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Article originally appeared on Forbes.

My company recently produced a report on the state of the food retail industry, and in studying that sector, we discovered something that we hope will make food retailers stand up and listen. We learned that the nation's top grocery chains have found a way to focus on both short-term financial performance and investment in long-term consumer engagement. The latter is considered an insurance policy for the future — a sobering thought in the new year.


Insurance for the future may be one of the most difficult things to buy if you are overly concerned about present-day financial performance. As a consultant and provider of technology services to food retailers all over the world, I understand why they are concerned. Despite positive projections for the industry in 2019, there are signs that the economy is slowing, and that could very well soften consumer spending.

There's also the continuing threat from digital disruptors like Amazon that might coerce retailers into taking actions, such as blindly lowering prices, that further erode margins that are already razor thin. Another threat, well known to the industry but perhaps less so to the general public, is the new generation of discount chains that have figured out the magic of balancing short and long-term strategy and planning.

But here's the biggest challenge facing food retailers: falling prey to fear itself. I'll admit that fear can sometimes be a helpful motivator to monitor and manage your business. A recent article reported the one photo that the CEO of Walmart keeps on his phone. It lists the top 10 retailers per decade over more than sixty years, and it serves as a reminder for how many companies come and go. But McMillon is managing fear, not falling prey to it. Retailers can manage their fear, rather than fall prey to it, by leaning on three tools that can alter their standing in the industry.

Data

Recent years have brought with them the dawning realization that retailers possess abundant consumer data. Gathered and culled from direct interactions between stores and their customers, data of this quality helps retailers price and promote their products more intelligently. It helps them with product assortment, store design and managing the new kinds of services they offer. This can include things like in-store pickup and options for self-service, depending on what makes sense for their customers. More profoundly, data can help retailers think about how they can monetize that data to help their vendors connect more meaningfully with customers. The reality is that all grocery retailers potentially are media companies, with access to online and offline media properties. It's a lesson learned from Amazon, but a small number of retailers around the world are helping to raise their profit margins by taking a page from the playbook. The place to start is with first-party customer data, which is what retailers uniquely possess.

Relationships

For food retailers especially, we learned that there is an enormous number of inefficiencies with how food retailers engage with vendors, beginning with how they collaborate on pricing and promotions. Some retailers are struggling to move beyond spreadsheets to other systems that help automate exceedingly detailed work. We are living in a time where inefficiencies can make or break a business. But still, many food retailers are ready to concede that times have changed. Beyond providing technology that moves beyond spreadsheets, retailers would benefit from interviewing their vendors to discover what would make life easier for them in this highly competitive industry.

Strategy

Change may be painful, but inertia will be lethal.

As the celebrated business scholar Clay Christensen has written, it is very difficult for any business to change course on a strategy that had made it successful in the past. He calls this the innovator's dilemma because, at almost any time in the evolution of any industry, leaders must understand that a decision regarding the future must be made.

To that end, the future is not served by signing a partnership with a third-party fulfillment provider to launch an e-commerce service. It's about making better decisions that impact the core of your business and operating more efficiently to better serve your customers across all of your channels.

But here's where food retailers have a unique opportunity, at the beginning of 2019, to ignore fear and take a small leap into becoming more viable by making decisions based on what they know about their customers. There is no business that knows more about people than retail, because they actually meet and greet them every day.

Take heart, and fear not. This is only the beginning of a story that's mostly yet untold.

white and blue magnetic card

Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash

Most companies attempting to drive customer loyalty fail miserably—and few so-called customer-centric companies generate sustainable customer loyalty that drives measurable business results. Why? Because they get three key principles completely wrong, right from the start:

  1. Loyalty is about the company acting loyally to its customers, not vice versa.
  2. It is about a loyalty approach, not a loyalty program.
  3. Loyalty is about the store, not only about the CRM.

1. Loyal to Customers

We start to act loyally to customers when we understand them to a level of detail that ensures that we remain responsive to changes in their behavior, relevant to ever-changing customer needs and rewarding in the way we treat customers.


