Brave new world for shoppers
Creating new services or matching those created by competitors is how for decades locally-based retailers have coped with an ever-more crowded playing field that has grown increasingly global.
This week a marriage of shopping and technology was unveiled by one local retailer, that will be closely watched by leaders of other small-to-midsized operations near and far. “Cannata’s Curbside” allows consumers to choose fresh fruits, fish and meats from home or work on tablets, laptops and smartphones, along with boxed, canned and bottled items, for later pickup at the store.
Professional employee shoppers at the chain’s West Park Avenue location can receive specific instructions from clients that could include the desired color range of individual bananas, or the preferred ripeness of avocadoes. Consumers who have used the service on a test basis are raving so far.
AREA WAS RIPE
Company president Vince Cannata says he recognizes that the program will at first appeal to a more select subgroup of shopper. But he is also confident that it allows greater room for growth in an age where online operations like Amazon and NetGrocer stake claims in the grocery business on a slow but steady basis.
“We’ve partnered with a software team that are experts in e-commerce, and they know grocery, so they are able to implement something that works well for our customers and is perfectly aligned with all of our in-store systems and circulars,” Cannata said. “With the increasing popularity of online grocery shopping, the Bayou Area seemed ripe for a local option. Cannata’s Curbside offers the same high-quality products that are available in our stores, along with the trusted, personalized service our customers have come to expect.”
The program, rolled out Monday, bears some similarities to the e-mail based service Rouses offers to marine customers and their land-based operations. Both locally-based retailers have successfully developed consumer-based ordering from their websites for King Cakes, as well as catering for home or office and multi-course holiday dinners with all the trimmings. Cannata’s Curbside is seen as one of the more daring local innovations, however, and will be closely watched.
“We, as well as many other grocers in the country, are working on curbside pickup, where you can order online,” said Rouses managing partner Donny Rouse. “Many grocers have tried in the past and been unsuccessful with it and have lost money. But everyone is still figuring out how to make it work and what to do with it. For our marine business we have complete online ordering, delivery and pickup. For us to offer it to everyone, all we need to do is flip a switch and it would be available. But we would need to make sure we could handle the business.”
The innovation comes at a crucial time for Cannata’s. Walmart has just opened its newest Neighborhood Market store directly across Westside Boulevard from the Cannata’s flagship store, the second to open locally within the past year. The first is near Thibodaux, at West Main and Percy Brown Road. Walmart has its own curbside pickup service in select markets, though it has not gone online in Thibodaux. Availability for the new Houma store has not yet been announced.
The competitive consequences of having Walmart move in literally across the street are understood and acknowledged by Cannata, whose plans are to continue with a long-standing formula of fresh produce, meats hand-cut by in-store butchers and a focus on local seafood and produce.
“We excel in freshness, service, and quality, and that’s what we see as our greatest competitive edge,” said Cannata, who began laying the groundwork for Cannata’s Curbside more than a year and a half ago, before he knew that Walmart would become his new next-door neighbor. “I was looking for a new web solution and this is the right combination. We also offer value, and that’s quite evident in our weekly specials and regular prices, and all of that is part of our website too, as well as our newspaper ads.”
Cannata was first introduced to the concept of curbside for a smaller store organization at a grocer’s convention, where he met Brian Moyer, CEO of Freshop, which developed the software and related applications upon which the program is based. Moyer has a strong retail grocery background.
“We developed an online grocery solution for the independent grocer, a very specialized area of commerce,” Moyer said. “We spent a year writing our platform for Foodtown, which has 80 stores in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”
The initial model was to facilitate deliveries, but Moyer says that makes sense in New York City and certain other communities where neighborhoods are compact. In smaller communities that are more spread out, curbside seemed a better than reasonable alternative.
“Most communities have the same needs,” Moyer said. “You have busy people, you have the soccer mom who doesn’t want to get out of the car. This is not Amazon, it’s not diapers and rice. This is eggs and milk and bananas. It’s not e-commerce, it’s the way the independent grocer is going to compete against Walmart and everybody else.”
Julie Steigner, a Houma mother of two who operates a concierge business, no doubt fits the profile.
The tech-savvy Steigner was among consumers doing a “Beta” test of the program for nearly two months and all she can do is rave.
