The Modern Shopper brings together the best minds and insights of a diverse group of food retailers and other industry experts to discuss their strategic initiatives and their top of mind challenges. Our focus is around health and sustainability, e-commerce and retail innovation. This series aligns with Spoon Guru’s core mission to help retailers discover a seamless, personalized and accurate product discovery experience for shoppers based on their dietary and lifestyle needs and is hosted by Phil Lempert.
Today’s guest is Allison Delaney from Stop & Shop Supermarkets. In 2019 Allison developed the Stop and Shop Nutrition Partners Program, the first ever retail dietitian program for Stop & Shop, and in 2020 she created the Nutrition Partners Vendor Sponsorship Program. In May of this year, Allison was named the 2021 Retail Dietitian of the Year by the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance (BDA).
In this episode, Allison and Phil talk about innovating private brand products to meet shoppers’ health, wellness, and budgetary concerns. Allison shares some great insights into the development of Stop & Shop’s Nature’s Promise products, the call for greater ingredient transparency when it comes to Free-From products, and the potential presented by e-commerce.
This interview runs for 17 minutes.
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Phil Lempert: Welcome to The Modern Shopper. This series brings together the best minds and insights of a diverse group of food retailers and other industry experts to discuss their strategic initiatives and their top of mind challenges. Our focus is around health and sustainability, e-commerce and retail innovation. The Modern Shopper series aligns with Spoon Guru’s core mission to help retailers discover a seamless, personalized and accurate product discovery experience for shoppers based on their dietary and lifestyle needs. I’m your host, Phil Lempert.
Phil Lempert: Today’s guest is Allison Delaney of Stop & Shop Supermarkets. I’m proud to share that in May of this year, Allison was named the 2021 Retail Dietitian of the Year by the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance, or DBA. In 2019, she developed the Stop and Shop Nutrition Partners Program, the first ever retail dietitian program for Stop & Shop. Allison is responsible for developing and executing nutrition partners strategic plan from the program’s curriculum and budget to the marketing strategy and omnichannel tactics. In late 2020, she created the Nutrition Partners Vendor Sponsorship Program, outlining product inclusion criteria, marketing and merchandizing tactics and pricing. Allison manages external relationships with brands as well as internal relationships with stop and shop, shopper marketing, circular website, omni channel marketing and operations team to execute these partnerships. Allison, welcome to the Modern Shopper.
Allison Delaney: Thanks so much for having me. Happy to be here.
Phil Lempert: So I want to focus a little bit on private brands. I know that’s a big part of your background, including regulatory labeling, sustainability, product management. And now what we have is a situation that because of the pandemic, people are more concerned about what they’re eating than ever before. Now I also know a little secret about you, which is – your favorite foods are tacos and pizza. So how are we going to make those tacos and pizza, you know, a little healthier when it comes to store brands? And is that even a consideration for not only Stop & Shop, but for retailers across the globe?
Allison Delaney: It’s a great question and obviously an area I am extremely passionate about. I came from the private brands side of Stop & Shop.I was there for about eight years and I think of private brands as an extremely unique role and responsibility in retail right now. So the way Stop & Shop thinks of it is, hey, this is our brand, it is the brand we are going to put the most passion and power behind. And if you think about it, it’s the brands that we can really influence. So when it comes to health, and let’s say when it comes to wellness because I’m thinking social responsibility as well as nutrition, it’s the products that we can choose. How are we going to source them? How are we going to develop them? What ingredients are we going to include or exclude? So customers nowadays are looking more and more at health, but also more and more transparency and private brands. Really, you have that opportunity to make the products what you want. So at least at Stop & Shop, and I know many other large retailers are doing this, is they’re basically creating guardrails for all of their private brand products that we can stand firm and say, Hey, we’re only going to sell private brand products that have you or that exclude all of these additives. So we will not have artificial colors, we will not have artificial flavors, preservatives, artificial sugars eventually. And customers can trust that when they pick up any of our products on the shelf that they know for a fact, we will not have those ingredients or those additives.So in the clean label transparency initiative and where everyone’s focusing on right now, you really have that opportunity to make an impact. So I say, yes, I love pizza, and yes, I love nachos, but I’m also checking to see what ingredients and what additives are in those. And I think that falls under this how people define health. It used to be fat and sugar and calories, and now it’s really these dietitians. We say, Can you pronounce the ingredients on the label? Do you even know what’s going into the products? And I think that’s where private brands have such a unique opportunity to gain trust from your customers by coming out with a strong stance, saying we’re eliminating these additives and take it a step further. We have nutrition parameters around all of our private brand products. So for the sake of example, private brand products should always be the most affordable product on the shelf, under our eyes or our lens. Let’s take that a step further. We must be the most nutritious products on the shelf. So if you’re going to buy a national brand, cereal or private brand cereal, our cereal must be equal or better in fat, calories, sugars, all of the above. So we have nutritional parameters put around our private brand products that customers can really lean into if they’re looking for that health and not, let’s say, wellness on priority. So awesome question. I think it’s imperative and anyone who works in the private brand world right now should be focusing on wellness and transparency. It’s a long winded answer, but I think it’s your spot on there.
