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Grocers experience triumph, travails

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In the 72 years that FMI has issued “The Food Retailing Industry Speaks” report, the survey of retail and wholesale companies is unlikely to have uncovered such a confluence of promise and peril as it has today. With COVID-19 acting as the catalyst, the supermarket sector experienced unprecedented demand and buttressed its standing over the past 18 months, but also encountered vexing challenges in regard to the supply chain and staffing.

Based on data from 103 companies with more than 38,000 stores, the survey found that the COVID-induced surge in demand for food and other household staples greatly accelerated the industry’s footprint in e-commerce. In a recent briefing on the report, FMI president and chief executive officer Leslie Sarasin said that online grocery sales doubled during the first month of the pandemic and remain some 50% higher than before the public health crisis emerged. Ninety-five percent of grocers with omnichannel capabilities saw e-commerce sales advance more than 200% last year.

Another promising development for supermarkets is the growing interest among consumers in their well-being and eagerness to harness better nutrition as a way to support their health. Noting that the trend is having an “overwhelming positive impact on our business,” Sarasin said that 70% of retailers are responding by taking such steps as increasing space allocations for plant-based food and meat alternatives.

The new “Speaks” report wasn’t, however, all good news for the industry. The supply chain disruptions triggered by COVID — while decreasing substantially from the first weeks of the pandemic when almost half of shoppers found that many products weren’t available — persist. As one retailer who responded to the FMI survey noted: “The issues around supply chains will get worse before they’ll get better, as the resulting supply shortages slowed the refilling pipelines. It will take many months to get back in balance, and inflationary pressures will continue to loom.”

Attracting and retaining employees is another pressing concern. Despite upping their total investment in personnel by more than $10 billion during the pandemic, grocers saw turnover increase to 58% last year, up 18% from 2019, with an even higher churn rate among part-time workers. The challenges of keeping stores adequately staffed and stocked at a time when supermarkets are asked to do more than ever for customers are putting the industry to the test.

One prerequisite for rising to the occasion is cultivating a clear-eyed view of the situation and what’s required. With its annual “Speaks” survey, FMI has provided a solid foundation for that process.


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