retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — While the topics and presenters for the concluding day of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) annual Midwinter Executive Conference were far from the usual, the topics they focused on clearly highlighted some of the core challenges coming for the industry.

Those challenges, not surprisingly, are important, complex and inevitable.

First, the speakers were probably the two youngest ever on the program. Jason Dorsey, who focused on the challenges of employing, serving and understanding Gen Y, is 35; Nate Silver, the researcher who famously predicted the 2012 presidential election with complete accuracy, is 36.

As if to amplify Dorsey’s point that no generation is monolithic, the two could not have employed more opposite speaking styles. Dorsey was borderline theatric in reviewing the special quirks of Gen Y. Silver, in contrast, could be charitably called awkward.

Yet, Silver’s points about data analysis, coming on the heels of Monday’s Big Data heavy presentations, were essential. Silver highlighted some of the failures we all make in analyzing data, using as an example the 2012 election and the numerous pundits who badly miscalled the election. As Silver said, the challenge comes in accepting the biases that impact the handling of the data, plus the background of those using the data, which influences what they know and what they see.

Silver demonstrated how data can produce results when the conditions are correct, which requires context in the form of significant data, a culture that accepts the findings and potential of new thinking, and competition that creates urgency for using the data.

In many ways that exact model speaks to the recent past of the industry. Just about 25 years ago, supermarket widely claimed a world-class supply chain only to discover significant inefficiencies once “non-traditional” operators like Walmart and Costco expanded into the food industry. In other words, the industry had context and culture, but it took a new competitive force to create widespread change and improvement.

Some of that new thinking could flow from younger employees, but as Dorsey explained, Gen Y needs its own special handling to succeed. The young generation, which is larger than the Baby Boom and soon to eclipse it in spending power, is creating challenges for employers and marketers.

Dorsey said that Gen Y requires some different understanding. For example, on average members of the generation are moving out of their parent’s homes, getting married and having children at far later ages than all preceding generations. He actually sees the generation splitting in two as some Gen Y’ers are moving on with life activities at around age 30, while others do not. So in addition to understanding multiple generations in the workplace and consumer population, companies need to understand how people of the same age will behave differently based on where they were raised, their parents and their upbringing.

What’s more they are also getting their first job experiences later, which means they don’t always know the protocols for many work behaviors. (Or, as he pointed out, they also don’t understanding shopping and cooking very well.)

Companies need adjust their communication policies to succeed, including a greater reliance on texting, social media and visual demonstrations. Doing so can overcome even the most basic issues, from dress codes in the workplace to simple decision making in supermarket aisles.

All together, it’s a picture of a brave—and scary—new world.
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