Congrats on your new role leading IGA into
the next era. Let’s get started by discussing
the radically changing marketplace, which
has certainly made food retailing more
complex. What are your top priorities on
this note as it relates to IGA members?
John Ross: We’ve been looking at our mission
statement and the services we provide today
versus envisioning what we should do for the
future—which is generally what happens when
you get a new boss. But it’s clear that we have
to step up the range of services we provide,
because as the retail business is changing and
becoming more complex—and much more
creative and interesting, by the way—we need
to help our members evolve with new skills
that all grocers need to have today, such as
becoming better restaurateurs and better
nutrition experts, and of course becoming
more digitally savvy in e-commerce. On all
fronts, I’m bullish, not just because I’m with
IGA, or because I think independents are in
a cool business. I’m bullish because the very
nature of what we’re doing hits on all of the
coolest parts of the future of the business.
Please discuss how your background
has prepared you for your role, and what
appealed to you most about it?
I started off in retail, and I’ve been an operator, a merchant and a marketer. I’ve also been
in traditional e-commerce, private label and
national brand launches, and worked on the
service side for advertising agencies and marketing companies, and then with Inmar—a
full-blown data and technology company.
I’ve done so many different things in the retail
ecosystem, and when we sold Inmar in May,
Mark [Batenic, IGA’s president/CEO since
2006] and I started talking about his retirement. I started getting excited about IGA’s
independents, because some of the data and
the trends we’re seeing intersect directly with
what I envision for the next generation of grocery—the nature of the store, the widening of
its value proposition, the switching to experiential retailing—all of which is way more fun
than commodity retailing.
As an advocate of the role data analytics
plays in marketing and retailing, as well
as a champion of technology-empowered
shoppers, what do you feel is most signifi-
cant for independents in this domain?
Anybody who’s a good operator is already
a data and analytics person who runs their
business by movement, shrink reports and
gross margins. They’re already good numbers
people. But what makes data and analytics
new, fresh and cool isn’t that it’s some scary
technology; what makes big data interesting
is that the machine starts doing some of the
work for you, and that’s not what indies have
seen so far. Their take on data analytics has
been more reports, albeit not prescriptive. No
operator, big or small, has time to sit down and
analyze a spreadsheet. They need to know
what’s broken, and what are the top two things
they can do to change it? So our next task is to
inform them about how to convert that data—
not into a report card, but a benchmark, with a
set of recommendations that say: “If you want
to move the metric up, try this.” And it’s not
scary. And when done right, it becomes a new
tool that doesn’t require sitting in your office
looking at spreadsheets, but instead taking a
set of recommendations and implementing
them, and then watching to see if they made a
movement in your margin of your sales.
Switching gears, what advice would you
give to your 20-year-old self?
At 20, I was still in college, and was a commissioned salesperson working retail. I was
also probably playing the piano on Bourbon
Street at night to put myself through school.
And that kid wanted a career in anything but
retail. I did, in fact, quit my retail job and left
to try something different. I ended up going
back into merchandising and I’ve never left.
You said something very smart at the beginning our interview, Meg, about how we as
industry do a generally terrible job with young
people in retail by not courting them. Had I not
gotten the opportunity to go back and work for
an independent, and have one of the senior
merchants take me under his wing and show
me how cool retail really is, I would never have
done what I did. So, my advice to my 20-year-
old self would be, “You’re already in an exciting business. You’re in a business that will give
you leadership opportunities early, and you’re
in a business that will allow you to experiment,
and test, and fail, and learn, and grow in a way
that you couldn’t do in a big corporate company. Food retailing is a great place to be.”
John Ross is CEO of IGA, the
largest group of independent
grocery retailers in the world.
Ross was previously president
of Inmar Promotion Network.
What is your most prized
possession? Three-part answer:
My father’s old Hamilton watch, my
family (although I realize they’re not
possessions) and my ’ 51 Corvette—
black with silver coves and red
interior—which is pretty cool, too.
How about your favorite leisure
activity? I like driving cars, fast. I L