By: Leslie G. Sarasin, President and CEO, Food Marketing Institute 

Spider WebFrequently a new word or phrase creeps into our vocabulary as a shortcut means of characterizing a whole conglomeration of things or summarizing an entire set of experiences. For example, in the 1960s, “the space race” became a shorthand way of addressing the competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to put a person into outer space, and the phrase encapsulated all the political, cultural, social and international implications related to such a feat. Usually these shortcut words are a helpful means of cutting to the chase and avoiding unneeded repetition; however, occasionally I fear these abbreviated words carry unintended and undesirable consequences.

In the current environment, the conversation at nearly every gathering of food retailers eventually turns to the topic of change -- the cost of change, the pace of change, the necessity of change and inevitability of change. Given the circumstances this is understandable, but within these conversations I frequently hear the word “disruptors,” being used as a bucket term to catch all the elements confronting the food retail industry that compel the  tremendous transformation we are experiencing. And this is where I urge us to proceed with caution.

The word disruption is usually defined in the rather negative way of “a disturbance or problem that interrupts an event, activity or process.” If we continue to characterize all things driving change as disruptors, we paint all change in the darker, more negative hues, suggesting that we view it as something we are being thrust into against our will. I submit that not all change-compelling elements should be viewed this way and in fact, I think most constitute opportunities to grow and therefore should be considered in a more positive light. For example, I think it’s safe to say that most engaged couples do not describe their intention to marry as ‘our impending life-disruption’ even though the event certainly will change their lives forever. Also, I have yet to receive a birth announcement with the heading, “introducing our new disruptor,” although, now that I’ve suggested it, I’m sure this will come in an attempt to be clever. The point is that sometimes it simply isn’t appropriate to characterize a driver of change as a disruption.

FMI’s work to identify the food retail industry’s most compelling emerging issues has focused on five categories of concerns that will drive change transformation over the next three to five years; these are the new consumer, the new marketplace, artificial intelligence and technology, the workforce, and food production. Like strands on a spider’s web, these five areas are so intricately connected to each other that if one is touched, they all vibrate. 

While the issues are interconnected, most agree the primary driver of food retail change is the tech savvy consumer who expects a new breed of service, a new quality of convenience and a deeper connection with his/her food. This new consumer is compels retailers into a deeper technological ingenuity and requires new thinking about how the marketplace operates as the hub of food delivery. In turn, this new marketplace will require a new breed of worker, especially as food production becomes more technologically inspired and food logistics are revamped. But again, the first domino whose fall is pushing the others is the emerging new consumerism – the new shopper attitude expecting more information, more curation and more inspiration. In this environment, I don’t know of a single food retailer who wants to go on record as referring to their customers as disruptors. That would be akin a librarian referring to the people who check out the library books as disruptors because they disturb the order in which he or she has arranged the books. Our customers may be compelling us to grow and change, but doing so doesn’t constitute disruption in our businesses; it’s simply yet another opportunity to meet the needs of the shopper and that’s precisely what successful food retailers do. 

For this reason, the theme of FMI’s 2018 Midwinter Executive Conference will be An Appetite for Change. When we gather in January in Miami, we will explore – through education channels, casual conversation and collaborative engagement with our trading partners – ways to lean in to the plethora of opportunities to grow. We will challenge the identification of change drivers as disruptors and seek to view them as invitations to succeed in better serving the customer. I hope to see you there in January.