Winning @ Retail

 Shopper Marketing for Local Food Brands

November 22, 2019

By Doug Stone

If you're growing or producing Michigan food products, you have a dream of seeing your brand sold from grocery shelves and web sites. You’ve probably pushed your cart through the aisles and seen products that you KNOW are not as good as yours. Not as tasty. Not as fresh. Not as attractive. Not as sustainable. Not as well packaged. And what a dumb name!


It’s irritating.


What this reality tells you is that the quality of your product is only a part of what you need in order to turn your retail dreams into realities.


A quality product is just “table-stakes” (for you poker players), or “greens-fees” (for you golfers). You don’t get far at any retailer without it. But it’s only a start.


The part I’ll cover here is marketing your products. To retailers. To their shoppers.


Your brand can't get on the shelf without selling to retailers and it can't stay on the shelf without selling to shoppers.


Let’s first set the table, as it were, with some food and shopping trends that will inform our discussion.


The local food market in the US has grown from $5 billion in 2008 to $20 billion and continues to grow, according to the market research firm, Packaged Facts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees with that assessment - predicting sales of locally produced foods will reach $20 billion by this year.


A survey from Forager, a local food digital procurement platform, found 84% of respondents said they included locally produced food on their shopping list. And while we know that farmers markets are popular among consumers, Forager found that 87% of survey respondents reported that a local grocery store was their destination for purchasing local food.


And they’ll pay what it takes - AT Kearney, the management consulting firm, found that 78% of consumers say they will pay more for local products throughout the store. “Throughout the store” means they are including processed foods, like pickles and pasta and jams and sauces – not just produce.


So - shoppers want local food – check.


They’ll pay more for local food – check.


They want to buy it where they’re used to buying their other groceries – check.


Grocery stores must be falling over themselves to stock the local foods their shopper want – right?




There’s little doubt that groceries want their shoppers to buy local food at their stores, but so far, they are not quite killing it.


Between retail distribution systems that are built for large, infrequent deliveries of uniform-quality product, a lack of consistency for which food is actually considered “local,” varying food safety standards, and pricing requirements that fall hardest on smaller local suppliers, it’s no wonder that most shoppers are disappointed with their grocer’s local food options.


That study from Forager I mentioned says that while 81% of grocers reported that they were delivering fresh items to their shoppers, 67% of consumers said they're completely dissatisfied with local fresh produce in their grocery store.


The solutions to those and other industry challenges may be the subjects of other summit sessions and of other presentations. But I’m not here to help fix these problems.


I’m here to help you take advantage of them.


I hear the grumbling of grocery shoppers who want more local food choices. And then I hear the pining of grocery merchants who yearn to be their shoppers’ go-to store for local food.


Listen. Do you hear that? It’s the sound of opportunity calling for local food entrepreneurs.


Let’s talk about selling your local food to retailers. To do so, we’ll need to understand what food retailers want.


Food retailers have always battled with one another for market share. And they well understand how to compete when the shopper’s choices are largely between similar grocers with similar brands and products.


But the retail food market has been changing rapidly, as it has in so many other industries and categories.


In 2015, for the first time, Americans spent more money at restaurants than at grocery stores.


In 2020, for the first time, more than half of restaurant spending is projected to be “off premise” - on deliveries, takeaway meals and drive-throughs and not on dining inside the restaurant.

The Cowen and Company investment group projects that, over the next 5 years, off-premise spending will become about 80 percent of the restaurant industry’s growth.


So Americans are eating many more meals at home – most off-premise dining takes place at home, not at work. They’re dining at home, but their meals are less frequently coming from food retailers.


The two main reasons for this change are the Internet and Millennials.


The Internet has made mobile online ordering, paying and delivering meals more friction-free for consumers than ever before. And venture capitalists have been plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into platforms like UberEats, GrubHub and DoorDash, subsidizing their growth while they continue to run deeply in-the-red.


These investors are betting on Millennials to continue feeding the food-delivery market for the foreseeable future. Millennials are the generation born from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s and they are the largest cohort since their parents in the Baby Boom generation. And like the Boomers, Millennials are changing many of the ways we organize our economy and our culture.


It’s convenience that this new generation prizes above most anything else. I’ve done dozens of surveys over the years to explore what consumers most value and the top answer has always been “time.” But Millennials have taken it to a new dimension. Between careers and starting families and checking-in and commuting – Millennials are shagged. In surveys by the National Restaurant Association, Millennials say they spend more time working and commuting than they used to, and 60 percent say they watch more streaming TV.


Now – imagine that you’re a food retailer and your business’s health depends on coaxing exhausted Millennials off the couch and into your stores, or at least onto your e-commerce sites for food to prepare and eat at home.


That’s the challenge that keeps food retailers up at night.


And that’s an opportunity for any food entrepreneur, and you local food creators have a built-in advantage. Shoppers and retailers understand that “Local” food is better.


