An Independent Voice: Mixing and mingling

Independent grocers such as Giant Eagle are leading the way when it comes to harnessing the power of social media.

By Jane Olszeski Tortola

Over the past several years, supermarket retailers across the country have begun to embrace the powerful world of social media as a way to connect directly with customers, increase visibility and ultimately grow their businesses. It is not just the big retailers that are riding this media wave.

Among the leaders of the social e-commerce movement in the food industry is privately held Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, which operates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

Company officials are certain that social networking is shaping the economic landscape and will do so for years to come. Thus, they are committed to using social media to enhance its already dominant marketing strategy.

Leading the digital and online marketing efforts of Giant Eagle is senior manager Donna Pahel. A graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where she majored in visual communications, and Robert Morris University, where she earned a degree in organizational studies, Pahel joined the supermarket just over two years ago.

As a member of the Giant Eagle management team, Pahel is responsible for developing and driving enterprise-wide social media and consumer mobile application strategies and execution. She reports that the company actively engages customers using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“The retail food industry is an extremely fast-paced environment. Being a real-time marketing tool, social media has the ability to greatly influence our reach and engagement with our customers,” explains Pahel. “It’s extremely effective in enabling real-time insights and two-way dialogue with consumers and use of these vehicles has become an important part of our overall strategy.”

She says the retailer is constantly evaluating the latest social media tools. “One of our greatest challenges is determining which of these technologies will work best for our business and, more importantly, for our customers. The space is rapidly progressing and we’re careful to test often, but not test everything.”

She adds that digital marketing is a core component of Giant Eagle’s overall marketing strategy, extending the reach and engagement of more traditional vehicles such as television, radio and print. “Our digital strategy is based on the primal tenets of listening, talking, acting and monitoring,” she says.

Pahel believes the most important lesson to be learned by independent retailers is that social media must be viewed as a long-term relationship with customers.

“You have to be engaged in dialogue with customers on multiple topics, wheth­er those topics are initiated by you or them,” she explains. “Customers will quickly become disinterested if you use social media to communicate what is important to you, as opposed what is important to them.”

Likewise, the company uses social media as one way of communicating with it’s 30,000 plus associates. “To ensure that we speak with a clear and consistent voice, we have a social media policy in place that outlines who from the organization should be commenting on the company’s behalf,” Pahel confirmed.

Regarding how the Facebooks, Twitters, and YouTubes of the world will impact the supermarket business in the future, she concluded, “Social media will allow us to deliver information to our customers where and when they want it. It’s the only marketing vehicle that allows for real-time dialogue, maximizing customer convenience.”

“Looking toward the future, a food retailer’s success in the social media realm will be driven by one thing—their ability to improve the quality of this dialogue.”

Jane Olszeski Tortola, a regular columnist for Grocery Headquarters, devoted more than three decades of her career to working at a family-owned supermarket company founded by her late father. She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and is active in a number of food industry organizations. She can be reached at

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