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IdeaXchange

How independent grocers can foster local communities post-COVID-19

Independent grocers man walking grocery store aisle CHANDAN KHANNA / Contributor / AFP
The personalized touch of independent grocers has kept small businesses alive, even throughout lockdown measures and amidst disrupted supply chains, says LocalExpress CEO Bagrat Safaryan.
For these small businesses, ties to the community are vital, says CEO of e-commerce platform LocalExpress.

A tectonic shift is taking place right under the noses of local businesses. Much of this relates to the stresses of expanding e-commerce operations while providing faster service in a globalized market—all in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a tall order for small or medium-sized entities (SMEs), yet large corporations like Amazon have seen their profits double since the start of quarantine measures, expanding the gap between behemoths and their local counterparts.

Yet the tumult of 2020 has also brought shifts in the market that are advantageous to local businesses. Here are some of the ways independent grocers can take advantage—and how to empower these resources for the remainder of 2020 and beyond.

The right approach

For small businesses, ties to the community are vital. It’s estimated by Gartner that 89% of all companies compete on customer service, yet with smaller players it’s less of a specialization than it is a necessity.

From their founding, independent stores forge relationships with their customers. They know their product preferences, allergies, shopping schedules and perhaps a bit about their personal lives, too. It’s this personalized touch that  has kept small businesses alive, even throughout lockdown measures and amidst disrupted supply chains.

While customers are expressing more comfort with shopping in-store in recent months, it’s clear that the brick-and-mortar experience has undergone transformation: Just 22% of respondents in one survey from Mood Media said they expected their shopping habits to return to normal by the end of 2020. 

Recreating the personalized experience of in-store shopping online remains a challenge, not just for the independent groceries with local clout, but for big businesses with a global presence as well. Luckily, small businesses carry one major advantage: data. 

Using what you know

When we think of data, particularly in the “Big Data” sense, we often get the impression of complexity. We may envision an army of IT experts and expensive consultants conducting massive studies and performing research with artificial intelligence technologies in order to divine the desires of their customer base.

Small businesses also engage in this sort of data research on a smaller scale, sometimes informally. They know which products sell the best, how seasonal changes affect demand and supply and, most importantly, they know the peculiar ways their customers shop.

Take grocery stores with prepared food or take-out restaurants attached, for example. Knowing  preferred substitutions, additions or changes to the menu items is what helps local stores drive volume in a particularly popular subset of their business. 

Bringing that same experience online—with all the right pictures, options and menu choices—is critical in drawing customers into the online storefront. Customers demand customization based on their preferences, both on-site and on-line. By collecting and analyzing this data based on their community knowledge, grocers both improve service and their longevity with customers.

Fostering development

Tools that put these choices in the hands of independent store owners are critical to not only the store’s continued success, but the community’s as well. With an estimated 23.5 million Americans living in food deserts—areas where residents must travel a mile or more to reach a supermarket—access to vital goods is an ever-more pressing national concern. Grocery stores will be at the center of the post-COVID-19 shopping experience, meeting the community's basic needs with personalized products and services.

None of this precludes local businesses from partnering with larger tech ecosystems. In order to foster a strong community environment surrounding their businesses, groceries must have the ability to remain flexible while plugging into leading-edge platforms. 

This means being on an ecosystem that allows grocers to sell via multiple channels—these stores can deliver specialty goods via UPS or, as another example, use employee drivers during peak hours while allowing a third-party service to handle off-peak times.

These kinds of changes to the way grocery stores operate have been on the horizon for years. Now, the accelerated pace of adoption as a result of COVID-19 have made what was once optional essential. The way groceries are changing shows the effects of digital transformation done right in a sector that’s vital to the community’s spirit, identity and appetite.

Have some big ideas or thoughts to share related to the natural products industry? We’d love to hear and publish your opinions in the newhope.com IdeaXchange. Check out our submission guidelines.

supermarket news logoThis piece originally appeared on Supermarket News, a New Hope Network sister website. Visit the site for more grocery trends and insights.

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