Jimmy Wright is president of Wright’s Market, which operates in Opelika, Ala. He frequently addresses Congress about the issues facing independent grocers.
Kat Martin: You have always placed a big emphasis on being an integral part of your community, but as a neighborhood store, how have you been able to extend your reach beyond your immediate neighborhood?
Jimmy Wright: Beginning in 2014, we launched our Wright2U shuttle service for customers that live outside of our neighborhood and do not have transportation to the store. Through our shuttle service a customer can call the store and request to be picked up at their home, and we will transport them to the store and return them home when their shopping is complete. In 2016, we launched our e-commerce platform Wright2U.com. This has allowed us to expand our reach throughout the Opelika-Auburn community. In 2017, we were selected as part of the online purchasing pilot, which officially launched in March (only a couple of weeks before the first wave of pandemic buying). Participating in this program will now allow us to reach some of the rural communities in East Alabama.
As an extension of the previous question, how can independent grocers be a part of the solution when it comes to urban food deserts and the lack of access to fresh food in rural communities?
While a brick-and-mortar store would be the preferred option for every community, in some parts of rural America, the population density is not large enough to support a traditional grocery store. Our plans are to use e-commerce/Online SNAP to improve food access in rural communities through online ordering and delivery to central drop off points.
Much of your recent efforts have been focused on the three H’s (hunger, housing and healthcare). The first is obvious, but how can grocers help with housing and healthcare in their communities?
In my case, I serve as a commissioner on the Opelika Housing Authority, this allows me to work with our local government to improve access to affordable housing throughout our community. I also serve on the board of directors of the East Alabama Medical Center Foundation. This position allows me to keep abreast of all the issues surrounding healthcare in a nine-county region that our hospital serves. It has been extremely interesting to learn about the challenges faced in the healthcare world. The connection between food and medicine is obvious; however, an inside view of the healthcare industry has demonstrated to me what a difference grocers can make through health and wellness initiatives in their stores, by partnering with local healthcare providers.
Wright’s Market was part of the pilot program for SNAP online, which is now being rolled out nationwide. You also adopted e-commerce years before the pandemic hit. What advice do you have for independents who may not yet have taken the plunge into e-commerce or accepting SNAP online?
The pandemic has driven e-commerce sales to new heights. In my opinion, this is not short term but a shift from the consumer’s buying habits from in-store to online. Many customers who have never shopped for food online, especially senior citizens, have found it to be a viable solution instead of the usual trip to a physical store. E-commerce grocery is here to stay, and I would suggest any independents that do not have a program, to consider launching one, because this shopping segment should continue to grow.
The Online SNAP program is still a work in progress for us as we continue to learn more about the SNAP shopper’s engagement and experience with an online shopping program. Our plan is to use community events to explain the benefits of the program and how to navigate the shopping process. My advice to independents that are interested in the program is to first have an e-commerce program in place. Second, is for your online providers platform to meet all of the requirements of the SNAP pilot program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). We were fortunate that our provider, Freshop, met all the requirements early on and we were able to launch successfully.
How do you think the pandemic will affect the grocery industry in the long term, both for the good and maybe not so good?
1) Consumers have rediscovered cooking at home. While I believe the restaurant industry will improve, I do not think that it will return to previous levels as consumers gain more confidence in the kitchen.
2) In-store foodservice will continue to grow for grab-and-go/heat-and-eat type offerings.
3) Value will be more important than ever, especially if there is a lingering effect from an economic downturn.
4) E-commerce is here to stay and will continue to grow at an extremely fast rate.
5) Consolidation will continue across all channels of the food industry. I am very concerned about the potential of a few “power buyers” having too much control over the food supply chain and how it could negatively affect independent grocers’ ability to operate on a level playing field and in turn limit consumer choice with respect to product supply, variety, price and value.
Do you yell “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle?”
War Eagle. My Auburn diploma is proudly displayed in my office.
Favorite vacation you’ve taken?
What is your pandemic guilty pleasure (anything from food to binge watching on Netflix)?
I have worked so much the past six months, that I enjoy being able to relax with a simple Sunday afternoon nap.