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The Future of the Grocery Industry Can Look Bright

When I started in the grocery industry over 36 years ago, many companies had a direct sales force, selling directly to retail stores, where an entry level sales representative could learn not only about the company for which they worked, but also about the industry.

These were low risk positions for the company, but high reward career opportunities for the people in these roles, learning the ropes of the grocery industry.  Over time, retailers and wholesalers consolidated and centralized much of the decision making which used to occur at store level.

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The decisions about buying, merchandising, resets, plan-o-grams, new items, sampling, etc., were no longer decided at the retail store level, but increasingly became decisions which were made at the headquarter level.

An unintended fallout of the centralized decision making, was the decreased need for direct sales people. This decision impacted the number of entry level positions which were available in the grocery industry. As such, many companies reduced their college campus recruiting efforts.

Without being on campus talking with students about entry level jobs in the industry, opportunities to inform students of our industry and the career paths, were greatly reduced.

I recently attended the National Grocers Association (NGA) show in San Diego. NGA recognizes if the grocery industry isn’t going to college campuses, we need to bring students to industry and give them a glimpse of what career opportunities exist.

Two programs which are unique to NGA and which have been very successful in giving students a glimpse into the career opportunities are:  1) the Student Case Study Competition, and 2) the mentoring program.

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There are approximately 16 colleges and universities which participate in a case study competition each year at the NGA show. Each year, retailers submit to NGA for consideration, a scenario in their stores which they would like solved. 

NGA chooses one of the scenarios and college and university students from the participating schools prepare their solution throughout the Fall semester and arrive at the NGA show in February each year to present their case to a panel of grocery industry judges.

This is a competition between the schools in attendance. While in attendance at the show, students are paired with industry representatives who have volunteered to be their mentor while at the show, and hopefully beyond.   

This program allows the students to see the opportunities through the eyes of an grocery industry professional.  I have participated in both programs as both a judge and a mentor. I can tell you from my personal experience, these are rewarding experience for both mentor and mentee.

Related Article: Multicultural Americans Are Reshaping US Grocery

The students I have met at the NGA show are impressive and can represent the future of this industry whether they work for a retailer, wholesaler or manufacturer. I would love to see some of these bright minds follow a career into new product development within the dairy industry.

They are not only the future grocery industry workforce, but they are also the consumer of today and tomorrow. We need their input to develop innovative products, and innovative marketing and promotional strategy which speak to Millennials, Gen Z and the generations which will follow them.

We all have a responsibility to help recruit, hire, train and retain our future workforce to build the strength of our industry for the future. What does your organization or association, do to connect with college students to recruit them into the grocery industry?

About Cindy Sorensen

Founder and CEO of The Grocery Group developing leadership in purpose, people and products. Member of the Board of Directors of Women Grocers of America and former Vice President of Business Development for the Midwest Dairy Association. A professional with 30 years of experience in the grocery industry with an extensive knowledge of the dairy sector.

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