In nearly 90 years of business, Giant Eagle has become the supermarket of choice for customers in small towns and major suburban markets alike. But CEO Laura Shapira Karet, who has been at the helm since 2011, understands all too well that remaining a leader in the decades ahead means rethinking the food retail playbook.
"Competition is coming from places that none of us would have imagined even a short while ago," she said during a presentation at the Food Marketing Institute's Midwinter Executive Conference earlier this year. "We now must learn how to be software companies, digital marketers, restaurateurs — and we need to do it now."
With transformation in mind, Karet has embraced an adaptable, experimental approach to retailing while also remaining focused on fundamental execution. This year, the regional grocer has ushered in new technologies like cashierless checkout and inventory robots. It's also updating its stores to capitalize on growing demand for fresh meals and quick trips.
Pricey innovations like the Simbe robots it's testing may grab headlines, but Karet says technology must be practical, focused foremost on creating a better experience for shoppers and employees. "While technology is incredibly powerful, it is not an end," she said at the Midwinter conference. "It's a means to solve a problem."
Leslie Sarasin, CEO of FMI, praised Karet as a shopper-focused executive who "leads with empathy." She also commended her ability to navigate the rapid pace of change in the industry.
"Laura and the Giant Eagle company embrace disruption and learn from it," Sarasin told Grocery Dive. "As a leader, Laura does not shy away from experimentation, especially on strategies that lead to growth. She recognizes that the new marketplace requires a more personal and personalized shopping experience that necessitates an investment in technology and digital formats."
To put technology to work for the company well into the future, Giant Eagle announced earlier this summer it plans to open a dedicated office in the Pittsburgh suburbs for its growing tech workforce. The location, which will open next year, will consolidate employees who currently work at headquarters and in a satellite office in San Francisco, and will help the company attract top talent to the former steel city turned technology hub.
Those workers will continue to hone Giant Eagle's highly rated mobile app and craft the personalized offers that Karet says are so important to keeping grocers relevant. With its network of more than 250 convenience stores, Giant Eagle features one of the strongest fuel rewards programs in the industry, with points and loyalty discounts tying its grocery and convenience channels together.
Giant Eagle is also making bold moves to ensure its stores stay relevant to shoppers. The company, like many others, is adding private label and fresh meals to its aisles while competing hard on pricing.
The biggest transformation, though, is happening inside Giant Eagle's network of GetGo convenience stores. Here, the company is steadily transforming the fuel stops into miniature fresh markets, complete with produce, made-to-order drinks and in-demand grocery selections. The stores also feature a wide range of meals shoppers can order ahead online or through their mobile phone.
According to Karet, GetGo locations allow Giant Eagle to access markets it wouldn't otherwise be able to, and to provide fresh food to communities that need it.
"We are using our GetGo Fresh Food Convenience locations to solve food desert problems by providing healthy options in some inner-city areas that do not currently have or probably couldn't support a full-size grocery store," she said.