Acting loyally is about adopting a loyalty mind set of managing customer segments as strategic business units (aligning with how we think about a category management strategy as managing categories as strategic business units). This context demands change that is both incremental and transformational—evolution, but with a bit of manageable revolution.

What customer loyalty is, and is not:

  • Acting loyally (responsive, relevant, rewarding) to our customers; not about customers being loyal to us
  • An overall approach throughout our business; not a proposition or program
  • Earning customer loyalty; not thinking that customers should become loyal
  • Collaborative partnerships to win customers together; not tolerant of internal conflict between areas of the business or with suppliers
  • Transparent; not opaque
  • Driving sales and cash margin; not customers being responsible for percent margin

2. Loyalty Approach vs. Loyalty Program

We demonstrate loyalty to our customers by taking a loyalty approach wherein we commit to rewarding and delighting our customers with products and experiences that meet their wants and needs.

  • We call this putting customers first—when we decide on priorities and actions based on insights from our customer data.
  • By doing so, a retailer becomes an even more prominent choice in the customer's consideration set. This is not a tactic; it is a long-term strategy that makes the customer the focal point of our business decisions and objectives.

The loyalty program is an important element within a loyalty approach, as the key source of the data that enables customer intelligence, and as the channel that enables us to talk to our customers personally. I call the loyalty program the "little l" in loyalty, with the loyalty approach as the "big L."

But a loyalty program is not required to act in a loyal way to customers. Here's how to think of "big L" loyalty:

A loyalty approach, simply put, embeds customer insight throughout the retail organization to enable better, faster decisions and thereby increase sales and profit sustainably. Best-in-class practitioners have seen an incremental sales uplift in the early stages of a loyalty approach of between 1% and 2% and later stages between 3% and 4%, quarter over quarter and year over year.

3. Loyalty Is About the Store, Not Just the CRM

As I used to say to my retail colleagues, "If the store is lousy but we deliver brilliant targeted CRM, the store will still be lousy."

Even if the personalized CRM is perfect, customers need to perceive that tangible changes have been made in the store itself before they will respond by giving more of their custom. We must put customer insights into action within the "hardwiring" of retail practices—pricing, promotion, assortment, adjacencies, new products, the checkout experience and so on.

In a previous article, I shared several examples of being loyal to customers in store by simply making the shopping experience easier—setting the yogurt section by customer need rather than by brand blocks, for example, and by setting product adjacencies according to how customers shop, rather than by how items are sourced in the supply chain.

3 Ways to Activate a True Loyalty Approach

  1. Make better business decision by putting the customer first. Everything is better when you start with the customer. Start with the data you hold on customers—understanding how they shop and behave, what is important to them and how they engage with your business. This insight will identify a number of opportunities for better decisions using the data.
  2. Improve the customer experience by using data-driven insights to improve your retail offering, such as assortment, pricing and promotions. Use insights to connect you to your customer through the store. Think of the mantra "data to insights to actions"—this is how improved like-for-like sales growth and customer loyalty is delivered.
  3. Transform the organization using customer-driven insight to help you better understand, anticipate, measure and continually respond to your customers. This is realized through empowering, aligning and equipping your people with relevant insights, values, goals, strategies and actions.


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[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at David.Ciancio@dunnhumby.com].

Treating Customers differently based on their 'profitability' is counter-productive to building loyalty and toward creating a healthy retail Customer Experience.


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Photo by ja ma on Unsplash

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In order to reflect on how the grocery world changed in 2020, we have changed how we calculate our overall Grocery RPI score. Given the historically unique metrics we've witnessed in the economy, the restaurant industry and the grocery industry, along with the rare influence a global pandemic has brought to consumer behavior, we're viewing grocery success in 2020 through a different lens than we viewed grocery success in prior years.

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In the first episode of Customer First Radio, Dave Clements, Global Head of Retail for dunnhumby and David Ciancio, Global Head of Grocery for dunnhumby kick off the series by discussing what it means to be a truly Customer First business, share which retailers and brands today embody a Customer First mindset, and examine how Customer First materialized during the pandemic with retailers.