“I have friends with young children and on this test I have been sworn to secrecy, but I have been telling them there is going to be an announcement that will change the lives of women with families, a game-changer as to quality of life, where you do not have to fight the lines in the grocery store with the little kids,” Steigner said. “Why should I struggle at the store with the kids for 45 minutes or an hour when I can do this in five minutes? It was on every level fantastic. I ordered from every department, frozen foods, the deli, seafood, fresh produce, fresh meat and seafood. To an item everything was perfect. If there was ever a question they called me and asked for clarity.”
On one order Steigner asked for Vidalia onions. A shopper called her and said the store had sweet onions, but not the Vidalias, and asked if the substitution was okay.
For Nancy St. Martin – who has six children with only one left at home – the program worked well.
“It was awesome. It was easy to do as far as ordering and picking up. And when they say it will be ready at 3 o’clock, it’s 3 o’clock. I wish it was around ten years ago when I had little children. Absolutely it will be part of my weekly repertoire.”
She plans to use it differently. The convenience of online ordering will allow more time, she said, for her and her physician husband, Bill, to personally choose specialty items.
The in-house shoppers, Cannata said, are key to the success of the operation. He utilizes mature employees who have experience shopping for the store’s commercial customers, and also for themselves. The looming question, however, is whether the level of service Steigner and other testers raved about in interviews can be sustained.
“I would say we can easily do so,” Cannata replied. “With the work we do in the marine business, we know we have the ability to shop, we have done that for a long time. If I get the volume I can handle it, I can easily scale it up.”
There are built-in safeguards for now that will likely keep the store from getting overwhelmed. The service is not free. Cannata’s charges a $5.95 premium. Initially, the consumers likely most attracted will be those not only pressed for time, but who are facile enough with technology to feel comfortable with the cell phone, tablet or home computer interface.
Steigner said that wasn’t a problem for her. The company she owns, Bon Bon Vie, has assignments that require techno facility.
“You are not trying to convert regular shoppers to online shoppers,” explains Freshop’s Brian Moyer, whose program is on the way to being operable at 500 stores in 22 states. “The person who is shopping online, if they need training it isn’t for them.”
A future generation of shoppers, he suggests, will likely be more comfortable overall with the technology.
The program allows for children to make suggested lists for parents using their own smart phones or other gadgets to aid each individual’s own shopping experiences.
WOLF AT THE DOOR
Despite Cannata’s demurral of a connection between the “Cannata’s Curbside” rollout and the opening of the new Walmart, Moyer says there is little mistaking for independent grocers that the retail giant poses a most immediate threat, and that his program is an important tool for competition and survival.
“These independents are all fighting Walmart for customers,” Moyer said. “For Cannata’s, they are getting out there and being the first in that region and that’s really important.”
It’s a dilemma Donny Rouse understands well.
“We have their Neighborhood Markets next door to many of our stores,” Rouse said. “It seems to be Walmart’s plan to place these next to independent grocers in the communities and it is very unfortunate that we have cities allowing this to happen.”
Like Cannata, Rouse says his customers are well aware of differences in the shopping experience.
Both Cannata and Rouse can easily tick off differences.
“We have in-store butchers who cut every slice of meat, who hand-grind beef,” Cannata says. “Our meats don’t come from faraway places where they are mass-packed with gasses or solutions used to preserve their color.”
The Walmart Neighborhood Market in Houma opens Wednesday, part of a nationwide push for easy access and often quick purchases of milk or bread or items for that night’s dinner, according to company spokeswoman Anne Hatfield. She said a date for curbside service at the Houma store has not been set, but noted that customers in New Orleans and other markets where it is used “love it.”
The company’s venue choices, she said, are “in response to growing demand for access to fresh and affordable food, plain and simple.”
“The processes and systems we put in place are industry standards of which customers approve, in terms of safety, quality, efficiency, value and freshness,” Hatfield said. “Everybody is looking for a good value and that is what we bring to people, is fresh, affordable food at great prices.”
Cannata expresses confidence that his current customer base will remain loyal. Cannata’s Curbside, he said, will provide one more reason for them to do so.
“Our curbside service is just adding technology to what we have always been best at, and that is customer service, we are locals, headquartered here and really do care,” said Cannata, who added that the technology still relies on what has always been one of his store’s greatest assets. “Our staff has always prided itself on being part of a family business, in fact we have families that work with us and depend on our stores for their livelihoods. We all live here and everybody’s proud to offer one more service that makes life easier for our customers.” •
Lana Scott, a grocery buyer, peruses produce at the Cannata’s Market on West Park Avenue. She is one of several trusted employees now selecting groceries for the store’s new, digitally-based “Curbside” shop-at-home and pick-up service.