When Rick Findlay got into the grocery business a little more than 40 years ago, it was a strategic move to set up a long-term career.

“It was the place to get a job and get paid well,” Findlay says. “I was still in college and was going to get married and realized I needed a job.”

Needless to say, it’s worked out well for Findlay, the vice president of fresh merchandising for Downers Grove, Illinois-based Fresh Thyme Farmers Market as well as this year’s IDDBA chairman of the board.

His post as Fresh Thyme VP follows a 12-year tenure as vice president of purchasing and marketing for Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market and more than 25 years in the conventional grocery realm.

“Four decades later it has proven to be a wonderful career with amazing people and cutting-edge analytics and technology,” Findlay says. “It has been fun to see how the evolution of category management from supply chain savings to consumer centric focus.” 

But today’s supermarket isn’t viewed as place to begin and nurture a career. That, and how retailers can remedy it, was one of a bevy of topics Findlay discussed in an exclusive interview with Supermarket Perimeter in advance of June’s IDDBA ’19.

Supermarket Perimeter: What are some of the biggest obstacles, in your mind, for the industry?

Findlay: I stay up at night thinking about the significant amount of turnover we have in the industry. We must solve this issue to improve execution and sales.

It’s hard work and it’s not necessarily the most highly compensated work. If someone has the choice of making more money flipping burgers and getting a free lunch or working in a grocery retailer where you have to do dishes and go into a freezer, it’s not glamorous.

I also think we as an industry aren’t doing a good job of training people and expanding their capabilities and showing that this can actually become a career. Being a dishwasher or a cook or something that might sound mundane can just be the beginning stages of an amazing career in the food industry.

We must do better at training people, empowering people and enlightening people.

"Some are quirky. Some are intellectual. Most are passionate about the fresh part of the store. All of them can teach you something about how to better meet customer needs and wants."

— Findlay on how people drive him in the industry

At Fresh Thyme, for instance, we’re looking at various incentives to raise the starting salary, but then also have quick-hit incentives. If you finish a customer service training, you get another quarter an hour, or 50 cents an hour. If you pass a knife skills training, you get another 25 cents an hour. Same with charcuterie training.

It’s kind of a two-pronged approach. You’re teaching people skills and at the same time giving them pay raises.

As we head into IDDBA ‘19, the strength of perimeter grocery and fresh foods is still growing. How has the climate of the industry changed since last year’s show?

It is exciting times as we head into the summer show with the resurgence of grocery store sales. Specifically, foodservice and the growth of grocerants, plant-based products and functional foods. These are categories that didn’t exist 5 years ago.   

To me, it’s critical for the success of retailers to listen to their constituency, their patrons, their guests that shop in their stores. They’re asking for this. They tell us what they want with their wallets and their pocketbooks and we need to give them exactly what they’re calling for. It’s imperative that retailers give additional space, assortment and promotions to these products.

What goals do you have as a board chairman for IDDBA?

We have several goals for this year.

We want to continue to drive education and training in the industry to slow down the incredible turnover we are experiencing.

Also, driving the focus on dairy and highlight the emerging new categories outside of fluid milk, like plant-based products and functional beverages. This has exploded in popularity.

And finally, pushing the trend of natural and organic products. People want to eat healthier, feed their family better and live longer and therefore this segment of the grocery world is growing faster than traditional stores.

Fresh Thyme embodies and is passionate about the nimbleness to stay relative and resonate with customers today. That’s certainly the natural and organic channel, but at a value. We just want to make natural and organics affordable to more people and become that gateway for changing the way people eat.

We’re very passionate about that. Healthy eating, healthy values. That’s our goal.

What will that increased focus on dairy look like?

There will be much more of a critical mass to the number of retailer participants that have dairy purchasing responsibilities.

Historically, from the supplier base, we’ve only had maybe a handful of true dairy suppliers. This year, we think it’s going to be close to 250, or even more, dairy specific suppliers showing their products.

We’ve been attempting to steal second and keep our foot on first by inviting retailers to come and saying there will be more supplier participation while at the same time asking suppliers to come show their products because there will be more retailers. It’s worked out perfectly.

We’re going to give significant space to them. One of the pillars of emphasis in the What’s In Store space will be centered on dairy as well.

For me, what’s precipitated that were some conversations I had with dairy experts. They were convinced that, by definition, dairy needs to be milk that comes from a cow. If you stick with that mindset, you’ll go the way of the dinosaur.

If you look at a dairy department today, it’s nothing like what your parents or grandparents shopped in. There are all sorts of milk alternatives.

Some emphasis and lobbying is going on that almond milk might have to be called an almond drink, or a soy drink or banana drink. That hasn’t come to be yet. It might, it might not. All I know is that if you look at dairy, sales are down more than 30% from just several years ago and it’s come at the gain of these plant-based alternatives.

Plant-based dairy is growing exponentially, and we just want to make sure that we emphasize that in our show. One of the Ds is ‘dairy’ and we want to bring that back.

A big change in this year’s show is the transition of the Show & Sell Center to the newly named What’s In Store Live. What can attendees expect, and what went into that change?

I am really excited about that. As we met as a leadership group and a steering committee for this, we realize that we spend a significant amount of time, energy and financial resources in putting that document —What’s In Store ­— together. We just thought that we should make sure we’re resonating and continuing the message with that.

A lightbulb kind of went off for everyone in this steering committee meeting. We said, “Why don’t we call this space on our showroom floor ‘What’s In Store?’ We’ll kind of mirror the trends that are going on.

"Wear comfortable shoes and smile. Remember, a stranger is just a friend you have not met yet."

— Findlay, on how to get the most out of the IDDBA show

The biggest teaser I’d put out there is that we’re really going to be looking for the eyes of the different age groups — not so much Baby Boomers and old farts like me, but definitely the Gen Xers, the millennials and even the Gen Zers.

We’re going to set up different categories and look at it through their eyes and sign it appropriately and say, “Hey retailers, here’s a strategy that you might want to consider when you’re setting up your own merchandising displays.”

That was the thought behind it, to just better correlate with the document that people use as a bible for insights and trends for the industry.

How has IDDBA helped you in your career?

Like the commercial that touts “priceless”, IDDBA has given me a network of friends and family that have been a “priceless” lifeline. Whether it was a lead on a job opportunity or best practices to reduce my food waste by 200 bps, this association is an amazing resource. 

What advice do you have for those beginning their careers in the industry?

Jump in! Don’t wait for an invite, just look for something you like or are interested in and get involved. You will learn as you go and have fun doing it. Although, it isn’t always glamorous. You will work hard and get a little dirty. But you will meet great people and have fun!