Capitalizing on scarcity. When the toilet paper panic of 2020 broke out, the retailers that didn’t have the buying power to increase their supply lost. While the bigger players unquestionably notched a win here because they could demand more from their suppliers, there were a few smaller chains and independents that got ahead of it and loaded up huge displays of toilet paper early. This meant that they drove more traffic to the store and ultimately saw shoppers filling their baskets with many other items while they were there.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Groff, Head of Retail for lifestyle supplement company More Labs, where he oversees the company’s retail relationships and growth. A veteran in the CPG space with more than 15 years of experience, Groff specializes in building beverage brands on a national scale. He formerly served as the VP of Sales at Brew Dr. Kombucha, the VP of Marketing at Stumptown Coffee, and the Key Accounts Director at Niagara Bottling. Groff has a degree in business administration/finance from the University of Washington and is now based in Los Angeles, CA.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was finishing my degree at University of Washington, I was working full-time as a bartender and going to school as a Finance major. After taking the summer to save some money and have some fun, I started sending out resumes…lots of resumes. After a few months of revising and resubmitting, I finally got a response from Miller Brewing, which had a Marketing Finance position available. They told me that if I was a bartender, then I must know about beer and can’t be too stuffy. Thankfully, they gave me a job and I’ve been in this amazing industry ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
This industry has been good to me in terms of rich experiences! I’ve had the opportunity to get field-level tickets to watch FC Barcelona and also had to break up a fight between grown professionals in a suite at a Pink Floyd concert — there’s never a dull moment. Probably the most interesting was sharing a roasted pig at the house of a coffee farmer and his family, high in the mountains outside of Neiva, Colombia. He was a supplier of ours at Stumptown Coffee and he invited us to his home to meet some of his fellow farmers while we were there on an education trip about coffee. The views of lush, rugged mountains covered in coffee trees and the incredible meal and conversation are something I’ll never forget.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
Oh man, I’ve made plenty of mistakes — some funny and others just embarrassing. One of the more cringe-worthy is when I replied to the wrong thread in a string of emails and shared way too much personal information with everyone on the original string, rather than the single person I intended to send it to. Everyone had some laughs at my expense as I became an open book! What I learned there is that mistakes happen to everyone. It’s natural. But what’s imperative, is to always be detailed in your work. Double check and triple check. And most important, be genuine and honest in your approach. When you do make a mistake, own it, learn from it, try to fix it, and move on.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
More Labs is truly a laboratory where we’re always working on new angles to solve the daily stressors of life. The near-term is going to be focused on line extensions vs new categories.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Food and beverage is a fun industry! If you’re working to the point of burning out, you’re not taking a second to look around and realize that our industry is full of fun products, smart, outgoing people, and a ton of innovation. It’s also important to give yourself a little credit sometimes. In our industry, if you can take just a fraction of one share-point away from the category leader, that’s a huge accomplishment. It’s OK to celebrate your wins, no matter how small they might seem.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a lot of invaluable mentors in my career. Two people, in particular, have been especially important: Joth Ricci and Peter Burns, both successful and proven leaders that I have had the privilege of working under. Joth has always provided great feedback and guidance, but has also told me when I underperformed. After a presentation I made to a group of our board members several years ago, Joth told me later in private “you sucked!” And he was right. I had underprepared. Peter Burns exemplifies a leader that is fun and high energy. He taught me how to deliver bad news and how to take decisive action. I use lessons learned from each of them on a weekly basis as I serve our team at More Labs.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve been fortunate to be able to pay it forward through mentorship and donating to worthy causes. Helping to train and grow a younger generation of professionals is a passion of mine. Giving direct, explicit feedback and training takes time and energy. I am always surprised by how little direct feedback people receive. Without direct feedback, it’s hard to course correct or self-improve. I enjoy spending time with people that may not have had strong role models growing up or may not have worked in places with a strong training culture in the past. As a new resident to Los Angeles, I’m really looking forward to being a tutor or Big Brother to some local young people.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
- The most apparent to me has been the importance of protecting employees. The heavy lift that so many outlets made to outfit every check-lane with plexiglass and social distancing signage (among many other things) has been amazing. I have a lot of respect for how much retailers have leaned in on team member safety.
- The allocation of space inside the store has been shifted to accommodate online orders. Have you been to a Whole Foods lately? The area that services Prime Now went from a small corner of the store to a large footprint in the middle of the store. The shift to online isn’t just figurative here; it’s actually on display.
