Mike Vail held up a package of lettuce grown by Lef Farms in Loudon at the entrance of Hannaford Supermarkets off South River Road in Bedford, touting the company’s efforts to make sure the freshest produce is on display as customers walk in.
The president of the company then pointed to California strawberries, which on this particular afternoon took center stage.
“This is where we really try to show off our heritage,” Vail said. “Our company started in 1883 as part of a produce wagon on Commercial Street in Portland, Maine.”
The grocery industry has changed dramatically since those days of carts lining cobblestone streets. The pandemic only accelerated further changes and increased demand for grab-and-go meals and online shopping options.
Vail showed off the 67,000-square-foot store, which opened in 2016, as part of an interview with the Union Leader to catch up on the industry. Hannaford has 36 stores in New Hampshire and 149 stores throughout Maine, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts.
Market Basket and Shaw’s Supermarket continue to be Hannaford’s primary competitors. Market Basket stores typically have larger footprints, but Hannaford has four more locations in New Hampshire.
Success in the grocery industry rests on staying on top of customer demand.
During the tour, produce manager Justin Lavallee showed off a tablet that determines what products need to be replenished. A red “inventory alert” appeared on the screen telling him there was a need for more Snack Pal grapes.
“It projects what we think we should do, and we tailor those to the business needs of those days and the weather,” Lavallee said.
“Guiding Stars” labels are posted on items to help customers choose nutritious foods. Dieticians are available at different times and online.
The number of people buying seafood has drastically increased, and Hannaford offers ready-to-cook meals. Vail said some stats showed up to 70% of people only ate seafood at restaurants before COVID.
The deli department now offers packages of freshly sliced meat and also uses a tablet to keep up with demand.
“It is all sliced here locally at the store,” Vail said. “It is really fresh, and 50% of our deli sales are coming out of that case, so more people are opting not to take a number and wait.”
The technology helps the company fulfill its commitment to sustainability in donating to local food banks and making sure no food waste goes to the landfill.
The shelves took a big hit early in the pandemic when many food producers struggled with raw materials, manufacturing and shipping.
“We struggled to have the assortment we were used to having,” Vail said. “It has caused us to have to search all around the company to find unique and different products that had different names on them. Some of them, like paper towels and toilet paper, came from outside of the country.”
The in-stock percentage dropped to about 50% at the height of the pandemic and is now hovering in the high 80s. Vail would like to see it in the high 90s.
Customers can be picky even down to the weight of products, which became a challenge with supply chain issues during the pandemic. Think Cheerios.
“If I didn’t have the 22-ounce Cheerios then Hannaford let them down, and they were frustrated with us,” Vail said. “It was a challenge meeting customer expectations on the backside of COVID.”
Grocery stores and their customers also have been challenged by rising prices, in part caused by pandemic-related shortages.
Vail said the prices of some items — especially eggs — have dropped after “unprecedented” levels of inflation. He said increased labor and distribution costs are being passed on to the customer.
“So even if the raw materials costs come back down, you’ll see inflation levels drop, but you might now see deflation,” Vail said.
Local products include Ben’s Sugar Shack in Temple, Port City Pretzels in Portsmouth and Popzup Popcorn in Dover. Craft beer offerings have also increased.
Some consumer trends have shifted to more cage-free eggs and variations of milk over the past decade.
Shopping from home
Many shoppers might be hesitant to have another person pick up what they need, especially produce. But online ordering has become a staple of the grocery business, accounting for nearly 10% of Hannaford’s sales.
Donna Locke, who has worked at the store for six years, shops for produce as if she is buying for herself.
“I’m picky,” she said. “It takes me a while to pick out apples because this time of year they are not perfect, but I make sure they’re perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a complaint.”
The equipment showed an order for Pearl Milling Co. pancake mix, which Julia Theriault, who was being trained, picked up and scanned with a device on her right pointer finger.
“It yells at you if it’s not the right item,” Locke said.
Hannaford Supermarkets has rolled out Hannaford To Go at more than 90% of its stores. Customers order online and pick up their groceries in a designated area in the parking lot or, depending on the store and location, can have them delivered.
Theriault, who attends Southern New Hampshire University, could qualify for tuition reimbursement if she works at least 10 hours a week, a benefit the company offers in a competitive job market.
A “now hiring” sign touted flexible schedules, time-and-a-half on Sundays and associate rewards and perks.
Vail began in the retail industry as a part-time bagger in high school and college. After graduating Colby College, he enrolled in the company’s retail management trainee program.
Hannaford also offers perks to retain customers. Its loyalty programs shows offers through a smartphone application. The company has more than 2 million My Hannaford reward members.
“Couponing is different for people,” he said. “It used to be that it was all cutting coupons out of the flyers. Now electronic coupons are so prevalent and so powerful because they are customized.”
Vail said Hannaford’s private brands, which includes the Taste of Inspirations line, also offer value for customers.
The stores now feature plenty of organic and gluten-free options. The sale of plant-based alternatives to meat has increased by 30% in the past few years.
Shoppers Sarah Whitney and Vincent Billetdeaux of Bedford were intently looking at the labels at hot sauces to make their own hummus as part of a low-sodium diet.
“We started making more things at home,” Whitney told Vail.firstname.lastname@example.org