Roopa Acharya of Albertsons Companies: What is the future of grocery retail?

00:07 | Debjani:

Welcome, Roopa. Thanks for taking the time for this fireside chat. If you would take a minute to just introduce yourself, Roopa, that would be wonderful.

00:16 | Roopa:

I am part of Albertsons’s loyalty team. In the past two and a half years since I’ve joined, I’ve led mostly customer experience journeys, so web and mobile analytics, test and target, loyalty, payments, and call center, to name a few.

What technological shifts have transpired recently?

00:32 | Debjani:

As this pandemic has unfolded, we’ve seen the entire population being heavily dependent on the grocery, and I understand that there is a significant trend up in revenue, demand, and all of that. What are the top three things that you are seeing, in regards to technology needs, that have just popped up in the course of these few months?

00:56 | Roopa:

I think one of the things that I found was, we went from 10x growth within a week or two. Thankfully, most of our eComm systems are in the cloud, and [that] was much easier. I think that that part of the whole equation—it’s not just about [the] customer. You need to also keep your systems up and running with the kind of scale we saw.

The other [thing] is the customers are now really wary of touch (coming into the store, touching pin pads). So a lot of those projects are now being executed, as something that makes sure to get the customer feeling comfortable coming in, mostly in the store space.

The third [thing] is operational excellence. It’s: how can you fulfill your order, at the best of your capability? Because [before], a customer could just drive to the nearest store and pick up the missing item. The customer is now coming to you because they don’t want to go to the store. There are a lot of things that are driving a customer coming to a digital experience, to an eCommerce fulfillment, whether it’s Drive Up and Go or delivery, and it’s very important that we actually fulfill the needs to the Nth degree possible. There was a time when a lot of items were not even; our quantity was less even in the stores, across every retailer, like toilet paper, for example. It was important for us to make sure that the customer needs are fulfilled: what we call the last mile of delivery, giving them updates, like when you can expect it. I think those things that suddenly came up became more important. A lot of emphasis and focus was put into the quality control of the delivery part of the business.

Managing through a step function increase in business

02:46 | Debjani:

I understand that you all were driving towards: “Let’s do more e-commerce.” How are you handling the systems, going through that kind of step function change?

02:56 | Roopa:

Like I said, our whole cloud journey. It’s no longer the bells and whistles; it’s about getting the customer what they want, when they want it, so getting the end-to-end journey tightened up. That was a lot of shift, in terms of our priorities. It’s not about acquiring customers—it’s now about keeping them. What’s their lifetime value, and how do we engage them? And how do we differentiate ourselves from another e-commerce grocery delivery?

What are you doing to differentiate your business?

03:36 | Debjani:

On that note, actually on that last note, which is differentiation: As you look at the future, what do you see as the things that will differentiate you?

03:46 | Roopa:

Well, I can’t go into specifics, but a lot in terms of personalization, a lot in terms of reaching the customer (the last mile of delivery). It’s very important now; the customer wants to know when they are going to get something, wants to be notified. And there is more around: how do you reach the customer? You don’t want to bombard a hundred emails a month to a customer. I think our focus is shifting to: how do we retain the customer?

How do you understand customer behavior better?

04:19 | Debjani:

Excellent. Let’s talk about contextual understanding of the customer, to understand how enterprises are looking at understanding consumer behavior, and therefore, reacting to it. My premise here is that we need to understand consumer behavior—the consumer genome, as we call it—and really understand what context means in this new world, where location is more important, where weather is more important, because the customer could be anywhere. They’re not necessarily going to the brick and mortar store. Talk to me a little bit about how you folks are thinking about consumer behavior, and how you think the enterprises in the next horizon will look at doing that.

05:04 | Roopa:

I think it’s two-fold: consumer behavior in stores and consumer behavior digitally. Both are going through a transformation, partly because of Covid, and partly just as people are engaging more digitally. When we look at consumer behavior in stores, we are actually looking at: how do we personalize it a little bit more? How do we make them more loyal? How do they come in, and how do we give them other benefits that are beyond just, “I’ve come to shop here”? And then how do we incentivize? What’s your reward mechanism? How does a customer feel valued to come back? There is Drive Up and Go, there is delivery, are there other ways that people want to come in and shop? How does it differ between when you are in a suburb vs. when you’re in New York City, for example? There is your last-minute delivery itself going through a lot of change. How do we personalize it better?

