Aisle Chatter

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As science fiction starts to become reality, the Supermarket Robot Wars is officially on! With Kroger recently announcing its partnership with Ocado for automated warehouses and tech startup Nuro for driverless grocery delivery, the pressure is on for competing retailers to make headway in the AI grocery race.  Not one to sit idly by, Walmart is taking its own strides to stay on pace. Not only is the Bentonville, AR-based company testing out Waymo (formerly the “Google self-driving car project”) self-driving Chrysler Pacifica vans for an exclusive group of customers who place grocery orders online in Chandler, AZ, but it is also piloting a robotics system for its online grocery pickup (OGP) services in one of its Supercenter stores in Salem, NH. The Alphabot, the brainchild of Massachusetts-based tech company Alert Innovation, was developed exclusively for Walmart. It automates specific steps of the online grocery pickup process by using autonomous mobile carts to gather shelf-stable, refrigerated, and frozen items from a high-density storage system. Alphabot’s robotic carts retrieve and deliver these items to store associates to quickly fulfill online orders, and it is all done behind the scenes away from the customers’ watchful eyes.  The technology is still in its early stages, but Walmart hopes to have it up and running by the end of the year. According to a Walmart press release about the new technology: “With the aid of Alphabot, our associates will have more time to focus on service and selling, the two things they often tell us are the most enjoyable part of the job, while the technology handles the more mundane, repeatable tasks. Although this is a small pilot, we expect big things from it. We have a lot to learn about this new technology, and we’re excited about the possibilities of how we can use it to make the future of shopping – and working – even better.”

Recently in my column I wrote about how the U.S. cattle and dairy farmers are scrambling to get the words “meat” and “milk” banned on labels for anything not animal-based. Turns out their fears may be justified as the market for plant-based foods continues to surge upward. The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), a trade association representing 114 of the nation’s leading plant-based food companies, recently released new data showing dollar sales growth of 20 percent over the last year and sales topping $3.3 billion in the plant-based food industry. PBFA commissioned the custom dataset from Nielsen, the leading retail sales data analytics company, which shows the total market for the plant-based food sector in Nielsen’s Expanded All Outlets Combined Channel is up 20 percent in dollar sales over the last year, as compared to an increase of 2 percent in all foods sold in the same channel (all food departments include refrigerated, deli, grocery, dairy, meat, produce, bakery, frozen foods). The data shows that “other” plant-based dairy alternatives, which excludes milks, are experiencing explosive growth, up 50 percent. Other plant-based dairy alternatives include plant-based cheeses, creamers, butter, yogurts and ice creams. Additional data shows that the plant-based milk category is up nine percent (compared to three percent the previous year) and comprise about half the total dollar volume, at $1.6 billion while cow’s milk dollar sales are down six percent. Plant-based milk comprises 15 percent of total milk sales. Plant-based meats showed a growth of 24 percent (compared to six percent from the previous year), topping $670 million in sales. The growth in plant-based creamers had an astounding 131 percent increase, with $109 million in sales. Plant-based cheeses demonstrated a growth of 43 percent with sales of $124 million. Plant-based yogurts are growing at 55 percent, at $162 million in sales.  “The plant-based foods industry has gone from being a relatively niche market to fully mainstream,” stated Michele Simon, executive director of the PBFA. “Plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are not just for vegetarians or vegans anymore; now even mainstream consumers are enjoying these delicious and innovative options in the market today.” This is the second year the PBFA released Nielsen retail sales data. Last year, plant-based foods grew 8 percent.

One retailer that has been supporting the growing plant-based foods movement is the Phoenix-based Sprouts, which late last month celebrated the ribbon cutting at its newest store on the East Coast. The over 30,000 square foot store officially opened its doors on July 25 and is the second location in Maryland (the Ellicott City Sprouts debuted earlier this spring). The retailer, which is known for offering fresh, natural and organic foods at reasonable prices, was widely anticipated by the Towson community. The store has an intimate feel, with the produce section (a main focus of Sprouts) comprising the center or heart of the store. The store also has an in-house butcher, and much of the packaged grocery offerings are better-for-you brands, with more vegan, gluten free, plant-based options. There is great amount of emphasis placed on the health and beauty section, with more than 7,500 vitamin and bodycare products offered. Plus, for those savings-focused consumers, a third of the store is on promotion every day and Wednesdays are a double ad day (where two weeks of grocery ads overlap). To commemorate the new store, the Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation donated $20,000 to local nonprofit Living Classrooms in support of its Baltimore Urban Gardening with Students (BUGS) after school program which engages youth with hands-on activities such as gardening, cooking and creative arts. The donation will help develop the program’s nutrition education while expanding its impact to more students across Baltimore and surrounding areas. Also, as part of Sprouts’ commitment to “zero waste,” the new Towson location will donate unsold and edible groceries to the Maryland Food Bank through the grocer’s Food Rescue program. Food that is not fit for donation is provided to local cattle farms and composting facilities. Sprouts’ evolving “zero waste” initiatives help minimize food waste while reducing the impact of hunger and the company’s environmental footprint.

