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.
Jane Wilcox has 30 years grocery experience, starting out as a bagger and moving up through the ranks. Having joined Fresh Thyme to lead their new City Foundry project in the middle of the pandemic, Jane has some great insights into the challenges and opportunities the US grocery industry is currently facing. She spoke to Phil Lempert about her experiences working in grocery as well as Fresh Thyme’s new store format in this episode of The Modern Shopper.
This interview runs for 15 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 Jane Wilcox, who’s leading the new Fresh Thyme market format, and City Foundry project. Fresh Thyme has over 70 locations scattered throughout ten states in the Midwest that focuses on fresh, healthy, natural and organic offerings. Their mantra is to meet customers wherever they are on their journey towards a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle. Jane, welcome to The Modern Shopper.
Jane Wilcox: Thank you for having me, Phil.
Phil Lempert: Now you’ve been in the grocery business 30 some years, starting out as a bagger and moving up through the ranks to this position and just joined Fresh Thyme earlier this year – in the midst of a pandemic. Why make the move to Fresh Thyme?
Jane Wilcox: So it really has been an interesting year for me. It’s been a year of change. I was really looking for an opportunity with an organization that kind of their vision and mission aligned with my own. Having been in the grocery business for so long in the traditional grocery market setting, which was what I was accustomed to, things have become so I.T. and robotic that I’ve lost a lot of the personal touch with the role and found myself more to be like a box checker, and that’s not where I wanted to have the rest of my career go. So I really wanted to find a company that was in alignment with where I was. So I mean, Fresh Thyme’s brand promises are they exist to help people get real about living better and their mission is enriching people’s lives in the communities they serve. So for me, both of those things align to where I was on my personal journey, and the fit was just perfect.
Phil Lempert: Jane, I know you’re a proud U.S. Navy veteran. What are some of the skills that you learned in the service that you can bring to the grocery world?
Jane Wilcox: So it’s interesting that you mention my military service. They lovingly call me G.I. Jane in the stores that I manage, and it’s not from my perspective that I’m making people drop and give me 50, even though sometimes I want to. It’s actually more around accountability. That is a big point of contention for me. It’s really about everybody owning their piece and making sure that we’re all doing our very best working as one team. And that’s one thing the military really taught me was not only my own personal accountability, but the accountability of the team that I’m on, all working for a common goal. So once we put up what we’re looking to do here, then we’re all in line to do that and we’re all accountable to make sure it happens. So that’s definitely one of the biggest things I learned in the military was all around personal accountability and then working as a team.
Phil Lempert: And I would also expect that because of your military experience, dealing with customers and store associates during a pandemic you probably had the coolest head in the entire chain.
Jane Wilcox: I do have a ton of patience and I think that actually I copied morse code, which I know they don’t do anymore, but you have to have a lot of patience for that. So I do have a ton of patience. Plus, I’m the youngest of seven children and you know, you had to wait a lot as a child when you’re the youngest of seven. So I’ve got a lot of patience, but that has helped me out tremendously during this pandemic, that’s for sure.
Phil Lempert: Tell me about this new store. How is it different?
Jane Wilcox: So this store, the whole concept, is just really unbelievable for me, having been in the industry for so long because of the autonomy that it gives to the store to be able to truly take care of the customer in the community. So we are going to be the flagship store for Fresh Thyme. This store is going to be a destination where people are going to visit and they’re not going to be able to wait to come back. Because it’s a smaller space, so you’ll be able to do your shopping, you’ll be able to get everything you need in a smaller package. But also, we’re going to be EDLP, so we’re not going to have to have all the corporate overhead with trying to run ads and all of the red tape that comes with that. But also my team and I will have autonomy around pricing so we can actually change prices if we want. And then, of course, our partnership with our local communities is going to be second to none. We are looking to have over 1500 local products in the store and we’ll be in a space where I won’t have to call the corporate office and say, Hey, I have a new local vendor I want to bring in – if I want to bring in a local vendor, I bring in a local vendor. So they’re giving us room to be able to operate it as true merchants. And that is something I’ve been looking for my entire career: that ability to be able to take care of a customer in an extremely meaningful way, truly being able to listen, but then deliver on that promise. So that’s one of the biggest things for me. And then just where our location. I mean, we’re connected here to the city boundary and this area, there is food insecurities in this area. We have had so many people coming to us excited about our opening, even trying to walk in the door. We’re still trying to get this base up and running. But the whole concept is just phenomenal.
