consistency, online and offline and across all the customer touchpoints you describe?
A: In omni-channel, you can find the same products online and offline, but the consumer buying experience is seamless; it doesn’t have friction. In omni-channel, you must focus on branding as well; there is no separation between channels, the way the customer interacts with expedience of shopping is all integrated.
There are many touch points between brand and customer, and I have a graphic to illustrate the multiple ways brands are interacting with customer touch points:
- in the pre-purchase experience (website, advertising, and collateral);
- the purchase experience (product, service, assortment, point-of-purchase display, product performance, and parts delivery);
- and post purchase experience (customer service, billing, loyalty programs, product quality).
From pre-purchase through post purchase, you need to adapt these touchpoints to your needs and capture your audience’s attention.
What is driving this is technology and market disruption. This is obvious, not rocket science to know, but it’s happening at an increasingly fast pace and revolutionizing retailing on a global scale…
Q: Isn’t this market disruption triggered by multiple factors? If so, what are the causes?
"E-commerce will grow, but the big impact will be between the digital influence of brands with consumer interaction and their decision to buy online or offline."
A: Let’s look at the macro-forces on global retail food markets. I’ve tried to make this presentation global in scope because we are not in the U.S., but in Amsterdam, for a high-level global forum, congregating leaders from the international produce/retail industry.
The world’s digital population is expanding very fast. [According to statistics from PlanetRetail RNG, 2018], if you look at what will occur in the next five years, in China the digital population is projected to grow from 503 million to 678 million — that’s 175 million more people… In India, the growth will be even faster, from 187 million to 457, or an additional 270 million people. That’s more than the total population in the U.S. You also see in Brazil that growth is estimated to jump from 99 million to 118 million, and in Russia from 80 million to 91 million, and in other countries as well.
So, we can say from a technology standpoint, there is a new customer segment.
Digital influence, not e-commerce, will have the greatest global impact.
Q: What do you mean exactly?
A: This is a very important distinction. Yes, e-commerce will grow, but the big impact will be between the digital influence of brands with consumer interaction and their decision to buy online or offline.
So, we see for instance, if you look at the share of internet users in select emerging and developing markets, India will add over 583 million additional internet users by 2021, and Nigeria will add over 77 million internet users. Thailand and South Africa will each add about 15 million internet users by 2021.
These are examples of how technologies are affecting consumers and how they behave when given the availability.
Q: What role are mobile devices playing?
A: Mobile devices are changing commerce as adoption rates rise globally. Developed markets average nearly 1.5 mobile subscriptions per person, with consumers possessing multiple mobile devices for work, personal, international and other uses. And we see this rate increasing.
Q: How does that compare to developing markets?
A: In developing markets, that growth is larger. Mobile devices outnumber PCs nearly four to one. In total, Cisco predicts there will be 3.4 internet-connected devices per person by 2020. The mobile penetration is much higher than with personal computers in developing countries and even within developed countries. This means that people will have access to online content always, and that makes a big difference.
The other aspect is what we call the Internet of Things (IoT), which is enabling frictionless retail engagement between retailers, suppliers and shoppers. Networked sensors can provide real-time shopper engagement. Smart devices create more consumer touchpoints and opportunities to enhance brand visibility and loyalty. And retailers and brands can maintain out-of-store relationships with shoppers through IoT.
Q: Loren Zhao, founder of Fruitday [who will also be presenting at the Amsterdam Produce Summit], describes a phenomenon in China where consumers don’t even carry cash or credit cards and use their mobile devices through their entire shopping experience …
A: Yes, that’s right, and it’s growing exponentially. Overall, cash and credit cards still rule, but mobile has emerged as the key to future payments development. I’ll show projections in growing mobile payments adoption.
Another important development is blockchain. Blockchain has the potential to enhance the transparency, security and speed of digital retail processes.
Q: How does this work? Could you provide examples of retailers integrating blockchain technology. Does this involve partnerships with produce suppliers?
A: I have a good example here. IBM has created a consortium of participating retailers and brands (including Walmart, Kroger, Dole, Driscoll’s, Nestle and Unilever), to launch a trial initiative to track the origin and supply of food products using blockchain to improve food safety and have complete traceability.
