Talk about trial by fire. Neil Stern became CEO of Good Food Holdings—the holding company for Bristol Farms, Lazy Acres Natural Market, Metropolitan Market, New Seasons Market and New Leaf Community Markets—in October 2020, eight months into the pandemic. Owned by the Korean retail conglomerate Emart, each of the five brands across Southern California and the Pacific Northwest has its own leadership team, company culture, operating philosophy and go-to market strategy.
WGB asked Stern what it has been like to assume a leadership role during a pandemic, and if COVID changed the way he leads.
“I moved in from a board position a bit earlier and formally took the job in October. It was, and remains, difficult to transition into a new role during COVID,” admits Stern. “I would have strongly preferred to spend more time in our stores and across the major markets (LA, San Diego, Santa Cruz, Portland and Seattle) and in our stores meeting our associates, but this remains impractical still.”
Rather than allow physical distance to be an impediment to connection in a pandemic, Stern has turned COVID into an opportunity to redefine his leadership approach. “We’ve all had to learn new ways to communicate and rely more on video calls, text and emails. I think COVID has made us all more human, including me,” he says.
“When you are seeing people in their homes, you recognize that there is more to people’s lives than work—you get to see their children, pets, living spaces, etc. It’s all a great reminder to put people first,” he continues. “So yes, I think my leadership style changed dramatically.”
Further adding to the challenges of grocery management in the past year, the pandemic impacted departments in-store in very different ways. While in the beginning of COVID, meat and produce saw sales increases of 50% to 60%, respectively, bakery took a hit and deli/prepared foods and coffee/juice bar sales practically disappeared, says Stern.
“We’ve seen center of the plate remain strong, but we are clawing back sales in prepared foods and bakery,” adds Stern, who expects “some permanent changes based both on customer preference and lifestyle changes” to the in-store experience post pandemic.
Like most grocery retailers, Good Food Holdings experienced “enormous growth” in its e-commerce business across all of its markets in the past year. “We think we will continue to see growth in e-commerce and are working on ways to get more efficient and own more of the experience,” says Stern, who adds that the five banners currently use multiple fulfillment partners including Instacart (primarily) and DoorDash. The grocer also has its own fulfillment capabilities in some markets.
“I think COVID has driven some long overdue acceleration of [certain] trends (e-commerce, contactless payments) and some are unique to COVID and should return as we normalize,” says Stern. “The grocery store of the future will need to be better equipped to accommodate e-commerce picking, pickup and delivery, offer customers different ways to check out, different ways to engage digitally and, likely, offer a different foodservice experience.”
Looking ahead, Good Food Holdings has said it plans to grow all five of its banners in its existing markets, with new stores featuring new elevated food and beverage offerings, as well as additional tech options.
“The biggest lesson learned from last year was the reaffirmation of how critical a role food retail plays in a consumer’s everyday lives,” says Stern. “This really became amplified in COVID where the stores became the center of the community and a life line for people.”
For more reflections on the past year, click here.