Phil Lempert: So let me go back a few years and I want to pick up on what you said about affordability. So private brands 20 years ago was basically a buyer going to a manufacturer saying, OK, here’s this product. Duplicate it, make it cheaper. What was the light bulb moment for you, as well as retailers in general that said – hey, this is really a bigger opportunity than just knocking off a national brand. We can be better. We can be healthier. We can be tastier. What really prompted that?
Allison Delaney: Great question, I think a couple of things. One is, I think when we are talking about private brands in general realize that this is where innovation can lie. Previously it was affordability, and with affordability came a lack of trust, a lack of trust in the quality, a lack of trust in, you buy a store brand if you’re on a budget, right? And this light bulb came off of – hey, I don’t need to rely on food manufacturers for innovation like let’s innovate internally. Let’s hire the best culinary team. Let’s hire the best product managers, the best product developers, and we’re not going to wait for that brand to go launch a new plant based burger. We’re going to launch it ourselves, and we’re going to develop a really powerful brand that people trust. And for us and I’ve said this before, our Nature’s Promise brand is a brand that we backed with marketing. It’s our Free From. It’s our organic. And we put so much support into that, that customers – it’s our hero brand and customers are lining up for Nature’s Promise private brand because of our innovation. So I say innovation is one aspect where it kind of flips on, it’s not only it doesn’t need to be this cheap and budget, budget segment, it can be the segment customers think about when they think of innovation. So that’s one aspect. And then I’d say, kind of, part two is, like I said before, instead of waiting around for other brands, when it comes to transparency, it comes to health. We have the ability to, again, our in-house dietitians, our in-house nutritionists, how do we go and look at the brands and reformulate? So we have this huge reformulation team. Now let’s go and look at all of the brand products over five years and remove all of the ingredients and artificial ingredients and really come out with these better for you products. So I think it all comes down to in my head as we have the ability to manipulate in a positive way. This huge line of products, whereas we don’t have the ability we can influence, but we don’t have the ability to positively, positively manipulate the national brands. So I think that, at least for us, is where the business shifted while we gained customer trust, which takes time but gaining customer trust in our kind of brand products. So that would be my guess or my best explanation would be the innovation and ability to impact.
Phil Lempert: So should national brands be worried?
Allison Delaney: I think, look, I mean, I was just looking at the data of post-COVID, and I think there’s a couple of explanations there. But private brands is booming, and I think national brands need to be quick to innovate. And a lot of them are quick to innovate. They need to look at price, obviously, and customers – COVID gave customers the opportunity to try private brands. We’ve talked about this before, but there were supply chain issues across the board. A lot of the time if the national brand wasn’t there, they had the opportunity to try a private brand product. A lot of those customers are switching. A lot of them were saying that was just as good and it’s a dollar cheaper, why would I buy the national brand? So quality, quality, quality, price and obviously the whole wellness nutrition component. So I would say they should look critically at are they meeting those three check marks? Is the quality really better? Is the price it’s in, as a shopper we look at, our shoppers are still looking at price works right, price trumps everything. And that’s our store shopper. Not every store. So price comes first, period. Private brands is always the lower, the lowest price on shelf. So if you can I’m the lowest price on shelf and my quality is there and then the bonus is I’m nutritious and I’m innovative, why wouldn’t I buy it? So I think it’s only getting more and more important, and it’s only playing a bigger role in retailers, is my analysis.
Phil Lempert: So you mentioned transparency a couple of times. What is transparency to the average Stop & Shop shopper? What are they looking for?