At the very start of this month, Weis Markets presented a $225,000 donation to the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) in support of their Mission: ABLE’s Heart of the Brave campaign, which encourages veterans and their families, corporate supporters and friends to help create an America where our most severely injured heroes have access to what they’ve earned and deserve: care, jobs and benefits.

This generous donation was generated through customer contributions during a two-week, in-store fundraising program. To support the initiative, Weis Markets and its associates encouraged customers to make small donations at Weis checkouts by rounding up their orders or purchasing $1, $3 or $5 vouchers from June 21–July 11. Weis Markets’ stores raised $195,000, and a corporate contribution rounded up the donation to $225,000. This is a significant increase from Weis’ inaugural PVA campaign over Veteran’s Day in 2017, which raised a total of $150,000 for the organization. “We are extremely grateful to our customers for their generosity and we’re proud of our many associates who helped generate this donation, which was a $75,000 increase over what was donated during our inaugural PVA campaign last year,” said Ron Bonacci, vice president of advertising and marketing for Weis. “Paralyzed Veterans of America provides much-needed support to veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country. We are pleased to be working in support of this deserving cause.” With more than 42,000 American veterans living with spinal cord-related paralysis, PVA’s mission is to create an America where the most severely injured veterans are provided the physical care needed to live a healthy life, receive the benefits they’ve earned through military service and obtain job training and opportunities for new and fulfilling careers.

The Safeway Foundation awarded $336,500 in grant donations to 13 local and regional organizations supporting cancer research, testing and treatment programs.  The monies come from funds raised during an in-store donation campaign throughout the month of May at all Safeway stores in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Florida and the District of Columbia. The organizations receiving the grants are: American Institute for Cancer Research, Arlington Free Clinic, Bayhealth Foundation, Children’s Research Institute, Christ House, Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, Doctors Community Hospital, Hope Connections for Cancer Support, National Foundation for Cancer Research, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, The Children’s Cancer Foundation, The George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates Mammovan and The National Pancreas Foundation. “Safeway has a long tradition of supporting causes that positively impact our communities, and we are proud to contribute funding to these 13 organizations that provide vital research on the prevention and treatment of cancers,” said Jim Perkins, then the eastern division president (just before presstime, Tom Lofland was appointed Safeway Eastern division president; Perkins remains an Albertsons EVP and president of the company’s Acme Markets division based in Malvern, PA). “With the generosity of our customers’ charitable contributions, Safeway Foundation and Safeway are able to provide grants and fund even more organizations this year.”

Also gearing up to raise big funds for cancer is Giant Food. Last month, the retailer hosted all 166 of its store managers at the company headquarters in Landover, MD for this year’s Pediatric Cancer Campaign Kick-Off. This year’s campaign, themed “Fight Childhood Cancer: Find the Super Hero in You,” starts August 17 and runs through October 11 with the goal of raising more than $2 million dollars to benefit the Johnson Hopkins Pediatric Oncology Department and the Children’s Cancer Foundation. Coupon books worth $50 in savings will be sold at all Giant Food stores with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the campaign. The morning was emceed by Dave Johnson, the voice of the Washington Wizards. Giant Food’s Ira Kress (SVP of store operations), Robert Belcher (regional vice president of region 10) and Toni Judy (regional vice president of region 9) all spoke about the upcoming campaign and its importance to Giant, children and their families and the community.  Dr. Donald Small, the director of the Johns Hopkins division of Pediatric Oncology Kimmel Cancer Center discussed the impact of the campaign on research, and Tasha Museles, the executive director of the Children’s Cancer Foundation thanked Giant for continued support. “Super Fighter Champion” trophies were awarded to district director Kevin Timmons and store manager Joe Donati for raising the most money last year during the campaign.  The trophies will be passed on to the leading district director and store manager of this year’s campaign. The real stars of the day, though, were the two of the three Giant Food Ambassadors in attendance, Ashley (11 years old) and Willian (14), who spoke about their experiences with cancer. Each showed wisdom and strength not typical of someone of their youth and both truly embodied this year’s superhero theme.  Learn more about their stories by watching this video: https://vimeo.com/279531002/1776641fa5

Until next month…