Retail embracing technology on many levels: Produce Blue Book

E-commerce in groceries got a big boost during the pandemic, but many retailers are realizing that technology can help them across their business, especially as the workforce tightens.

During an August 31 Town Hall webinar from the International Fresh Produce Association BB #: 378962, panelists shared how their organizations are improving through the use of technology.

Jonna Parker, director and fresh food team leader at IRI Fresh Foods, said technology in retail is much bigger than it was three years ago, with 26 percent of this year’s growth coming from e-commerce. Digital sales share is 11.7% year-to-date, up from 5.6% in 2019. And growth is similar in foodservice, up from 6.2% in 2019 to 14.6% % this year.

Retail representatives on the panel said they see technological changes beyond e-commerce.

“Technology will change more behind the scenes in ways that weren’t possible before,” said Dorn Wenninger, UNFI senior vice president. “Producers-exporters are very good at [quality assurance and quality control] technology and data, rather than receivers. As we get better at this, we will be able to buy and sell better.”

“Some of the best technology is stuff that isn’t cool, like automated palletizing machines,” he said.

Heather Paquette, vice president of retail at the Innovation Center of Excellence, Retail Business Services, said retail shoppers still want to interact with store associates.

“We are changing them to move consumer-facing positions and automating the back-end as much as possible,” he said. “Anything transactional doesn’t need an associate’s touch, like self-checkout. Now we have much better tools.”

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Dave Steck, vice president of IT infrastructure and application development for Schnuck Markets Inc., said his company’s technology investments have helped them translate a great in-store customer experience to delivery.

“Technology improves customer experiences if we use it,” he said.

While many large retailers have made massive investments in technology and taken the lead in the space, Wenninger said e-commerce has become more democratized, with smaller chains getting involved and driving innovation.

“Smaller chains have been slower to adopt the technology, but vendors have gotten better at helping them,” he said. “As technology is moving so fast, some smaller chains are outperforming” larger chains because they can change direction much more easily.

Steck said that as he looks to the future of technology in retail, he can see a time when consumers could shop using virtual reality and choose items within a virtual store, and then robots could fulfill the order, or consumers working with a personal shopper who has a camera on them, so the consumer can choose individual pieces of fruit.

“But these are three to 10 years,” he said.

Fresh food has always been more complicated in e-commerce, but Parker said younger generations trust store associates and personal shoppers to choose fresh produce wisely far more than older generations.

When it comes to increasing sales of fresh produce through e-commerce, he said the best thing a retailer can do is improve suggestive sales.

“If we were to get one more product purchase on every order, sales would be astronomical,” Parker said.

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