Then you have a lot going on in automation in the food supply. I’ll show in my power point presentation examples of automated warehouses at Amazon, Alibaba Group and Ocado. Basically, they are all utilizing robots.
Ocado is partnering with Kroger to have warehouses completely automated by robots. Alibaba Group in China has a completely smart warehouse packed with robots.
Also, you see automation in stores. Amazon plans to open 2,000 Amazon Go cashier-less stores, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. In 2018, Kroger is expected to add 400 Scan, Bag & Go stores, and Walmart is testing in about 200 stores.
Q: How successful are these automated stores? Have you done any analysis of this, any problems, issues …
A: It’s still too early to tell the results. It’s too recent.
It’s not only happening in the U.S. Ahold Delhaize has been testing “tap to go” technology at Albert Heijn stores in the Netherlands, allowing customers to pay for items without going through checkout by using a card or smartphone.
There’s the Kroger-Nuro collaboration to create the world’s first driverless grocery delivery; along with Ocado an automated DC, and Home Chef meal kits, which has involved doubling of staff to 1,000.
Q: Are produce suppliers working with retailers in these various automated projects?
A: One of the main messages here is that a key implication and strategy to success is sharing everything with your buyers and suppliers, data, technology, know-how. In the produce industry, we have not been particularly good about sharing of information.
Q: Could you talk more about how automation is changing the traditional ways products are merchandised at retail, and how this is affecting the consumer shopping experience?
A: Robotics is replacing merchandising. Brand value on Amazon is built on searches, customer reviews and sales. The retail mechanics of placing the right product on the right shelf are almost gone. Merchandising is now replaced with automation, yet many established brands built their success on merchandising. Amazon is replacing traditional mechanics of commerce. Walmart is testing robotics for shelf replenishment. You see unmanned shopping and checkout using facial recognition at a growing number of Alibaba’s Hema and Bingo Box stores.
Q: How are consumers reacting to these futuristic shifts?
A: Consumer patterns are changing. The paradigm globally is that consumers are looking for value across segments, although they’ll splurge for selected premiums; no one has time, not just to shop, but also they don’t have the inclination or expertise to cook from scratch. Narrowing of choices is needed.
"Retailers are realizing it can't be one or the other; you need both online and brick-and-mortar. Consumers are demanding high performance that one-channel-only cannot provide."
Q: Isn’t that ironic, since this new retail world provides consumers with endless choices…
A: Exactly. They have less time to make decisions, and we’re bringing consumers more and more assortment, making it more difficult for them too. Consumers are digitally empowered. They live in a digital world and purchase more from retailers with personalized offerings, particularly via mobile.
When searching, online consumers are looking for a certain number of brands. We see in the online world the market is dominated by a few brands.
All these disruptions are allowing retailers to combine multiple channels in a unified omni-channel framework. This allows consumers to seamlessly shop across different channels during their search, order and pickup processes, and facilitates interactions between consumers and firms, which increases consumer loyalty and improves store performance.
Retailers are realizing it can’t be one or the other; you need both online and brick-and-mortar. Consumers are demanding high performance that one-channel-only cannot provide.
Q: Is that because each has its advantages and disadvantages, or is it more that by integrating the two platforms, online and brick-and-mortar, you create a new, more powerful shopping experience?
A: AC Nielsen studied the reasons consumers buy online versus brick-and-mortar: Online, they can find lower prices, better deals, can shop any time, and no need to travel.
In the top three reasons for shopping brick-and-mortar, consumers say they can see, touch and try the product, get the product immediately and are more certain about fit and suitability of the product. This is why consumers fraternize online or a brick-and-mortar retailer.
Q: The top priorities for shopping brick-and-mortar fit perfectly with fresh produce characteristics versus a box of Tide or bottle of Heinz ketchup.
A: Exactly. One of my other key points: Regardless of the channel, brick-and-mortar is vital for success of retailers. We know that delivering produce to your house is challenging. We have the opportunity to interact with consumers in meaningful ways. We know consumers will buy more in-store when they have all the information before shopping brick-and-mortar, as well as post purchase.
