The supermarket industry might not have much in common with the United States Army, but that doesn’t mean retailers and suppliers can’t learn a thing or two from the armed forces, especially when it comes to continually adapting to new generations.

That was one of IDDBA chairman Rick Findlay’s main points when he spoke to the IDDBA ’19 crowd in Orlando.

“We should take note of the military model when it comes to recruiting and sending our messages,” said Findlay, the vice president of fresh merchandising for Downers Grove, Illinois-based Fresh Thyme Farmers Market. “We still have a larger boomer population, but Gen X, millennials and Gen Z all have distinct traits and behaviors.”

Findlay pointed out how the Army has changed its marketing strategy over the decades. World War I recruitment, of course, was impacted by the simplicity of the “I Want You” campaign.

By the time Gen Xers were old enough to start serving, the Army rolled out its “Be All You Can Be” series of commercials and other advertisements, emphasizing teamwork and being a part of something bigger.

With millennials, the Army started to introduce technology into its campaign and even experimented with its “Army of One” tagline to reach the demographic that cared about individuality.

And today, with recruitment of Gen Z in full force, the Army is making its way into eSports, going where young people already are instead of hoping they’ll come to them.

“How does this relate? Our industry needs to adapt to remain relevant to customers,” Findlay said. “We have to understand what people are eating, why they’re eating, the story behind it, the function of food.”

For starters, that means taking the plant-based segment seriously, he said, noting that studies show plant-based food sales have outpaced overall food sales by a factor of 10.

“It’s simply a trend we cannot ignore,” he said.

That’s especially true in the beverage area, where fluid milk sales are down 37% since 1970. Consumers are no longer content with their options consisting of skim, 1%, 2%, whole and perhaps a couple almond milk selections.

“Dairy is still relevant, but we must continue to offer variety and selection,” Findlay said. “It’s not a zero-sum game. You have to find the right balance for customers. Oat milk, soy milk, almond milk, banana milk, it’s all important.

“And, yes, we now live in a world where you can buy banana milk. And I must say, it’s pretty good.”

That flexibility must also be evident in the store as a whole. Traditional shopping is just one option these days.

“Shoppers, especially millennials and Gen Z, are just as comfortable visiting c-stores as they are visiting any conventional supermarket,” Findlay said. “Shoppers are time-starved and I believe this is something overlooked by many traditional stores.”

With brick and mortar stores seeing their evolution sped up even more by Amazon’s entrance into grocery, quick action is imperative.

“How do we respond and deliver? By being nimble and embracing change,” Findlay said.

And that goes for attracting both shoppers and employees.

"We have to appreciate the evolution of the industry," he said. "Consumers no longer shop in the same manner, and unlike our grandparents, we no longer view the industry as a viable career choice."