By JOHN O'CONNELL
Supermarket expert Phil Lempert believes farmers and grocery stores can capitalize on the trend of emphasizing communication with customers and becoming more familiar with their needs.
Lempert, founder and CEO of the website SupermarketGuru.com, visits 10-15 grocery stores per week wherever he travels and has concluded the key to success for grocers is improving understanding of their customers. He was booked to host panel discussions on grocery issues Jan. 10 at Potato Expo 2013 in Las Vegas.
"In my opinion, the traditional supermarket is a dinosaur. It's going to have to evolve and get more consumer-centric," Lempert said. "It's not about a retailer being passive and hoping somebody walks through their door."
Lempert said stores thriving nowadays, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, offer customers a "celebration of food" with in-store cooking demonstrations, lectures and food samples. Such a format, he said, presents an opportunity for growers to share their stories.
"The bottom line is the farmer needs to get in stores and talk to consumers," Lempert said. "It's a natural extension of the farmers' markets, but now they're doing it with supermarkets to a much bigger audience."
Lempert noted Whole Foods often sends customers Tweets indicating when new produce items have arrived -- another avenue for produce suppliers to reach consumers.
As retailers develop a better understanding of demographics and customer needs, Lempert envisions new opportunities will arise for growers to partner with stores on unique varieties.
"I think the next evolution is retailers working with farmers on specific crops so it's specific to them and you can't find it at every store," Lempert said.
Lempert said stores are also moving toward a smaller footprint. In the past 11 years, he said traditional supermarkets have lost 15 percent of their market share to drug stores and small discount stores. Many dollar stores, he said, have begun offering fresh produce. Larger stores, like Costco, have succeeded by confining their food sales to a section of the building no larger than 25,000 square feet, he said.
"Part of it has to do with the aging Baby Boomer population doesn't enjoy shopping for food in a 60,000- to 70,0000-square-foot environment. We're almost returning to our grandparents' model or our great-grandparents' model of that corner drugstore," Lempert said.