- I’m never getting out of my car again! I never realized how great it is to shop a store online, pick an item, drive there, and have someone deliver it to your car. So many retailers have added this service. But it begs the question: if this is the new normal, will they need those expensive storefronts or can they just rent a warehouse someplace with some parking spaces?
- Goodbye impulse items, hello PPE. So many products that have worked really hard to get display space as great impulse items when shoppers are taking their time looking around the store have been pushed back to their spot in the aisle to make way for an entirely new category of sanitizers, masks, and other PPE. The items that deliver a functional benefit and are very easy for consumers to understand are winning right now.
- Capitalizing on scarcity. When the toilet paper panic of 2020 broke out, the retailers that didn’t have the buying power to increase their supply lost. While the bigger players unquestionably notched a win here because they could demand more from their suppliers, there were a few smaller chains and independents that got ahead of it and loaded up huge displays of toilet paper early. This meant that they drove more traffic to the store and ultimately saw shoppers filling their baskets with many other items while they were there.
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
I think they will continue to exist but we’ll start to see the types of stores change over time. I remember talking to a Nike executive once who said that their company’s huge store in New York loses money every year, but they’ll never get rid of it because it’s an incredibly strong marketing vehicle. Customers come to the store, see the new styles and trends, try on shoes, then go home and order them online. But Nike doesn’t care. It’s about the visual experience and keeping their loyal customers engaged in the brand. I think this is more in line with the future of physical stores. They will become more of a marketing strategy than a revenue driver.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
In my mind, it comes down to three things: invest in your people, invest in the shopping experience, and keep your assortment fresh. Costco has always touted paying strong hourly wages for all entry-level employees. Their people stay there for decades. Their warehouses are generally incredibly clean and full of new and interesting items that members genuinely love to come and discover. As a result, their same-store traffic in August was up 13% vs last year. Fred Meyer (a banner under the Kroger parent company) is a beer-lovers paradise. They have new and interesting craft beers way before any other retailer has them. It’s harder to shop those items online. When you visit the beer aisle in a Fred Meyer, it’s common to see a crowd of beer enthusiasts slowly looking at every package and style in search of what’s new and interesting. It takes work to keep it interesting and enjoyable, but these retailers make it part of their culture. One of the reasons that we’ve seen so much success at More Labs is because we’re bringing a product that is new and interesting. Who knew that you could offset the negative effects of alcohol with a shot of Morning Recovery? We’re a highly profitable item that is bringing incremental sales to stores through innovation. As the retail landscape evolves, we want to continue to work with forward-thinking retailers.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
While Amazon is the clear leader, they have struggled during the pandemic. Two-day shipping is often taking longer than that — sometimes way longer. Companies that want to compete need to offer better service as a starting point. Delivering on your promise is a big one. Regardless of how long it takes to deliver the product, just hit the date that you tell consumers when they buy. For traditional retailers, they can offer same-day or next-day deliveries very easily because of the amount and proximity of their locations. They are very reliable on delivery times and they use less packaging and waste than Amazon. This is a strong advantage in the eyes of eco-minded customers.
Small businesses can also compete with Amazon by offering delivery services and same-day pickup. Now more than ever, people want to support their communities. Local businesses can encourage their neighbors to buy from them if they offer the same conveniences as large retailers with an added personal touch.
Last is again the assortment piece — keep it fresh and interesting. The suppliers absolutely need to invest and help drive awareness through marketing as well as supporting retail-level programs like loyalty programs and promotions. But retailers need to keep the assortment fresh and mix in new and exciting items with more well-known staple items that always drive revenue. Take some chances with smaller buys or limited tests to see if items have pull in certain areas. I think they might be surprised by the demand for functional, innovative items, even in a tough economic environment.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My influence is pretty small, but the “Cancel Plastic” movement is a personal passion of mine. It’s not new, but it’s not getting as much traction as I would hope. The retail stores that are starting to pop up where you can refill glass bottles of laundry detergent, hand soaps, toothpaste, and cleaners are really interesting to me. The volume of discarded single-use plastics and the lack of available recycling outlets is creating a crisis that we can’t reverse. The retail industry needs more innovation to help make greener packaging less price prohibitive. But consumers can make a difference also. By simply bringing grocery bags with you to the store, using refillable water bottles or your travel coffee mug, and avoiding plastic straws, anyone can start to make a difference. At More Labs, we just converted our bottles to be more recyclable and we’re exploring use of recycled plastics as our next step. Eventually, we would love to be out of plastic completely. Change takes courage and leadership, so we’re going to have to make some tough choices over the next several years.
How can our readers further follow your work? Find me on LinkedIn or hit me up when you’re in LA for a beer or a coffee!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!