Phil Lempert: So Fresh Thyme is known for health, nutrition.Talk to me about any new innovations you see in this store that really aids, as your mantra dictates, aids customers in their health and wellness journey.
Jane Wilcox: Well, first of all, just the presence of our natural living department here in itself will be a rarity for this space and where our location is. But then also that ability to be able to connect with the local vendors and have some of those great natural organic offerings that you know you just can’t get in some of the traditional markets is really going to help people who are on that journey to living a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle. So again, that flexibility within that space and then just the offerings themselves is going to be something that people in this community have not seen.
Phil Lempert: So describe to me the people in the community.
Jane Wilcox: So we actually have a really diverse community around us. And, you know, one of our biggest mantras as far as organization goes, is we want to be inclusive of everyone. I mean, we will have all of, the Saint Louis University is literally a block away, so we have that whole entire community. We also have some – the whole midtown, which is an up and coming area for this, this particular area, and this spot we’re in is called Prospect Yard. And so then we also have lower income around us and then some high end income around us. So we really have like this melting pot around us of many different demographics that we’re going to be able to meet all of those demographics no matter where they are on that journey. So that’s pretty exciting too, because that’s really hard to do and a lot of the formats today.
Phil Lempert: It certainly is, but it sounds very exciting to your point. So how do you educate these different groups as it relates to health and wellness initiatives?
Jane Wilcox: So we have experts in this area. That’s one really great thing about Fresh Thyme is the teammates and their level of understanding of the products and their expertize in that area affords us a great opportunity to be able to educate the customers one on one as they’re coming in the store. And then we’ll also plan on having educational classes and demos and events where customers can learn from those teammates that are going to be demoing, or some of our mentoring partners will be able to help us in that space as well. So we plan on not only providing but educating as well and doing that with the teammates that we have that are experts in those areas, and we’re really fortunate to have them. Having been in the business this long, I have to tell you I have been immensely impressed with the level of expertize that Fresh Thyme has with their teammates, especially in the natural living produce areas that are such big areas for us as far as not only sales, but being able to provide those healthy, natural and organic products to the customer.
Phil Lempert: So Jane, you talk about being actively involved in the community. Give me an example of what you’re doing.
Jane Wilcox: Sure. So one of the things we wanted to do was give an opportunity to a local artist to do a very large mural in our receiving area. So we reached out to a local artist by the name of Grace McCammond, and she drew up some mockups for us. And we picked the one we liked the most and she got to work for us, and she completed it a couple of days ago and we couldn’t be more pleased with the work that she’s done. She’s also going to be painting the traffic light boxes out front of our store. She’s going to be doing that as kind of a performance art to get customer engagement on that. And then I’m already seeing other things that I want her to paint, as well as looking for additional local artists to paint some other things, other things for us as well. So it’s just that nice extra touch. And when you’re driving down Forest Park Avenue, you can’t help but take a look because it looks amazing.
Phil Lempert: So, Jane, I know because of your military experience what you’re going to say. So put aside your military experience for a moment.
Jane Wilcox: OK.
Phil Lempert: What’s keeping you up at night? What are the biggest challenges that you see in opening this new store, in becoming the flagship store, in pushing the health and wellness messaging out to your shoppers? What’s keeping you up at night?