Q: This is an important takeaway…
"Having the integration of all the channels tells us that sales in the physical store tend to increase much more than the online. With fruits and vegetables, consumers like to see, touch, smell and verify. They will buy more in the store, just because they interact with information online."
A: That’s why one of the most popular online strategies is to “click and collect,” because people will order online and pick up at the store and increase their shopping basket. Having the integration of all the channels tells us that sales in the physical store tend to increase much more than the online. With fruits and vegetables, consumers like to see, touch, smell, and verify. They will buy more in the store, just because they interact with information online.
Q: What else have you learned that speaks directly to the produce industry?
A: Characteristics of grocery shoppers open opportunities with omni-channel for the produce industry.
Supermarket shelf space is crowded, and there are many alternatives available to consumers.
In an FMI study, 96 percent of shoppers said the quality of fruits and vegetables was the most important factor in their store selection. Fresh produce is key to a food retailer.
Q: How do grocery shoppers behave in the online environment when it comes to buying produce?
A: There are important implications for the produce sector. We did a very careful review of what we know today from studies.
In the online market, you have long tails and superstars; many products are available, but only a few products dominate the market. People don’t look at too many options.
Q: Does this relate to produce as well?
A: Here we’re talking in generalities, but this will apply to produce too.
There is product proliferation. When you have a lot of products presented to you on a computer screen, consumers may find it difficult to choose a product that fits their preferred attribute set. Higher product variety reduces search intensity and results in higher retail prices in the online environment.
Q: I thought an effect of having so many choices online would cause consumers to do more searches to find the best value…
A: That might be the case if you’re buying something like a TV, where you may do more searches to get the best deal, but for things we purchase regularly, or on a daily basis, it’s the reverse, and may lead to higher retail prices. Consumers don’t want to spend much time on grocery, and they tend to be more loyal to popular brands online than offline.
Q: That’s interesting that brands are an important factor online…
A: In the store, there is more sampling, more displays, more experimenting.
Consumers tend to purchase what they bought before online. Consumers are less price-elastic online than offline. Offline they seem to be much more responsive to price.
There are web features offered by online retail stores that consumers rely on in their search activity; product recommendation systems and purchase history lists.
Mobile shoppers are reluctant to scroll down a website because of the smaller screen size of their mobile phone.
Q: Especially for people like me, whose eyesight is going!
A: This is why mobile shoppers tend to rely on ranking information and choose a popular product that appears in the top of the list. And most of us are using mobile devices now.
Q: How does this translate in omni-channel interplay between online and offline channels?
A: Although sensory information, such as texture, color and aroma, is difficult to obtain online, what we’re finding is that offline touch points can mitigate this problem. You want to have the products in many places.
My conjecture is this will be important for produce.
Say I go to Wegmans [supermarket chain, based in Rochester, New York], and I know the quality of apples or asparagus, and that Wegman’s is consistent with quality. Then I’ll feel more comfortable ordering online from this retailer, especially when online and offline stores are strongly integrated in terms of assortment. Those who visit a retailer’s website tend to buy more at the physical store; even more so if it’s located far away, and they want sensory products.
Shoppers who like to shop online will choose the store they prefer to shop at. If multi-channel shoppers have enough online shopping experiences, they tend to choose a chain within the online channel, instead of choosing across channels.
Q: Do you find instances where a brick-and-mortar store might be great, but they really haven’t mastered their online strategy…
A: Many of the food retailers are still trying to figure out the best, most appropriate way to deliver grocery food and produce to consumers who want to order online, if it’s delivery to home, or to a locker for pick up, or pick and collect.
Q: Is there any advantage to a Fresh Direct, which doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar store, or these solely online meal delivery services…?
A: I think there is something to say about this. This is another technology disruption — prepared-meals companies that don’t have brick-and-mortar stores and depend completely on their online system and channel. I think companies like this are at a disadvantage when they are facing competition from omni-channel retailers.
Kroger, for instance, is offering fresh meals to compete with these online meal companies. Once Amazon purchased Whole Foods, store traffic in the Whole Foods brick-in-mortar started to increase. So, there is that synergistic uptick.
