Voni Woods, Vice President of Deli, Bakery, and Prepared Foods at Giant Eagle, shares how taking risks has helped the 470-location chain evolve its customer experience as quickly as shoppers themselves are changing. Voni discusses how the retailer studies shopper pain points and uses data to inform new product offerings, introduce solution centers within stores, and push the personalization envelope in finding new ways to surprise and delight its guests.

Having spent 45 years in the industry, Voni is an ardent advocate for the array of fulfilling career opportunities found within the grocery business. Under her leadership, the Pittsburgh-based retailer continues to reimagine how it can meet customers where they are—whether that’s in store, at curbside, via home deliver, through catering, or with 3rd party pick up—in the strategic and coveted fresh categories that Voni oversees.

In this episode

Voni Woods

Vice President of Deli, Bakery and Prepared Foods, Giant Eagle, Inc.

Voni Woods began her career with Giant Eagle working at the deli counter more than 45 years ago, and now serves as the Vice President of Deli, Bakery, and Prepared Foods. A member of the World Cheese Society and Chairman Emeritus of the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, Voni has received multiple awards for her leadership and innovation and has leveraged her position to lift up other female leaders in the industry.

Kane McCord

President & Chief Revenue Officer, Shelf Engine

Kane is the President and Chief Revenue Officer at Shelf Engine. Kane joined Shelf Engine because in his nearly 20 years in consumer technology he has yet to encounter a more distinguished group of teammates and investors, and because he believes its technology will permanently improve retail supply chains while benefiting the environment and eliminating food waste.

Episode Transcript

Kane McCord:
Welcome to Fresh Thinking, the video podcast where we explore the latest developments and trends influencing the future of the fresh foods business.

Today, I’ve got the great privilege of being joined by Voni Woods, Vice-President of Deli, Bakery, and Prepared Foods at Giant Eagle. Giant Eagle has nearly 470 stores concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast, and Voni has been with them since she started in high school, working at the deli counter. So, we’re excited to dive into a bunch of topics today. Voni, welcome, and thanks for joining us.

Voni Woods:
Oh, thank you very much. I’m really happy to be here. I’m excited.

Kane McCord:
Did you ever expect, when you took your first job in retail and grocery, that you’d spend your entire career in the industry?

Voni Woods:
I never did. I was going to be a court reporter and, because that’s what my dad said I was going to be. And my dad was not surprised and delighted that I decided to stay into the supermarket business, because I really loved it. And my career took me around the world. So, I like to bring things up like that so people can think of working in the supermarket as a career, versus just a stop between their career. The biggest thing is I haven’t kept the same job. So, I’ve continued. I’m a relentless learner. I want to learn everything and I was able to navigate through that. I just celebrated my 45th year at Giant Eagle, so I’m really proud of that.

Kane McCord:
You talked about having many roles and wearing many hats as part of what’s kept you in grocery. One of the awards and recognitions that you received was your induction into the World Cheese Society. How did this come about?

Voni Woods:
Well, I’m glad you asked that, but is there anything that’s showing that might have tipped you off that I was inducted? So yes, I don’t wear this around normally, but it was one of the highlights of my life. And one of the reasons, when I was very, very young, I was just a kid working in the deli. And the cheese shop just was like, it was a live item and something that I really, really loved, and I wanted to learn about, and I kept learning about it. And in 2017, I was inducted into the World Cheese Society. And basically, it’s the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers. And I am now a Gare de Jour, so that was amazing. And I was numbered. And I literally went to a book and had to sign my name: I’m number 649 in the world. And this has been going on for ages. I’ve really wanted to be part of the industry. I wanted to be working on it. I wanted to help, not only retailers, but manufacturers and things that we can do better in the world.

Kane McCord:
You’re also the co-founder and past president of the Giant Eagle Women’s Business Resource Group. Can you tell us how you founded that group and what its mission was and is?

Voni Woods:
I got a phone call from HR and it said, “Hi, congratulations. You’re going to be spending a year at Duquesne University in the Women’s Leadership Council. And you’re going to spend a year there, and have some learnings.”

And I went to my boss and said, “Why did you sign me up for that?” And I said … I didn’t understand why it was a women’s group. And my boss said, “Well, I can take you out of it if you don’t want to go.” And I’m like, “No, I’ll go.” So I spent a year in Duquesne and I spent it with 12 high-potential women in Pittsburgh. And these women were awesome.

