Retail executive of the year

The center store gets a makeover under the direction of Shawne Murphy Johnson, Supervalu’s group vice president of brand strategy and marketing.

By John Karolefski

When Shawne Murphy Johnson joined Supervalu in 2007 as vice president of brand marketing, she brought along two decades of experience as an ad agency executive serving such clients as Gen­eral Mills, Ocean Spray and Dom­ino’s Pizza. As a professional and a consumer, she was well ac­quainted with the components of an en­joy­able shopping experience.

What she saw in the center store of most of the Supervalu banners did not meet her expectations.

“Our stores were inundated with item, price and promotional signage being sent to our stores from multiple places including our corporate merchandising and marketing de­partments, our CPG partners and the banners themselves,” she says. “Everyone was working hard to make their message the loudest and stand out above all the other noise at the shelf. That led to so much clutter that customers were feeling overwhelmed by it, or simply didn’t read it at all.”

Indeed, the center store aisles of most supermarkets over the years have been heavily festooned. Shoppers nowadays prefer to cruise the jazzy perimeter departments rather than steer their grocery carts down long aisles where gondolas face off in an environment of promotional hubbub.

When Murphy Johnson became group vice president of brand strategy and marketing of the $38 billion company, she was in a position to do something about the situation. Today, in the aftermath of a complete upgrade of the center store in all Supervalu banners, the results are delighted shoppers and a sleeker and more inviting department.

Many retailers over the years have taken on the challenge of dealing with the uninviting and cluttered center store that was losing shopper traffic. Given the size and scope of Supervalu’s bold initiative spearheaded by Murphy Johnson, Grocery Headquarters named her its Retail Executive of the Year.

“The path to invigorating the shopping experience is a long one and we’re in it for the long haul,” she stresses. “Not only is it the right thing to do for our customers, but we’re confident that we’ll drive more sales and gain cost efficiencies while we’re at it.”

This confidence is based on research that found that developing a more unified look and feel using design and graphic elements makes it easier for shoppers to navigate the center store. The change includes reducing the amount of messaging and simplifying the look of everything from signs to tags hanging at the shelf.

Building the brand

At the same time, the changes sought to improve brand awareness while communicating value and urgency in the aisle.

“By supporting our brands and engaging consumers during the decision-making moments at the shelf,” she explains, “we’re creating both an emotional and rational connection that helps differentiate us in the marketplace. This in turn drives loyalty and ultimately basket size as shoppers increase the frequency of their visits.”

Supervalu’s in-store brand marketing strategy consists of three core elements designed to invigorate the shopping experience:

Creating a signing communication hierarchy that aligns with how the consumer  best interacts based on sightlines and the purpose of the message;

Using a more simplified approach to signage that does not overcrowd or duplicate information found elsewhere; and

De-cluttering the store environment to allow increased visibility of brand and value messaging while simplifying the shopping experience.

To achieve these lofty goals, Murphy Johnson reports that Supervalu needed a partner willing to break away from the status quo and think about new ways to engage shoppers in-aisle. That partner was Valassis, a media and marketing services company based in Livonia, Mich. She credits the collaboration with the ability to deliver best-in-class at-shelf marketing programs that are already surpassing national standards for in-store execution.

“They’ve been instrumental in helping us deliver the dramatic changes we needed,” she says. “For example, not only did we reduce the size of our tactics by an average of 32%, which makes it easier for shoppers to navigate the aisles, but we reduced the amount of tactics we use by over 25%. Giving very specific guidelines to the representatives who install the tactics was a critical component as well. Not only did we institute best-in-class standards around placement, but we now have greater visibility and control over what we’re communicating in our stores.”

The focus was simplifying the tactics to ensure supporting the goal of creating easy-to-shop categories. That meant eliminating oversized items dangling from the shelf and sticking out into the aisles. At the same time, the partners also came up with an at-shelf leaflet dispenser called InfoPOP that boosts brands via recipes, rebates, sweepstakes and other promotions.

“The thing that really intrigued me,” says Murphy Johnson, “was the opportunity to get that much closer to the customer, to really be there to figure out what it was she needed and how we—as an organization—could meet those needs.

“Some of these banners have been in markets for 150 years,” she says. “Shoppers talk about their mother or grandmother shopping there. But how do you make the store relevant for what they need for today, which is really what this center store work is all about? We need to understand what today’s customer is looking for and how do we serve her at one of our banners?”

Those well-known banners include Albertsons, Jewel-Osco, Cub Foods, Shaw’s, ACME and others. The re-engineering goes beyond these corporate retail banners to include over 650 independent retailers across Supervalu’s network of owned and supplied stores. In all, 1,780 stores are affected by the initiative.

At the beginning of the project, Supervalu learned it had an opportunity for significant improvement from the work on audits of store environments and those of best-in-class competitors using research tools like eye-tracking studies and focus groups.

In addition to its own research, Supervalu benefited from the partnership with a variety of CPG manufacturers along the path to improving the shopping experience. In some cases, the work involved a virtual environment by conducting both online attitudinal comparisons and in-market eye tracking research to better understand how to refine the tag design and improve the ability to identify savings on the tags.

“Not only does our optimized tag boost value perceptions at the shelf, but we’ll be able to deliver significant savings to the organization by reducing the number of tag and sign stocks across the enterprise,” explains Murphy Johnson. “We also continually engage our CPG partners to ensure that we’re making it easier for our shoppers to find and experience great brands throughout our stores. We’re using this same approach to generate trial and incremental sales for our private brands products—something that was much more difficult to do before. What’s so exciting about our early results is that we’ve been able to cut back the clutter yet still drive brand awareness for participating partners in a way that’s reengaged the customer. It‘s truly a win-win for all involved.”

At the same time this work was underway, Supervalu reviewed its in-store sampling and demo program with an eye to making improvements. Murphy Johnson believes that these promotions can really add to the shopping experience for the consumer, particularly for creating awareness of new products.

Sampling strategy

But what she often saw in her own stores and in those of competitors was a tired promotion with “Mable at the Table.” In other words, it was a lifeless “sample-on-a-cracker” approach that lacked meaningful shopper contact.

So Supervalu partnered with a new demo provider, and created Good Things in Store, to completely overhaul the promotion and create an engaging experience.

“It’s really much more about helping Mom with solutions; that is, show Mom how products can benefit her in everyday life. She has the opportunity not only to try the product, but actually to understand how that product might work with something else,” explains Murphy Johnson.

For example, a sampled product would be paired with a non-competing branded or private brand product. So, if somebody wanted to sample a salsa, Supervalu would add a Culinary Circle cracker and a local cheese to create an appetizer.

Supervalu is now relying on the same sample and demo firm to ensure consistent performance in every store that deploys the promotion. Food makers don’t have to discover what the program is and how it works in each banner because it is the same across the chains. It is win-win for vendor partners and for shoppers.

Murphy Johnson is proud of the work of the new sampling and demo firm, as she is of Supervalu’s marketing team composed of people who are diverse both in culture and experience in such areas as retail, packaged goods, and advertising. Collectively, they have been focused on a singular goal.

“We’ve been working against a strategic objective to simplify the in-store experience for our shoppers for well over a year now,” she says. “We’re excited to see this latest phase related to at-shelf messaging come to life in June of this year. We’re also working on initiatives to simplify our tags and item/price signage throughout all of our stores which make it easier for us to deliver consistent and clear value messages at-shelf.

“We’ve made a significant investment in our efforts and we’re confident that we’ll see a significant return.”

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