We see different ways retailers are implementing online strategies and integrating them. You have Peapod, which is just home delivery and pick up. At the same time, there are digital players, such as Alibaba, ebay and Amazon, realizing the advantages of brick-and-mortar to expand the number of touchpoints with consumers.
By 2025, the share of online grocery spending could reach 20 percent, representing $100 billion in annual consumer sales, based on a Nielsen FMI 2017 report. This is equivalent to almost 4,000 grocery stores. That’s huge. This is in six years; we’re not talking about 20 years. And some say these estimates are conservative.
Q: That’s incredible. How do we break that down for the produce industry?
A: 40 percent of center store volume is shelf stable, produce is still lower than 20 percent, but my conjecture is that it’s close to 10 percent, in the two digits.
One of the disruptions that is automatically creating synergy in omni-channel is the Amazon/Whole Foods acquisition. In my presentation, I’ll give some information about the deal background. This is a case where high-end retail is being assaulted by discounters, brands are losing share to private label. At the time, Whole Foods was in trouble with a declining stock price. Amazon, with sales of $176 billion, was a global innovation machine with a focus on technology, consumer analytics, and price-to-bottom. The food industry was the largest in the economy ($1 trillion plus) but had not been penetrated by Amazon.
The Amazon/Whole Foods effect strikes change in market caps in billions of dollars. Amazon goes up, Whole Foods goes up, and competitors, including Target, Kroger, Costco and Walmart slide down.
Amazon strikes again in pharmacy, with a lot of options for omni-channel, but let’s focus on Amazon Fresh and produce. Amazon introduces Echo voice, which is very important, and also introduces brick-and-mortar stores, and I have a video on how that works.
Amazon with Whole Foods introduces a deluge of delivery options, online and offline. For example, it introduces Whole Foods Plus Prime, integrating promotions, where consumers can get 10 percent back at Whole Foods with an Amazon Prime membership, in addition to Instacart, Prime Now, Prime Pantry…
Q: Why do you see the introduction of Echo as very important?
A: Voice technology is expected to account for 1/3 of all searches in three years. In the U.S., Amazon Echo accounts for 70 percent of voice-enabled speaker user share in 2017, with Google home 24 percent and other 6 percent. It can be argued that voice erodes brand equity, and I’ll talk more about this in my presentation.
Amazon’s strongest competitive feature is data personalization. Every single Amazon offer is customized. Amazon received 10 million customer reviews in 2017 alone in all its marketplaces and added 1 million plus sellers in 2017 (3,000 per day) from which more data is collected. And this is not just in the U.S., it’s globally.
Q: What are the implications?
A: In the short run, Amazon technology in logistics and merchandising is integrated through Amazon Prime into Whole Foods POS, and in-store consumer benefits, and automation eliminates in-store labor and cashiers.
Amazon now depots in 470 high income, urban distribution hubs.
Whole Foods’ private label “365” — now online, along with pressure from discounters — will surely lead to price wars.
Q: How important is Whole Foods to Amazon in terms of developing its fresh produce operations?
A: Amazon needs Whole Foods to understand fresh procurement. Produce price volatility is new to Amazon, and so is industry fragmentation.
Amazon is already revising produce buys to FOB from delivered and announced eliminating “local” procurement because of complications.
"Amazon seems to be in the commoditization game. It will be a tough competitor in the future if it figures out produce."
Q: Is there a contradiction there with Whole Foods’ image and branding, where it promotes local as so important?
A: Yes. For Whole Foods, that may be problematic for them, but Whole Foods was moving in that direction even before the acquisition. It is very difficult to be saleable, economical and niche at the same time. Maybe at some point this change in local procurement could be focused on the online operation, not for the whole operation. Amazon’s strategy with Whole foods still isn’t clear. But, traditionally, Amazon has been focused on large volume at low prices. That is not the Whole Foods story.
In the long run, consumers win with low price, choice and convenience, but there is pressure on the industry to build scale, invest in technology, cut costs and differentiate.
