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Food retailers find allies in social media followers

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

(Photo: Flickr user Jason Howie)

Social media has become an important platform for supermarkets to engage with customers, but retailers need to learn to balance the control they have historically exercised over their communications against the power that their employees and customers wield on sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest.

In many cases, it is the customers who are diving the conversation, and often it is to the benefit of supermarket operators, according to three food retailers on a panel on social media at the Food Marketing Institute’s FMI Connect show in Chicago.

Hy-Vee, the regional supermarket chain based in West Des Moines, Iowa, has a strong customer following for the Chinese food it offers in its stores. These fans have coined the term “Hy-Chi” for the hot, prepared offering, and several years ago began posting messages on social media using that term with the hash tag #HyChi. These posts were often accompanied by descriptions of customers’ cravings for the food or the satisfaction it delivers.

This behavior — unprompted by Hy-Vee — spurred the chain to develop a marketing campaign around it.

“Customers were doing it already, so we just put it in a marketing campaign,” Nathan T. Wright, digital marketing and innovation leader at Hy-Vee, said at the presentation. “We adopted behaviors customers were doing already.”

Hy-Vee launched a photo contest using the hashtag #HyChi and began releasing secret deals for #HyChi on its social media channels.

The efforts drove a huge increase in use of the hashtag, and helped build awareness for the brand without being intrusive, Wright explained.

“We don’t want to interrupt their lives; we just want to be a part of it,” he said.

Hy-Vee operates a social media “war room” where a team of associates monitor social media activity and engage with customers through social media and other channels. Because of the high level of autonomy at the chain, each of its 235-plus stores has its own social media, supported by headquarters.

Similarly, Associated Wholesale Grocers, the cooperative wholesaler based in Kansas City, Kan., found that sometimes the enthusiasm of consumers can manifest itself in unexpected ways on social media.

When a customer posted an unflattering description of the ground beef from one of the company’s member stores on a private social media site, AWG was alerted by another customer who was concerned on the store’s behalf and wanted the store to defend itself.

Without addressing the original post directly, the store shot a video with a smartphone explaining how it grinds its beef fresh in its stores and posted it online. It quickly became a sensation.

“It was a huge success,” said Kate Favrow, marketing manager at AWG. “It was just a video showing how they make their ground beef, and people loved it.”

AWG maintains a Customer Connect Center — dubbed C3 — staffed by four digital specialists who assist member retailers with things like their websites and social media. The company also has enjoyed success promoting its private labels on social media, and it uses the feedback it gets on those platforms to help it deliver the right products to market, Favrow explained.

Maria Brous, director of media and community relations at Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., also noted that followers will often rally to support the company on social media.

“Your fans are out there, and they will come to your defense,” she said.

Publix seeks to replicate on social media the high level of service it is known for in its stores, Brous explained. The chain now employs seven full time workers to manage its social media channels, all trained “to speak the company language” when it comes to providing customer service.

She stressed that supermarkets who are not paying attention to social media may be doing their customers a disservice.

“They are having a conversation with or without us,” she said. “If you are not on social media, you are missing a whole world right now.”

Other advice from the panel:

  • Retailers need to educate their customers about their social media channels so they know where to find them. “You can’t just build it and hope people will come,” said Favrow of AWG.
  • Social media needs to have shared ownership among departments in an organization, said Brous of Publix. “Social media can’t be run in a silo,” she said.
  • Retailers need to remember that pre-scheduled marketing posts on social media might need to be canceled when serious issues are being discussed. “You don’t want to be putting a marketing message out there when you are responding to a crisis,” said Wright of Hy-Vee.
  • Susan Borra, senior vice president of communications at FMI, who moderated the panel, noted that the association offers access to extensive research on social media compiled by the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council at


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