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FMI's Sarasin on crafting the 'next normal'

FMI Midwinter

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WASHINGTON — Thomas Wolff famously wrote “you can’t go home again,” and FMI president and chief executive officer Leslie Sarasin said Tuesday that food retailers will face a similar reality when the COVID-19 pandemic finally ends.

“There simply is no going back to the normal we knew before the pandemic,” she said. “We’ve changed, the world has changed, and we can’t expect to return to an environment exactly like we had previously.”

Speaking at the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference on Tuesday, Sarasin urged the industry to help shape what comes next.

Leslie Sarasin

Leslie Sarasin

“The food industry has the somewhat unique opportunity to take the changes foisted upon us and continue to direct them, modify them, and improve them,” she said. “We in this industry are uniquely positioned to actually write this new narrative going forward.  We can help shape the next normal and make it better than our previous normal, and in so doing, we can play a role in helping heal our families, communities and the world at large, making them stronger than they were before.

“As I heard former FMI Chairman of the Board Ric Jurgens say on many occasions, ‘If you can make a difference, you should.’ So, I say to all of you today, We can, and we should.”

Sarasin’s remarks came on the second day of a conference that is being held online for the first time, complete with educational sessions, panel discussions, and virtual networking events. The food industry — including grocery retailers and their suppliers — has likewise shown an ability to respond quickly to the pandemic and the way it has changed consumer needs and priorities.

“Over the past few years, we at FMI have talked a lot about the ramped-up pace of change in our industry, but I would suggest that the pace of change instigated by COVID-19 made the changes we faced over the past decade look like they occurred in slow motion,” Sarasin said. “Yes, many of the changes taking place in our marketplaces were already underway, but the pandemic accelerated them exponentially.

“But the important point we must remember is that while we encountered daily challenges in some areas, we kept pace with the accelerated change COVID-19 cast our way and the industry and American families are in a much better place because of these extraordinary efforts than they would’ve been without them.  We proved to be unexpectedly facile, adapting as needed to continue feeding families and enriching lives. Especially at the outset of the pandemic when conflicting directives were flying, and mushy, unclear guidelines were being offered, we moved quickly to act on the most reliable sources we could find to keep our associates and our customers safe.  And as our new FMI Anthem says, you kept the country fed.”

Sarasin noted that the pandemic has created an opportunity for grocery retailers.

FMI Midwinter Logo“In some ways, the pandemic turned back the food industry clock some 50 years to an age when folks cooked more, took a more “stock up” approach to their grocery shopping and spent most of their food dollars at the supermarket,” she said. “This flashback to days-gone-by provides the food retail industry with a unique opportunity to explore the things it could do differently this time around to better address customers’ need for convenience, affordability and sustainably-produced foods.  It offers us some surprising prospects to retain shoppers’ loyalty through better helping them achieve their families’ health and wellbeing goals while providing them a feeling of comfort and family time.  It’s not often we get a “do-over” in life, but in many ways the pandemic has provided us this tremendous opportunity.”

Taking advantage of that opportunity will require the industry to stay in front of consumer tastes and preferences, in the same way that a skilled soccer player can anticipate where the ball is going, instead of just chasing after it. Sarasin said FMI can help, with consumer research and other resources.

“COVID-19 has challenged us, but it has also provided us with an opportunity to show our mettle, and we’ve done extraordinarily well,” Sarasin said. “But to shape a better normal going forward, we must do even better. We must not be afraid of accomplishing great things by seizing the opportunities that have been thrust upon us. We must not be afraid to achieve greatness by taking what we’ve done well and pushing to do it even better. We must not be afraid of greatness by shying away from asking ourselves the tough questions that make us uncomfortable, and then acting on those difficult answers.

‘We simply must not be afraid of greatness if we wish to shape a better next normal.

“So I am thrilled to welcome you to FMI’s 2021 online Midwinter, where, notwithstanding the unusual circumstances, we invite you to explore new paths, strengthen your working relationships and collectively get to the ball first.”