By: Leslie Sarasin, President and CEO, FMI

Susan Morris, executive vice president and COO at Albertsons Companies, is the 2021 Midwinter Executive Conference chairperson and she has proven to be an admirable guide in helping us plan our first-ever virtual Midwinter experience. Susan’s leadership has inspired a dynamic online program that supports our members’ business objectives and networking needs. Susan shared some initial insights with me as we prepare for our event in late January.

Leslie: There are so many lessons to learn from 2020 and our industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your biggest takeaways?

Susan: I don’t think anyone could have predicted how much COVID-19 changed our industry – or the speed at which it did.

At Albertsons Companies, we were quick to pivot our Crisis Team to focus solely on what we needed to do to run safe stores – and we had to learn fast what that meant. We also had to then take all of that information and make sure that hundreds of thousands of people on our team – and millions of customers – knew how to act on it.

We implemented the Center for Disease Control’s advice quickly and without hesitation, just as other essential businesses did, because it was the right thing to do.

But we didn’t stop there.

Our team kept innovating – from hiring new cleaning teams and putting them in brightly colored t-shirts so our customers could see that we were being rigorous about our commitment, to adding Plexiglas dividers, to finding innovative ways to implement contactless health screenings and temperature checks – our team and every team across the grocery industry was the first in retail to learn how to operate in a world that had all but shut down.

Leslie: The rapid increase in ecommerce has proven to be a big opportunity in our industry, with 20% of shoppers ordering groceries online for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. How has Albertsons responded to this rapid demand in online grocery shopping?

Susan: We accomplished changes in our ecommerce operations in months, which we thought initially would take years.

We are accelerating our Drive Up and Go plans for 2021 and now expect to be in at least 1,800 locations by the end of fiscal year 2021.

We’re piloting Pick Up lockers in metropolitan areas where we know that pedestrian traffic is just as or even more common than personal vehicles.

And we’re also planning to open more microfulfillment centers or what we call MFCs to complement the two that we already have up and running in Northern California, which we feel are key to continuing to expand our ability to serve and delight our customers.

Ecommerce wasn’t the only place we experienced warp speed changes – we hired a record number of people in a short time – over 80,000 new people turned to our company’s stores and ecommerce for employment this year, both to get through a temporary time of unemployment for their families and hopefully for many, find permanent careers.

The Albertsons Companies that started 2020 is very different from the company that operates now. We are much stronger.

Leslie: The pandemic put undo pressures on Americans, most notably exacerbating the financial hardships for many. How will Albertsons continue to serve customers during this time of economic uncertainty? 

Susan: Beyond COVID-19, I think everyone is wondering what the retail industry will look like – how many people will continue to work at home? How does this change meal occasions and store locations in the future? How many new habits have been created?

Will people find more comfort in getting their local fruits and vegetables at the same place that has been there for them for the last year? A place where their local butcher cuts their steaks to order, and where they found restaurant quality meal solutions?

We think the answer is yes.

Even as the economy has opened up, we are still seeing customers turn to their local grocers for meal solutions, fresh foods, and supplies for their favorite copycat recipes from local restaurants.

We’re seeing a customer who is more confident in the kitchen – one who knows what they want and turns to us first to find it.

Susan Morris will elaborate on these and other trends in her address at FMI’s Midwinter Executive Conference.