Bezos is relentless on two strategic elements -- speed and selling at a loss to inflict pain on competitors. We’ve seen this in books, media, and staple products. Amazon seems to be in the commoditization game. It will be a tough competitor in the future if it figures out produce.
Q: Do you think that because produce is such a low-margin industry, there may not be as much room on that front?
A: I think there will be added pressure on the industry.
Q: A long time ago, the argument was if Walmart is going for the lowest price, then the strategy for supermarkets would be to differentiate and emphasize service, become more specialized, increase variety, or create a higher end experience… Are you saying those days are gone in the age of Amazon, and the same argument doesn’t hold the same weight anymore?
A: I think that’s an option still, for really unique product and unique characteristics.
There are so many things in play, we need to wait and see what’s going to happen. I also will be talking about Tesco, which has a strong online and offline presence. Tesco operates a wide range of brick-and-mortar store concepts in the UK, Central Europe and Asia, from Tesco Extra Hypermarkets through to Tesco Express convenience stores. It’s largest brick-and-mortar format in terms of sales is the Tesco superstore banner, though it operates others such as Tesco Metro supermarkets and more recently, Booker Cash & Carries in the UK. Then you have a number of Booker c-store banners, such as Premier and a Booker online operation.
Tesco is a pioneer in online grocery with sales of more than GBP 3 billion in the UK, and also offers online grocery in international markets.
It is redefining its store network with investment across four key areas.
- It wants to be more experiential, where Tesco is partnering with third-party retailers such as Arcadia Group, Dixons Carphone and Next on in-store shop-in-shops;
- It is frictionless, investing significantly in the checkout process through self-scanning, self-scanning via mobile, and enabling pay by phone. It has also invested in click-and-collect points to support its online businesses.
- Tesco is focusing less now on social elements than under previous management, though it continues to operate Harris + Hoole coffee shops in larger stores, and its in-store restaurants.
- The fourth area is its product curation with an extensive range of private labels catering to various customer needs, and enhancing its portfolio in recent years with vegan ready meals under the Wicked brand and bulk Booker lines.
Q: This expansive omni-channel strategy sounds extremely complicated and challenging to manage and operate …
A: Can you imagine what that does to fresh produce, managing all this movement of products and deliveries, and integrating this into all these channels. It adds a level of complexity to an already complex supply chain.
Q: From the supply side, could a supplier get its products into all these different locations?
A: Yes, that’s possible. The move is indicative of Tesco’s desire to rethink its larger stores, and suppliers should consider working with Tesco on ways to create more of customer experience. For produce, maybe it’s more ready-to-eat meals with more fresh produce. It opens the door for innovation.
Tesco is utilizing its Booker catering brand Chef Central and taking it into its regular stores. Tesco is getting products to customers in numerous ways…
I’ll also be talking about Carrefour’s omni-channel strategies, as well as Kroger’s. Kroger has a different model from Amazon. There is no one model that fits all. There are so many ways these companies are developing opportunities for customers.
Q: It sounds like you could do an entire omni-channel conference. Thank you for such a wonderful preview. What are some key points you’d like to brainstorm with attendees at the Summit?
A: Supply chain innovation is needed. One thing is certain… produce is critical for the grocery experience online or offline. For retailers, quality and assortment of produce is very important. There is an opportunity for produce companies to build credible narratives in telling a brand story. Retailers need your help with differentiation like never before, in order to play in the digital marketplace.
How can we have the experience of fresh in everything that we eat?
Produce packaging will be another important component at the high-end and low-end. We need to align with the right supply chain partners, so we can develop all the necessary innovations along the supply chain.
Many thanks to Professor Gómez and Cornell University for being so generous in developing this exclusive presentation and helping to disseminate such valuable knowledge throughout the industry.
It is so easy to ignore the future… and it would be such a mistake to do so.
Without a doubt the people and companies that will succeed tomorrow are those that prepare today.
And the best way to prepare for the future? Is to help create it.
The Amsterdam Produce Summit gathers the best and the brightest for education and interchange to understand and to help create a new tomorrow for the produce industry.
Come join us in Amsterdam and position yourself and your organization to be a winner in the years ahead.
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