By: Rick Stein, Vice President of Fresh, FMI 



It was one of the most inspiring and important challenges I’ve heard from a food retail top leader. 

Albertsons’ President and CEO Vivek Sankaran recently opened FMI FreshForward by lamenting the state of fresh foods shopping during the pandemic. He said perishables departments are usually the experience drivers for grocers — energizing consumers and lifting their senses. 

This excitement has been diminished during the global crisis, he said, as harried shoppers avoid engaging in aisles. He asked industry leaders to bring new innovation and help shoppers solve their new at-home meals challenges. 

“Let’s find a way to bring that energy back into fresh,” he urged. “Turn your innovation engines to solving the new problems of customers as restaurants take much longer to come back.” 

Emphasizing Foodservice and Convenient Meals

Vivek’s challenge set the tone for FreshForward’s deep dive into the consumer and fresh, one of the event’s key themes this year. The conference was held online because of the pandemic. 

The point about enhancing meal solutions was underscored by other conference speakers.

“What can you offer through fresh to fill the gaps in the restaurant experiences people are now missing?” asked speaker Susan Schwallie, The NPD Group’s executive director, client development. “Fresh is uniquely prepared to replace some of these foodservice meals.”

She said retailers have opportunities to provide quality offerings —ranging from half-prep to pre-prepared meals — and help with solutions that incorporate fresh ingredients and require limited cooking and assembly.

Identifying Ways to Inspire Consumers 

FreshForward also relayed out-of-the-box insights on this topic from an award-winning cultural anthropologist who specializes in big data ethnographic research. Ujwal Arkalgud, CEO of MotivBase, outlined his organization’s latest research about fresh foods and consumer perspectives. He said the pandemic has made fresh foods relevant to more people, and it has brought new opportunities to inspire consumers.

“Retailers need to re-envision their foodservice offerings,” he said, “They can seek inspiration from street food markets — where things are fresh and cooked and there are exciting flavors and experiences. There’s an opportunity not just to bring back what existed pre-pandemic, but to retool.”

Linking Fresh Foods with Purpose

Consumers are also placing more focus on social responsibility as it relates to fresh foods, Ujwal said. They are focusing more on the need to reduce food miles and waste. In the latter case, consumers haven’t forgotten high-profile examples of dairy and other perishable foods being discarded after foodservice outlets had shut down during the pandemic. 

At the same time, consumers are still fixated on safety in light of the pandemic. Retailers need to find new ways to communicate safety measures even as they work to engage shoppers in fresh, said another speaker, Steve Rogers, Deloitte’s executive director, consumer industry center.

A Time to Take Action

I feel the fresh industry needs to take on Vivek’s challenge by absorbing all these insights — and by considering the key takeaways from attendee breakout discussions that are unique elements of FreshForward. This industry has a responsibility to meet the new needs of consumers. Fresh had become the leading innovation force for retailers, but the pandemic altered that story as consumers pantry loaded. Now it’s time to take back that leadership role by getting consumers more engaged with fresh again. 

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