How right-fit frontline support helps top grocers stay competitive

Posted on: May 12, 2021Updated on: February 8, 2024By: Jordan Dilworth

When Jim Donald joined Albertsons as CEO in 2018, he was tasked with a steep mandate: fix revenue and margin, update technology and take the company public after two previous misfires.

His first priority was getting the frontline workforce, which makes up 98% of their 275,000 employees, engaged and on board with change.  

So, Donald hit the road, literally and figuratively. He spent time driving a semi truck across the country, frying chicken in the deli, cutting meat, bagging groceries and stocking shelves with the overnight crew. Along the way, he sent video dispatches to the frontline with updates about the company’s direction and where they were headed. This hands-on approach flipped the culture and helped put the company on the trajectory that led to their IPO last year. 

“By doing what I’ve asked others to do, I spoke the second language of the frontline. That’s called communicating to the heart. That causes action. It also creates engagement,” said Donald. “When people become engaged, they are emotionally connected to the business, and things happen very fast. Revenues grow, profits get better.” 

This anecdote is one of many from Donald’s storied career at the helm of top brands like Starbucks and Extended Stay Hotels that he shared in his AxoniCom GROCERY keynote. And it touched on many of the key themes that came up again and again in our conversations with top grocers at the event: 

  • The make-or-break role associates play in grocers’ fight to stay competitive 
  • The power of consistent, authentic frontline communication to drive performance 
  • The importance of supporting the frontline right, so they can do the same for your customers

At the end of the day, Donald concluded, the biggest innovation in grocery isn’t AI, data science or any other technology: It’s a culture of caring, for your people and your customers. His advice to stay competitive: “You have to care more than others think possible or necessary.” 

Keep reading for more stories of how grocers are harnessing the competitive advantage of their frontline workforce. 

Cross-training boosts business agility—and associate engagement 

At the outset of the pandemic, cross-training came to the forefront as an urgent necessity in response to increased absenteeism and changing operational needs. But Liz Volk, Chief Human Resources Officer at Longo’s, showed us how ongoing training and upskilling adds massive value for grocers far beyond the pandemic. 

“Instead of adding part time hours, why not go back and talk to your team members to say, ‘If you’re willing to be cross-trained in this department—which makes the day more exciting and the job more exciting—you’ll get more hours,’” Volk said. “We’ve been very focused on that.” 

As a result, the percentage of associates working full-time hours has increased, and their employee turnover has decreased from 26% pre-pandemic to an amazing 19%.  

“It’s a win-win all around, because our team members have more engaging work, and we have team members that are able to jump in on a moment’s notice when certain areas of the store get very busy,” said Volk. 

It also ties into their long-term strategy, in partnership with the  Good Jobs Institute, to ensure they’re providing secure, stable and well-paying jobs with clear opportunities for career advancement.

“People feel good because they know they’re going to have a base amount of income coming in and security, and then they can really shine. That works. We’ve been fortunate that through this, our teams have thrived.” 

The results speak for themselves. Recent consumer sentiment surveys found Longo’s to be #1 in bricks and mortar grocery, as well as #1 in their ecommerce service in Canada. They’ve also seen a 300% increase in their employee net promoter score. 

“I think that’s a demonstration to us that by doing all these things, our team members are driving those great results. It pays off.”  

Empowering amazing customer care through employee training 

When associates have the right support behind them, they can deliver the best possible care for customers. Wakefern has seen that time and time again. 

Take, for example, their Produce Proud program. Produce is a competitive differentiator for them, and they want to make sure associates know it. Through regular, ongoing training, they keep associates informed about produce management practices and how Wakefern ensures the highest quality, freshest produce. 

“We’ve seen that translate into results,” noted Jessica Gasser, VP of Human Resources, Retail Operations at Wakefern. “Not just in metrics like knowledge gain on technical topics, which allows an associate to communicate that to the consumer, but we’ve also seen it in direct ROI for customer satisfaction in our register receipt surveys as it relates to produce.”

One key ingredient of this success? Training is delivered in short, engaging sessions available on the devices that associates use every day, so it doesn’t take associates off the floor or interrupt their day.   

“Many of the efforts that are made in logistics, procurement, receiving, ordering, handling, crisping and trimming are a direct result of having this platform available to us to leverage training in a more engaging and fun manner, that allows us to celebrate our success,” said Gasser. 

Throughout all of our conversations at AxoniCom GROCERY, we kept coming back to the fact that the success of any strategy or change initiative depends on an engaged and informed frontline workforce.

“A very big part of achieving any return on investment is employee education,” said Gasser. “Engaging with associates about our strategic priorities, our critical plans and our focus areas, really helps to best position them to execute and deliver results. The most comprehensive plans can be developed in a boardroom, but they will never be fully realized unless the employees are a part of that process.”  

Jordan Dilworth

Jordan Dilworth has spent the majority of his marketing career working with some of the world’s leading brands and retail organizations across the apparel, footwear and beverage alcohol industries. Prior to Axonify, he was the head of North American Retail Marketing at Columbia Sportswear Company for 125 stores across the portfolio of brands and store formats. At Axonify, Jordan leads the Demand Marketing team with a focus on the Retail and Food & Beverage Industries.

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