From the day she took over as marketing and community relations supervisor for Whole Foods Market Kahala, Natalie Aczon has preached the power of social media as a way of meeting the demands of a new generation of tech-savvy, information-driven consumers. So she was thrilled when the head of the seafood department came to her recently with information for a one-day sale on select seafood items.
Whole Foods builds its brand and conveys retail information via Facebook and Twitter. And with an overstock of seafood in need of quick purchase, the immediacy of social media was just what Aczon needed. She quickly passed along the information in a tweet to Whole Foods followers.
"Within seconds, literally, the seafood manager called me to say that a customer was there asking for such-and-such item for such-and-such cost," Aczon recalled.
It turned out that Aczon had accidentally posted the store’s cost for the item, not the sale price. Aczon quickly deleted the post and tweeted a quick correction and apology, assuring customers that the store would honor the errantly posted price for anyone who had seen the original message.
"The benefit, and the drawback, to this type of technology is that it’s instantaneous," Aczon said. "The customer was right there in the store when she got the tweet on her smartphone."
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Still, Aczon said, the store’s embrace of social media, mobile applications and other technologies has proved worth the occasional awkward moment, as Whole Foods Market Kahala has routinely outperformed the rest of the chain’s Southern Pacific region in one-day sales and other events.
It’s a reality with which local grocers are quickly coming to terms.
As an industry, grocery retail has been tentative in exploring the ways mobile technologies can enhance sales and strengthen relationships with customers. But the proliferation of smartphones, coupled with the desire of more and more consumers to buy local and to trace the farm-to-fork journey of their purchases, has created an adapt-or-die environment.
Progressive companies are rewarded for making the practical and philosophical adjustments necessary to use such technologies effectively.
Phil Lempert, a recognized industry expert and founder of Supermarketguru.com, said, however, the industry’s attempts to leverage social media, in particular, have been "mediocre at best."
"For now it’s the Wild West and everybody is ‘testing,’ " he said, "Walmart does a great job, probably the best so far, with Whole Foods a close second. Others have failed miserably."
Lauren Zirbel, executive director of the Hawaii Food Industry Association, said Hawaii grocery retailers are at least on pace with their counterparts on the mainland.
"Most everyone has a Facebook and Twitter account," Zirbel said. "It’s becoming the primary way of marketing themselves and it’s been effective in gaining customer support. A lot of businesses now have staff dedicated to using these kinds of technologies."
Safeway has invested significant resources in developing its Just For U digital coupon service as well as smartphone applications that allow customers to receive digital coupons and create their own shopping lists.
A Safeway spokesperson declined to comment on Safeway’s recent technological forays but said the chain is aggressively trying to leverage various platforms to better serve its customers.
Foodland Hawaii maintains a continually updated website and boasts high activity on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, engaging shoppers with sales announcements and reminders, special promotions, polls and foodie chit chat.
Times Supermarkets has taken a more conservative approach to emerging technology but does maintain a website with information on sales and promotions as well as online coupons. Its Facebook page is used primarily to post its weekly Monday Morning Hookup specials.
Whole Foods Market Kahala uses its Facebook page (to promote greater connection to neighborhood shoppers, each Whole Foods store maintains its own page) to communicate the store’s organizational values and to foster close ties with its immediate community. It uses Twitter for quick, concise updates of sales and other events.
Kokua Market in Moiliili focuses most of its immediate communicative efforts on its Facebook page and relies on its website for branding and general information.
"It’s absolutely imperative for us to be able to communicate quickly with our customers and Facebook allows us to do that," said Kokua Market general manager Lynette Larson. "It allows us to get the word out fast when we have something special, like we recently did when we got a shipment of fresh lilikoi. It would have taken a lot of time to update the website and there wouldn’t have been time to put it in the newsletter, but I was able to take a picture and post it on Facebook in a few minutes. It’s amazing how many responses we get, and how quickly we get them."
And while grocery retailers are learning how best to use the social networking tools available to them, they are also being compelled to recognize and react to the myriad of mobile applications with which their shoppers are now armed, such as Grocery Pal, which allows users to compare prices and redeem coupons on their phone, or Savvy Shopper, which allows shoppers to scan barcodes to find the best deals.
"Shoppers can now compare prices, product attributes, health and nutrition, even get ratings to help decide which products to buy and which stores to shop at," Lempert said.
Melanie Kosaka, founder of First Daughter Mediaworks and veteran observer of the local food scene, said she has noticed over the past two years a significant shift in attitude from local grocery retailers.
"Markets are a lot more open to social media in particular," she said. "A few years ago there was more pushback from the bigger brands who did not want to be targeted (for criticism). Now, they realize that people will say things even if they are not in the conversation, so they might as well be a part of the conversation."
That shift in attitude is also apparent in the willingness of several markets to work with Kosaka on her soon-to-be-released mobile application Lei Fresh, which allows users to find out where specific locally grown foods are being sold. The application also tracks farmers markets and has interactive features that allow for crowd-sourced updates.
"One of the big challenges is that people want to buy local but it’s hard to know what is available at a store near them," Kosaka said. "Here, the average farm is 76 acres, not 2,000 acres, so there is a variable supply of some produce. We felt that by using geolocation, we could help people to identify where these locally grown foods are right now."
To ensure information is as up to date as possible, Kosaka developed a system that allows grocers to update the availability of items with a single tap on an iPad.
While grocers may have been hesitant to acknow-ledge the impact of mobile technologies on their business, Lempert foresees greater interaction between the industry, inventors and consumers resulting in scenarios straight out of science fiction.
"It will move into more cost benefits, using the phone to compare, select and check out, and tying in to the customer’s frequent shopper program and profile," Lempert said. "Plugging in allergens or ingredients to avoid and notifying you or your family members not to buy certain items. Your phone (will connect) to your fridge and cupboards with built-in scanners to automatically order certain staples that you never want to run out of, like toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water, milk, etc. You’ll just confirm your order on your phone and the store delivers."