After nine months of spending time in leadership and working on what keeps us back as women, I thought, “I went through this big transformational change.” And I came back to Giant Eagle and I thought, “Well, why does one person a year get to go and learn that? And why did it take me to 52 years old to learn that? And what can I bring back to Giant Eagle?”

And so, it took about two years to start up, and the purpose was threefold. One is leadership skills, two is to have a network, and three is to give back to the community. Now that number three is usually the most popular one for women, because they love to give back. And those are the things that they show up for. But the other two are just as important. I can tell you that when I was promoted to a Vice President at Giant Eagle, I was one of nine. And today I’m one of 31. And so that is progress.

Kane McCord:
One of the things you focused on a lot throughout your career is that in-store experience for consumers and in particular, finding signature items and the right merchandise and assortment that creates a great shopping experience for consumers. How have you built that knack for identifying what consumers want and putting the right product in the right stores at the right time?

Voni Woods:
So the biggest thing that we do is we’re not afraid to fail. So, we have the autonomy to find things that we love, and not all of them work. And … but we have this like, “Let’s do long-term thinking with a bias for action. Let’s just have action and get things going. Let’s be first to market, if we can. Let’s bring in something that you’d maybe be a little bit hesitant about because you don’t think it’s a massive win, but it could be something very special and meaningful to some of our guests.” So, that’s the kind of entrepreneur spirit that we share in our organization, and that’s, I think, our biggest way to win.

Kane McCord:
Giant Eagle’s also built a great reputation for high quality fresh foods. And I know that that’s become a real differentiator, especially as we reopen and focus on driving trips back into the store. How has fresh foods and a focus on a great, fresh, high-quality offering benefited your business?

Voni Woods:
This is our strategy. Some people take a look at your strategy and then six months from now, they have a new strategy, and then a new strategy. One of our clear tenets is that we are innovative in differentiation. There’s differentiation in our business.

Having quality, fresh food is top. It’s top of the spear. And we have … our stores are segmented. So we have some market district stores, which are really the top of the spear. And then we have some Giant Eagle stores, which are solid supermarkets. And then we have convenience and, or lower, smaller stores that are up in areas that need a supermarket.

So, being best in class in Win With Fresh and best in class in Owned Brands, those are the things that we’re fighting for. Those are the things that we’re doing every day to see how we can win with customers.

Kane McCord:
What have the changes been more recently in regards to consumer demand for healthier for themselves or healthier for the environment products? Have you seen a noticeable uptick there, in terms of consumers’ interest and willingness to buy those types of products, that’s impacted your business?

Voni Woods:
It’s really flourished. It’s both of them. It’s sustainable items. It’s packaging. Sustainable items and packaging—there’s a whole gamut of education around it. So if you’re very passionate about one of them, or you’re going to be loud, or if you’re passionate about another one, we’re trying to take it over a five years. What are we doing for five years? We almost have 300 initiatives under sustainability. And you can’t eat the elephant in one bite, and we know that, but we’re putting a lot of energy around it.

Kane McCord:
What do you think the future holds, in terms of how grocery stores might look different or how new concepts might emerge? What are things that we might see two, five, 10 years from now, that perhaps some of us that either work in the industry or all of us, obviously, are consumers in the industry, might not be expecting?

Voni Woods:
I did spend a year in customer experience and I spent time with … being certified as an expert on what people look for, and why do they do it, and how do we shop? And a lot of it is around designing the work. A lot of it is doing the very tedious things, from the minute I get out of my car to come into the store—if that’s what I do—how many times do you make it painful for me? And how do I, as a customer—sometimes I’m oblivious to it, just walking from the car to a big box. And then when you get into the store, all the noise around going to different departments to get things, rather solution areas.

If I wanted to get—if I’m planning for my child’s birthday party—do I have to go to the bakery, and the deli, and the prepared foods, and maybe the seafood department, go get my packaging? And how can I get more of a solution?

