Where technology and the human touch intersect

With educational sessions on a variety of CPG and retail topics, the recent Food Marketing and Supply Chain Conference at Western Michigan University (WMU) provided food for thought about technology convergence and points of pride for longtime customer service in the industry. One takeaway from the annual event is that the twins will actually meet.

The conference, which took place in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with supply chain programming added to the mix this year, featured several thought leaders from leading brands and retail organizations. In front of a crowd of more than 650 industry professionals and students, they shared their insights focused on the ways in which emerging technologies and longstanding customer-focused mindsets with positive intentions are moving the industry forward after an unquestionably disruptive period. Notably, this turmoil continued during the time of the event on March 15th and 16th, as banks collapsed and market stress made headlines around the world.

In her opening remarks on the state of the industry, Leslie G. Saracen, President and CEO of FMI – The Food Industry Association, compares a time of discovery and exploration that emerged from the bleak 15th century to a new food and retail age that might emerge from this turbulent time. “The pace of the pandemic era has robbed us of the ability to think long term and in the long term more than we would like. What I am suggesting to you is an imperative for us as individual leaders and industry leaders to start thinking bigger, beyond solving everyday problems.”

Sarasin noted that accelerating technology transformation is at the heart of the six pressing issues FMI recently identified as affecting the food industry now and in the future. “We are just crawling to realize what AI and machine learning can do for us – in short, technology will transform the food industry,” she declared, also stressing the human factor driving the technology. “As a purchasing agent for consumers, retailers are advocates for shoppers.”

In addition to Saracen’s plea, the conference offered other leaders’ thoughts and advice on the promise of technology with a relentless focus on people:

  • In a joint conversation, Albertsons Cos CEO Vivek Sankaran spoke. and CEO Steve Cahillane of Kellogg Co. on the need to meet human needs while pursuing technology. This includes motivating employees who are facing change as part of organizational transformations such as those occurring at Albertsons and Kellogg and providing solutions to consumers who can be reached with more personalized information and products through the development of technical capabilities. “When people shop with us, they’re alert or mindless. If you’re alert, it’s probably because your daughter’s birthday is approaching and it should be special. The mindless part is if you only need milk and eggs and a few other things. You can see how data and technology can Combined, it helps people with both pieces while shopping for consumers,” Sankaran explained. Added Cahillan, “When you take shopper data like the kind Albertsons have and combine it with data from suppliers like us who have insights into intent and behavior, you can combine it together in a meaningful way and see how it becomes predictive.”
  • In a session on smart packaging, John Phillips, Senior Vice President of Customers, Supply Chain, and Global Go-to-Market at PepsiCo, shared how digital QR codes on packaging open up new ways for consumers to interact with products. “People are used to using digital tools when they’re at a supermarket or mass market account,” he said, adding that the new code allows users to access things like nutrition facts, allergen information, ingredient lists, SKU sustainability details, local recycling links, certifications, loyalty rewards, and more. “This single screening provides that level of coordinated customer engagement.”
  • Justin Honaman, head of worldwide retail and consumer goods to go to market at Amazon, mentioned that the e-commerce giant has seen a significant increase in spending on grocery tech. “RFID is back, mobile commerce is accelerating and e-commerce in general is heading into a more normal level of growth,” he noted, adding that many of Amazon’s businesses, including Amazon Fresh’s retail operations, are ultimately designed to connect people to products. “We’re here to help companies build great brands that consumers love. It’s about innovation beyond consumer products How do we help products get to market faster and help provide a channel that interacts with customers in different locations? Honaman also highlighted current tech trends around e-commerce, such as personalized ratings, live streaming with content curators, virtual stores run by CPGs and virtual experience for products ranging from headphones to clothing.
  • The famous breakout sessions at the Food Marketing and Supply Chain Conference also emphasized the role of technology in a still evolving market. For example, a buzz session led by Bill Gillespie, Customer Delivery Partner at Microsoft, highlighted the impact of the metaverse on the retail environment. He noted that tools in the metaverse can help grocers with recruitment and retention, such as providing in-house training using formats that young workers know and use most.
  • Finally, the focus on human interaction in an increasingly technology-fuelled world extends to CPG and retail workplaces as well. In a panel discussion with NGA CEO Greg Ferrara, Sun Bum CEO Cynthia Herrera, E&J Gallo Winery Vice President of Customer Development Tom Gillespie and Meijer VP of Customer Strategy Derek Steele, these leaders talk about the leadership that inspires and encourages success. “We need to innovate and have sales and profit targets to hit. But when we think about how to build a culture, trustworthiness and empathy are important,” Steele noted.

The 2024 Food Marketing and Supply Chain Conference is scheduled for March 26-27 at WMU.