Winsight is an information services company for the food and beverage industry. They recently publish a newsletter that opined, "’local’ has become a shorthand descriptor that makes food sound high quality, fresher, more authentic, trustworthy, environmentally friendly and supportive of the local community.”


So “local” is a big leg-up, but it’s probably not the whole solution retailers need.


Retailers are already doing more than simply giving lip-service to local food. Grocers are putting an extra focus on the particular tastes of local communities and the importance of supporting local companies. But they need an edge to attract new and more frequent shoppers.


Merchants need the next idea that shoppers will seek out. They need the new product ideas and the compelling brand stories that their shoppers MUST have. Smaller, nimble, local food entrepreneurs are the ones best equipped to deliver the excitement and variety retailers need.


I mentioned earlier that part of the reason why more retailers are not doing a better job offering local food to their shoppers is due to logistics. It’s just so much easier for them to work with a smaller number of larger vendors and food brokers in terms of scheduling deliveries and invoicing and promotion and quality control. So the decision to work with a broker should be largely about making it easier for your retailer customers.


Working with a broker is a lot like working with a talent agent, or a plaintiff’s attorney, for that matter. They don’t make money unless you make money, so they need to believe in you and your product before they will work for you. Which means that brokers are usually a 2nd stage consideration, after you’ve achieved some retail sales validation on your own and you’re ready to expand distribution.


One broker gave me the key metric by which he evaluates a new product’s success:

-        Retailer’s first order is the easiest

-        Retailer’s second order should also be easy, because it follows a demo and/or other promotion

-        Retailer’s third order means the product sold through on its own merits


Like with any business service, you should seek and insist on clarity and communication when working with brokers. Most busy professionals appreciate measurable goals and regularly scheduled check-ins - brokers are no different.


Since your initial retail sell-in will likely be on your own, let’s talk about what you’ll need for a successful sell-in meeting. You know you’ll need your products to sample, your packaging and a reasonable pricing strategy. You can take it up a notch, if you have also worked-out how you will help the retailer promote this new product – at a minimum, most retailers will expect demos.


Your initial sell-in to a retailer, in fact every retailer meeting you take, should give them value. good relationship with retail buyers for stores. If you ask them what you can do to support them and their merchandising programs, you're more likely to get more shoppers near your product. It’s your full-time job and not a hobby. Have a full program to present. Give them free product when they take you on. Make your delivery and invoicing fit with their existing systems and schedules.


You should also be able to fluidly tell your brand’s story.


Retail success is not all about having the better mousetrap, it’s about telling the better mousetrap story.


Your brand’s story begins with its positioning. A smart brand positioning differentiates your local food brand from competitors. It makes your brand name and packaging stronger and your retailer sell-in easier. In fact, it makes all of your marketing more effective and efficient. It’s why every great brand’s story is built on a great brand positioning


Creating a smart brand positioning isn’t easy . . . which is why I’ve created a simple brand positioning template to help local food brands get started positioning themselves smarter. It’s available by request to my email, at no charge.


In speaking with retailers and local food entrepreneurs to prepare this discussion, I’ve captured the following tips for successful local food retail marketing –


Do your demonstrations yourself as long as you are able. Retailers will expect you to do them yourself at the beginning and nobody can talk about your product and your brand like you can.


Secondary placements are when your product is given a second showing away from its primary shelf. Secondary placements are usually about how a product is used – think salad dress in the produce section. Expect to pay for secondary placements with higher margins on promoted goods.


Use your social media accounts to amplify the retailer’s brand along with yours. Promote your retailer partners on your channels – then promote their promotion back to them. Know the channels they think are key and promote on those channels. Upload usage and recipe and lifestyle video. Live-stream. It only takes your time and if you can’t do it, there are countless high school students you can hire to manage your accounts.

Help your package stand-out, help your retail partners add some pizzazz to their aisles and help shoppers make their product choices by accessorizing your shelf space. If you can’t create a branded shelf organizer, can you customize your package? Can you add a sticker? Can you add a neck-hanger?

Consider multiple uses for your brand. I spoke with the founder of a local seasonings brand who promotes the use of his pizza seasoning on popcorn. While I’m not saying you should go that far afield, the more different delicious ways and occasions to use your brand, the more valuable it becomes, both to shoppers and to retailers. Dressing & marinade. Side dish and ingredient. Breakfast, snack and dinner.

Brand partnerships enable you to co-promote with complimentary brands, which can get your brand displayed and promoted beyond your primary shelf. With the right partners, you can multiply your promotional heft by including one another in your brand marketing. One example of this tactic is called shopper solutions, which is when the retailer groups or even packages brands together to address a specific shopping missions – think s’mores (marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers).


All entrepreneurship is complex, so be open to sharing the load. Collaborate. Partner. Delegate. No one is great at everything. Find resources for the things someone else can do better than you.