Jane Wilcox: Well, there are several things. First of all, this is a historic building that we’re in that was renovated for this project. I know that it was offered to other retailers and they turned it down for that reason. This format actually operates on two levels. So all of my freezers and coolers are in the basement, so we have freight elevators in this space. So that’s one our receiving is actually an open space that is open to Forest Park Avenue, which makes delivering to the store a little difficult. And then supply chain, we’re going to be cross stocking our supplies, using our partner, Meyer. And things are going to be cross stacked into Bolingbrook, Illinois, before coming to our store. So supply chain definitely keeps me awake. And then the ability – we have one receiving dock, that keeps me awake a little bit. And then of course, being able to have operating elevators all the time is another area that is of concern to me. But from a perspective of the team that we’ve built, you know, I’m really I’m not – I’m actually looking forward to that. We actually had a hiring event last week where so many companies today are having a hard time finding people, and we hired 40 of our 55 teammates last week and then we had another hiring event this week and hired the remainder of our team. So we, from a staffing perspective, we’re sitting pretty good at this point. So from that perspective, a lot of companies are struggling right now, but that doesn’t seem to be a struggle for us at the moment. It’s more mechanical type things that are keeping me awake right now. And then, of course, supply chain.
Phil Lempert: So what we’ve heard from retailers all over the country is that the supply chain is broken, that they’re not getting the deliveries because there’s not enough trucks. You’re opening up a new store in a pandemic. You know, how difficult is it going to be to stock those shelves?
Jane Wilcox: It’s going to be extremely difficult. Yes, the supply chain is definitely an opportunity not only from the truck drivers, but even the warehouse is having enough people to pick products and then getting some of those products into the warehouse. And then the fact that we’re having to cross stack just complicates that even more because of the two different companies. And so that all together is what keeps me awake at night the most. And there’s some things that we can control and other things that we can’t. But right now we’re utilizing every resource we possibly can to try to secure all the products that we can. We’ve got a few weeks before we have to worry about opening our doors, so we do have a little bit of time on our side to try to resolve some of those issues. But that is a big, big issue right now, Phil.
Phil Lempert: So, Jane, you know, last last question. And by the way, first of all, congratulations on the new store. It sounds great. I want to get there and see it in person and ride the elevator up and down with everything that’s going on. But when I take a look at the supermarket world, as you do, a lot has changed over the past 30 years. Look into your crystal ball, whether it’s to do with e-commerce, whether it’s to do with technology, where do you see our industry going over the next two, three or four years?
Jane Wilcox: Well, it’s interesting because when I left my previous company, which I was at for 37 years, I had a conversation with the CEO and I told them that this type of format, which is smaller, it’s more convenient for the customer, still provides that e-commerce because we will have that for the customers that want it. This is where I see the future, giving back the power to the people that run the store to be able to do that to create a great customer experience so that people want to come back to the store, and then having the technology behind you just to be able to effectively and efficiently be able to stack your shelves and then provide the customers that want to use e-commerce with the ability to do that as well. So I think it’s a lot of what’s already happening in the industry, but just on a smaller scale, I don’t think that people are really interested in those 63,000 / 78,000 square feet stores. I don’t want to go to the green bean aisle and have twelve different choices of green beans, a cut green bean… just give me a couple of choices. My life is busy. I want to be able to make the choice, but be able to get in and get out and then have great products available to me by people that truly care. And so that’s personally what I see as being the missing. I think a lot of companies have gotten away from that and have gotten so technical that we’ve kind of lost that piece that really takes care of the community. And so many of the teammates that we’re hiring here, that’s one of the biggest things they’re interested in is what can I do to give back to the community that I’m working in? And that’s what Fresh Thyme is affording us to be able to do as well. So really rooting ourselves and really being a part of the community and providing a space where they can come and get everything that they need fresh, friendly, clean. And like I said, if they want to sit at home and order it, they can do that too. But if they want to come in, we’re going to provide a space that they can’t wait to come back to. So that’s what we’re really looking forward to.
Phil Lempert: Well, Jane, congratulations again and thank you for being part of The Modern Shopper.
Jane Wilcox: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time.