By: Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh Foods, FMI Picture74

This is a great time to be in the fresh foods business, considering strong consumer demand and increased industry investments.

Despite the positives, the industry needs to focus on strategies that can help maintain and even grow fresh momentum over time, because trends and developments are always changing.

This need was spotlighted at FMI’s recently concluded FreshForward Conference in Denver, our annual senior-level gathering for retailers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. I want to share some key takeaways that can help us keep the momentum going.

Act on Changing Consumer Perspectives

FMI’s Leslie G. Sarasin, president and CEO, delivered the opening State of Fresh Foods presentation based on the association’s latest research. Sarasin said that 41% of food retail sales in 2022 came from fresh departments and 74% of retailers expect to devote more space to fresh grab and go selection and 40% to fresh produce.

“We know that fresh is enjoying a good ride, being one of the most popular and profitable sections of the grocery store,” she said.

She shared industry leaders need to be aware of key forces of change, such as evolving consumer perspectives on values, needs and priorities. This relates to topics ranging from animal welfare to environmental concerns.

Enhance Ecommerce Strategies

In spotlighting evolving trends, this year’s FreshForward focused on three educational tracks related to fresh foods — ecommerce, meal planning and Gen Z. Jonna Parker, Circana’s Principal II, fresh foods team lead, said ecommerce is an area of growth, driven by food and beverage. Parker shared that ecommerce in many categories in fresh foods is actually increasing consumption in those categories. Moreover, the industry has an opportunity to further accelerate fresh ecommerce by enhancing educational and digital experiences. Another speaker, Instacart’s Bryce Daigle, senior director, of market strategy and planning, said a key strategy is to “nail the basics” of ecommerce by increasing image coverage and improving clarity around units and pricing.

Support Meal Planning Across the Store

Delivering on a great in-store experience supports retailer meal solutions efforts, said speaker Calvin Mayne, president of Dorothy Lane Market. Dorothy Lane focuses on presenting clean and beautiful stores that inspire consumers, he said. The retailer romances food with stellar marketing content; holds sidewalk events and cookouts; merchandises meal solutions with dedicated fixtures and demos nearby; sells restaurant quality items; offers prepared meals in the deli; and conducts culinary classes for customers.

Succeed with Gen Z Engagement

The fresh foods industry is working to meet the evolving needs of Gen Z shoppers, who are known for their skeptical natures, short attention spans, and preferences for fresh and less-processed foods, said Melissa Abbott, vice president of syndicated studies, Hartman Group.  

Kroger’s Ryan Wenstrup-Moore, social media manager, said the food retailer leverages social platforms to engage with Gen Z. Strategies include working with credible influencers, relaying transparency, and highlighting the quality of fresh foods and ingredients. Barb Renner, global lead client service partner at Deloitte, emphasized the importance of attracting and retaining Gen Z associates, which requires “being authentic and flexible as an employer” and “enhancing employee skill sets.”

Understand the Impact of Emerging Technology

The accelerating capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics will alter how companies run their operations, said speaker Kasey Lobaugh, chief innovation officer, consumer industry, Deloitte. Traditional organizational management strategies typically begin with a scientific method-type approach in which a human observes, creates a hypothesis and tests. But this framework is giving way to newer methods that skip these steps. The new approaches can enhance decision-making for this industry in areas ranging from assortment planning to supply chain optimization and store placement. “Predictive signals will help us make decisions to run our companies, and that will be transformative,” Lobaugh said.

FreshForward, held in collaboration with Deloitte, is always full of insights to help guide retailers and suppliers in their fresh strategies.  We’ll be publishing more takeaways from FreshForward in the near future, including unique perspectives on the conference topics from senior-level retail leaders of Kroger, SpartanNash and Good Food Holdings, who introduced the three FreshForward tracks. Conference attendees had the opportunity to network and participate in breakout groups focused on identifying key action steps. The fresh industry is stronger when its leaders gather for education and collaboration.