How is AI and ML used to understand customers better?

06:15 | Debjani:

How are you thinking of using AI and ML, in regards to understanding behavior and being able to service that consumer need, at a very high clip?

06:26 | Roopa:

I think, right now, AI is everywhere. I mean, the data part of: how we use data to see, “What offer should I give?” You mentioned something about weather when they are [there], and based on past purchases, based on their information, do I know if they’re…What are they allergic to, are they gluten free, are they this? There is so much more personalization that can be done, in terms of: How do we engage them, how do we reward them? Making it very context-driven; making it behavior-driven; making it more based on, not just past, but also based on predictive. How do you personalize based on predictive analysis, which is becoming more important for what is required of you.

360 view of the customer and personalization

07:11 | Debjani:

Yes, yes. [There are] two things that are very interesting to me. One is the weather personalization that you talked about. Is that something you guys are actively doing across the country?

07:22 | Roopa:

I think, once you know your customer, then you personalize. And you personalize based on weather, personalize based on other data elements. I think that’s what we’re focused on: to create that customer 360° view for us.

What will my grocery store look like 6-7 months from now?

07:35 | Debjani:

Yes, yes. And with Amazon’s Go, there is a lot of this movement towards that. I think the other day, 7-Eleven announced that they were doing some of that as well. I am just curious to know, what do you think of this trend? Do I visualize my grocery store 6-7 months from now, where I can do it all myself, or how are you guys thinking about that?

08:00 | Roopa:

[It’s] definitely our focus to make a customer be more independent: the self checkout, or even having their own app for checkout. How can we personalize it, how can we make it more interactive? I think people engagement is a big part of how we drive our stores, and how one of the things that I think Albertsons or Safeway is proud of is generations coming to us.

Customer preference and customer data

08:29 | Debjani:

Yes, of course. One of the things that I am looking at is understanding this view of, “Data is a democratized layer.” Which is that it could reside anywhere, and I should be able to get to it through my cloud infrastructure. Versus the view of the CDP that says, “The data needs to be in one place, and then I can take action.” Where do you sit in that spectrum? What is the view; is it that it could reside anywhere, and I’ll get to it, or the other?

09:00 | Roopa:

When you think about customer preferences and customer data, in terms of a central way of looking at it, there are certain things that you want to have as centralized, there are certain things that you want to manage it. There’s a lot of other things that influence what we do, from how we engage customers. Should I SMS this person an offer? This person never clicks an offer, why even give an offer? For that, that’s a different set of data, and that I think can reside where you can access it from any system.

What does the future of grocery look like?

09:36 | Debjani:

In the next two to three years, in regards to the trends in our industry (retail, broadly grocery with a subset), anything else that you are paying attention to particularly, that we should be thinking about?

09:49 | Roopa:

I think automation is one, we see a lot of focus on automation and a lot of focus on getting smart in terms of IoT. I was reading an article on smart farming, just with data and IoT, and helping farmers revolutionize how we farm. I think there is a lot happening around…one is around automation, which is more around stores, and how you can automate simple, mundane tasks, like inventory counting.

The second, I would think, is all the predictive personalization, the IoT. How great it would be if my temperature in the car was 65°, and I walk in, I drive, I get into my home, and my home is synced with my car and is 65°. Just ideas about your Alexa, and your shopping list, and your store. Everything can be so connected, with how you want your seamless experience to be. And it’s not just grocery; it’s your home, it’s your shopping list, it’s your fridge telling you your milk is over. There’s a lot that you can personalize, and you can predict, based on data.

11:03 | Debjani:

Yes, yes. Well, thank you, Roopa, for taking the time. I appreciate it, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with you.

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Last Updated: June 1, 2022

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