Three Lessons Grocers can Learn from Specialty Retailers

Five years ago, the retail experiences we see in stores today would have been unrecognizable.

With accelerated customer expectations forcing retailers to think creatively, customer engagement strategies are on the rise. With refreshed apps, streamlined loyalty programs and experimental presences in-store and in the metaverse, retailers have gone above and beyond to entice and retain customers. For many, it has worked. 

For many in the grocery industry, however, adopting these practices has been slower.

While most supermarkets prioritized developments that facilitated COVID-era shopping behaviors like grocery delivery, curbside pickup or self-checkout, grocery shoppers are now looking for improved in-store experiences. 


As prices rise with inflation and consumers become more selective about where they shop, grocers have much to learn from specialty brands’ experiential retail success. Now more than ever is the time to lean into new best practices to propel forward in an ever-evolving economy. The influence of a positive in-store experience has the power to sway customers to become regulars of a store and loyal followers to a brand. 

In my role as CEO of Zipline, I’m constantly speaking with retailers and their associates to learn more about what’s new, what’s working and what trends — or challenges — they’re hearing from customers. Here are three lessons for grocers seeking to improve their in-store experiences: 

#1: Invest in People-First Experiences

Many grocery stores built partnerships with digital food delivery companies to ensure their customers could get what they needed safely and time-efficiently. The challenge now is to create an environment that improves customer loyalty, increases basket size and encourages brand advocacy.

For some stores, this may mean reintroducing in-store taste testing or organizing a pop-up cooking class to humanize their brand and encourage their community to see their store as more than just a place to buy dinner. Local grocers also have invested heavily in regional product arrays to differentiate their shopping experience. Offering locally sourced specialty foods and artisanal products helps entice new customers and size up against grocers that compete exclusively on price. 

Hy-Vee, a chain of supermarkets in the Midwest and South, has executed this strategy in a reimagined store in Missouri, launching new mobile payment features, a nostalgic and novelty candy shop, several in-store dining experiences, a pharmacy, a beauty shop and more. As a result, they’ve built out a one-stop shop for customers where they can pick up ingredients, shop for gifts, purchase medicine and explore new products. 

Similarly, Lowes Foods has prioritized unique experiences, opting for entertainment-based enhancements to its 80 full-service supermarkets. From tapping employees to participate in short performances when customers’ food is ready to creating a built-in DIY beer station where shoppers can fill and take home beers from taps, the brand has taken customers’ suggestions to heart. The company’s president Tim Lowe has already seen a difference, noting a solid lift in sales since initiating the new programs. 

Grocers should also consider ways to show up outside the store and branch outside traditional ways of working. They are experimenting with various engaging shopping experiences — not just building “end-caps.”

For example, family-owned Wisconsin grocer Festival Foods hosted its 15th annual Turkey Trot this year in Eau Claire, Wis. to raise money for local charities. In doing so, they’ve created an emotional connection woven within the community. In order to make these experiences successful and build a community around the brand, stores will need a platform to help track progress, help team members collaborate and measure the success of these processes. If one store finds lightning in a bottle, there needs to be a way to replicate that in other stores.

#2: Recruit Responsibly

The employees who work in your stores can be your customers’ best and most memorable impression of your brand. Recruiting the right talent is about more than just filling positions. Attracting and hiring employees that can foster a culture of community is critical to elevating the experience and driving customer loyalty. 

When filling new positions, look out for employees with previous experience at stores and brands that use experiential retail, like Nike, Farfetch and Glossier, and ask the right questions: How do you see us bridging the gap between online and offline grocery shopping? What experiences are you looking for at the grocery store? What opportunities do you see in our store?

L.L.Bean, a retailer specializing in clothing and outdoor recreation equipment, holds its associates, or “Store Guides,” to high standards — tasking them with sharing their knowledge of the outdoors with customers and upholding merchandise presentation standards, promoting company programs and handling day-to-day operations. Across L.L.Bean’s more than 50 retail locations, Store Guides keep the company’s core values alive, providing world-class customer service to help customers enjoy and discover the outdoors.

Improving your grocery stores’ experiences begins with creating a band of trusted and informed team members. Don’t underestimate the importance of hiring the right associates, as they’re also your best brand ambassadors and the people closest to the customer. 

#3: Ensure Operational Ease with Communications 

By investing in a single source of truth through a task management and communications platform, grocers can streamline building new experiences while ensuring team members are all on the same page. 

With an effective communications solution, grocers will be able to facilitate, standardize and scale the increased complexity of operations. Aligning all employees becomes especially important when working across dozens of departments within a store. It also ensures a consistent brand experience for customers regardless of which location they shop. Even more, advanced communications technology provides essential context that enables employees to be better store leaders, resulting in a higher engagement rate and reduced turnover.

Today, grocers have access to more tools and resources than ever before, including new tech and key industry learnings. During the pandemic, Hy-Vee sent daily videos to store associates. In these messages, employees were briefed on how corporate leaders were working to support store teams, aligning the field with a common message. Store teams should learn to take advantage of tech and use it to better execute their goals in 2023. 

The grocery industry has been lucky not to have the pendulum swing from the COVID closures of specialty retail. People still had to buy groceries, but inflation required grocers to focus their assortments on more essential SKUs. Still, the ways customers shop for groceries are ever-evolving amid inflation and changing consumer habits. Now is the time for grocers to embrace changes, learn from specialty retailers and keep pace with modern trends. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes (shouldn’t be too hard to do!) and think: what do I want to get out of the grocery shopping experience? Then do it. 

As Co-founder and CEO of Zipline, a unified platform for operational excellence, Melissa Wong aims to improve the lives of retail associates by ensuring they feel valued and have the resources they need to excel in their jobs. With over ten years of experience in corporate communications working with disparate teams, Wong launched Zipline to streamline and simplify the way brands communicate from headquarters to the frontline. She studied at Bates College and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

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