Then you have to go and check out. And that’s probably the number one pain point of shopping, or why people don’t like to shop. I love it when I hear someone says, “Well, I love to shop. I’m not going to be one of those that gets my food from somebody delivering it to me.” But there’s ways to overcome that, too. When you shop online, you can get a very good experience if you have a good shop-online platform. And then in store, how can we make it easier for everyone, and have more directional signs to solutions for the meal, versus me having to go all over the store to pick it and find it?

Kane McCord:
Let’s talk for a minute about experiential elements of your stores. I don’t know the exact location—I’m sure you may, or there may be multiple of these locations—but I’ve been in a Giant Eagle that had a childcare facility, a full service bar and restaurant, as well as one of the largest salad bars and kind of fresh food offerings that I’ve ever seen. What is Giant Eagle currently doing to—especially again, given a reopening—to create maybe non-grocery experiences within a grocery store?

Voni Woods:
So there’s many ways that we’re attacking this because we’re really looking at made to order. How can we get it to you? How can we get fresh food for you, without it sitting in a bar somewhere and never knowing how long it’s been sitting there? And especially the hot cases. And they’re reopened and some people love them and they’re really fantastic, but we learned over the last two years that a lot of it … there’s a very high temperature to keep that food safe. And so there’s a very short time that it really should be out in those bars before it’s not good looking anymore. And getting fresh food to people that come into the store, they may be coming at a different time of day than they used to come in before the pandemic.

So before the pandemic, we’d get hit in the morning and then hit in the late afternoon—people coming home from work. And now, people are buying during the day. So what we’re winning with today is grab-and-go. The number of cold rotisserie chickens that we’re selling is incredible. And you would never think that before, but when you think about it, if I come in at 10 o’clock in the morning and get a hot rotisserie chicken, I’m throwing it in the refrigerator anyway. And so those kinds of things really changed the pattern of shopping, when people shopped, and how often they shopped for fresh food.

So that’s what we’re really focusing on, is how can we get it to you, any way you want it? That it’s ready to make, like in a kit, ready to heat, ready to eat, or however you want it. Delivered, pick up, checkout. And so it’s all of that. It’s really orchestrating all of that together. The officers of our company spent one day a week in curbside for at least eight to 10 weeks. And what it did is it opened up our eyes to what people were buying, what was trending, what they wanted, and what … maybe where we may be letting them down.

Kane McCord:
Personalization and customer loyalty have been buzzwords in grocery and retail for quite some time. What is really working for Giant Eagle, in terms of driving a more personalized experience and greater customer loyalty?

Voni Woods:
People talk about putting people in segments, and nobody wants to be in a segment. Nobody is in a segment. I’m not the same customer on a regular afternoon than I am when I’m entertaining. I’m not the same customer when I’m, maybe, going somewhere to bring something. So … or if it’s the soccer game, or if it’s entertaining people from work at my home. So I’m a different customer. So personalization is not a segmentation. It’s to one, it’s a personalization of one, and we have all the data. So why not use it for personalization? So that’s the personalization, the little surprise and delight that, “They know me.”

Kane McCord:
You are in particular tough-to-manage categories. And, what I mean is, particularly around freshness and delivering the right amount of quantity. Can you talk about challenges within bakery, within deli, within prepared foods around having the right amount of food, so that they’re always available for your customers, but given sometimes what can be very short shelf lives? How do you avoid over-ordering or having too much, that you end up having to throw away or redistribute somehow?

Voni Woods:
We have so many tools at our hand and you’d think that, “Okay, if it’s going to be automated and replenished automation, how does that help if you’re building a recipe?” Because usually that’s: I have cereal on the shelf, I sold five, I need five more. And you usually think of that, but it works.

All the technology that we have that can help not only the stores, but the buyers as well, helps. And nobody wants to talk about what happens in a supermarket with leftover food, where we can either lower the price before it goes out of date automatically. We have places where it says, “We bake too much,” and it’s half price or lower. And we also have apps for people that are looking for food for that day. And we have an app that people can log on, see what we have, buy it right there, come in our store, take it, leave it, and never have to talk to anybody.

Kane McCord:
Well, Voni, I’ve really enjoyed the discussion today, which I really appreciate you spending time with us today, and I know our listeners will get a lot of value from your insights.

Voni Woods:
Well, thank you very much. I’m so passionate about the supermarket industry, and I hope that maybe some of our listeners may think that it’s a cool place to be as well.

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