Allison Delaney: It’s a great question. So I would say I’m going to answer that, what is our Stop & Shop customer looking at? So when you think about our Stop & Shop customer, we have a couple different profiles that we really look at as our shopper. Our shopper that we’re targeting most is mom of three. She’s really busy. She, he or she, is really busy either running from errand to errand, and they want to go in quick. They are using coupons. They don’t have much time. So it’s your budget conscious, cooking at home type of shopper that we’re really putting most of our efforts behind and transparency. You know, we talk about it and it’s for us, for our shopper. It’s not quite, Hey, what farm are you getting your lettuce from that’s going into your salad? A lot of shoppers are thinking about that, that’s not quite the mass of our shopper. For us, it’s really the trust. I think obviously, labels now show ingredients, nutrition and all of that. But it’s, are you like, let’s say our Nature’s Promise line. Are you disclosing to me what you’re excluding from that line? And we talked about this at depth, like we have this Free Front line, and initially we didn’t publish what it was Free From, Free From 1000 ingredients, free from 1000 additives. And customers wanted to know like, What are you excluding from this? Because I want to feel better about what I’m eating and I want to feel better about my choices. So let’s publish. Like, Hey, Nature’s Promise is Free From this list of 1000 ingredients or whatever number it is now up on the website. So customers know. So I think it’s there’s different stages of transparency. The first one is just what are you putting in the food? The second one is probably where are you getting the food from? And then there’s all obviously the sustainability and social responsibility, aspects of transparency. But it’s a simple to start of what are you putting in the food and the trust behind cross-contamination, and you hear all these articles like the baby food have carcinogens and customers don’t want, obviously, don’t want that, but they want to trust that the food that they’re buying from the store is made of what what it says it is. I’d say it’s as basic as that.
Phil Lempert: So I’m that Stop & Shop mom of three, I’m hassled and harried, I don’t have a lot of time and I want to shop online. I want to use e-commerce. I want you to deliver it for me. How do you take everything that you’re talking about, whether it’s transparency, whether it’s nutrition, all of all of those factors and execute it online to help me get the same information as if I was in the store?
Allison Delaney: I think it’s easier, I think that e-commerce opens up a whole new world of information. Frankly, you can do anything online now, right? So you go and you click on your brown rice and you can see every single ingredient where it comes from, ideas for how to use it. You could swap it for a different variety. You can swap it for something on sale. If anything e-commerce, we owe our shoppers even more now when it comes to transparency and when it comes to the omni channel aspect of why customers are shopping online, they want everything quicker and simpler. So how do we provide them 2.0? Here’s your brown rice and here’s your chicken and here’s your soy sauce. Oh, here’s a recipe that uses all three of those. Use this recipe, make it shoppable, and add everything to my cart. So if anything, it’s clear information, you don’t need to stand in the store looking at the labels. Filters. Our filters are out of control. There is a filter for diets. I have to remind myself what the diet even is like. You can filter for everything now. You have different kids who have different picky eating habits. You just filter, filter filter and then everything goes in your cart. So it is, that’s the future in my eyes, that’s the future. I would say, with that, most of our shoppers are still shopping in store. And we, I mean, I’m an urban Boston, Massachusetts, right, and that’s where our headquarters is. And the research is saying it’s e-commerce, e commerce, but our shoppers, the bulk of them are still in the aisles. Maybe some of that’s routine. Maybe some of it’s the shipping fees, that does play a role, but it’s interesting to see. I think it’s more so the future, but I think it’s right now it’s like 80/20 store to e-commerce, for Stop & Shop at least.
Phil Lempert: So last question – what keeps you up at night about the grocery industry? What are you worried about? What are you concerned about, what are you excited about?
Allison Delaney: Yeah, I think what keeps me up at night is, people are figuring out how to do it faster, cheaper, simpler, easier. I shop Amazon, right? You can press, click and something is on my door in four to eight hours. That’s what scares me. I think there’s some old school mentality still with grocery and are we getting innovative, we are getting so innovative. But if we don’t think outside of the box and if we don’t kind of go to the what ifs, the what’s next, I worry that e-commerce giants will somehow slowly start to replace the traditional brick and mortar. And I think we have the opportunity to innovate, and we are, but I think that’s what I would say keeps me up at night is the aspect of e-commerce innovation with the big giants.
Phil Lempert: And in talking to a lot of the CEOs of retailers, what I’m hearing from them, and I don’t know if this is going on at Stop & Shop, what I’m hearing from them is they’re now starting to recruit from Silicon Valley. They’re stealing people. You know, it used to be that a grocery store, you know, I would steal, Stop & Shop employees. Now they’re going to Facebook, they’re going to Microsoft. They’re expanding. They don’t care if these people have food experience. They want exactly what you’re talking about thinking outside the box.
Allison Delaney: Yeah, yeah, we have. Absolutely, I think, why wouldn’t you? That’s where the innovation and the thought leadership is. We have some really impressive co-op programs where we get computer scientists from some of the biggest universities in Boston to come work for us for the summer, pick their brain, get their digital innovation. And I think you have to you have to get the brightest minds and digital innovation to come in and and get us our old school mentality, and that’s a stereotype you know, we have a lot of innovation, but get the bright minds of technology and bring them in and push the industry beyond where we’ve gone, and I think we have to. So it makes a ton of sense to me.
Phil Lempert: Well, Allison, thanks so much for joining us and sharing your insights on The Modern Shopper.
Allison Delaney: Of course. Thank you so much for having me, Phil. Talk to you soon.