5 Keys to Thriving in the ‘Dynamic Future’: Takeaways from the 2023 Category Management & Shopper Insights Conference

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Activating Insights for a Dynamic Future was the theme of this year’s Category Management & Shopper Insights Conference, held recently on the Las Vegas strip. The event, hosted by CMA and SIMA, highlighted the changing—and often tumultuous—landscape of the past few years and, consequently, category management teams’ growing need for data-driven insights to make impactful decisions to weather the storm and help grow their business. 

With more than 200 companies represented, 20 breakout sessions from notable category management stakeholders, six keynote speakers, and plenty of productive networking events, the event was filled with energy and optimism during a particularly uncertain economic climate. (We’d also be remiss if we didn’t point out the energy and endorphins brought by the adoptable puppies on the show floor, too.)

If you missed the CatMan conference or just want to catch up on what’s happening in the category management world these days, here are five key things that stood out from the show.

With changing market conditions, managing uncertainty continues to be top of mind for category managers.

In the face of unpredictability, how can you still drive an effective category management strategy? As Randy Edeker, executive chairman of Hy-Vee Supermarkets, put it, we’re only just out of the frying pan and are being thrown straight into the fire—an apt metaphor for emerging from the pandemic to now face a host of changing macroeconomic conditions.

As part of a fireside chat on the state of the grocery industry, Edeker reflected on the past three years of challenges: namely, supply-chain issues, work shortages, “quiet quitting,” and credit card debt and low savings rates for consumers. 

In addition to becoming better advocates for shoppers and actively pushing back on price increases from manufacturers, Edeker advised grocers to focus on flexibility and risk-taking in light of these challenges. 

“I had our CFO quantify, ‘How much money can I lose and have us still be sustainable?’” he noted, pointing out the flexibility this has given Hy-Vee in making bolder moves. The grocer has also shifted how it tackles rapidly evolving consumer preferences and buying patterns: From five-year strategic planning pre-pandemic to three-week sprints nowadays, agility is the word on strategy in the face of a continuously changing environment.

To meet consumer behavior changes, category managers need a much quicker speed of insights.

During a fireside chat on competitive intelligence, Robert Bunchek—Target’s VP of strategic planning, intelligence, and performance—brought up the need for category management teams to derive data-driven insights more quickly, in parallel with quickly changing consumer behavior. After all, speed to insights often equates with speed to shelf.

Bunchek, a 25-year veteran of the retail space, offered a couple key pieces of advice:

  • Use all of your data—competitive, consumer, and external: When it comes to capturing intelligence, he said, “there’s not always one single source of truth.” It’s about understanding where retail is going as a whole—not just what your competitors are doing. Use data to understand where everyone is moving so you can position yourself accordingly and “get your slice of the pie,” he explained. Even though the numbers “were often scary” during the pandemic, Bunchek said, having access to many sources of data gave Target a much better understanding of what was happening. Even if your numbers are down, having the ability to know why—and being able to have a true forecast—keeps you in better control of your future.
  • Cut through the noise: Yes, in order to truly get a clear understanding of your business, you need to leverage all kinds of data, but that comes with its own challenges. You also need to use intuition and past experiences to better understand what will happen next and make tangible decisions on what to do with the insights you uncover. Importantly, you need to play through different scenarios and choose the highest-priority situations—instead of overloading your teams with data and outputs, make sure you’re putting the right information in front of the right people.
  • Define your competitive landscape: Instead of “reacting to every shiny penny,” Bunchek advised, create the proper structure around your competitive landscape, prioritizing who you’re observing and targeting. Defining your space is of the utmost importance, so make sure you’re making strategic choices to position yourself against the competitors (and not wasting time going after the ones who aren’t truly a threat).

Data storytelling is key: Category managers must synthesize insights in order to make them consumable and actionable.

Obtaining quicker insights requires efficient decision-making. As Bunchek put it, you need to be able to “look under rocks,” but at the same time, don’t “talk about all the rocks you looked under.” 

In other words, make sure you’re telling the right stories from your data. Give yourself a chance to step back and synthesize your insights, but, again, be bold: Don’t be afraid to put your ideas out there to reach the ultimate goal of growing your category.

However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. For CPG companies to understand consumer behavior and price trends, they rely on a mix of retail measurement and consumer insights data in order to optimize pricing and assortments by region, chain, and market type. Companies hire data scientists to make sense of all this information, but with limited resources and massive amounts of data, category management and shopper insights teams can struggle to keep up with the demand. In turn, enabling these teams to extract the right insights on their own, without needing to rely on data scientists, is of the utmost importance. 

After all, as Yelena Idelchik—Reckitt’s director of shopper insights for health, hygiene, and nutrition—put it, the right insights are what differentiate retailers. Knowledge is power, but insights are your currency, she said, underscoring the crucial need for teams to have access to the right data to maximize ROI for their team.

AI is a massively hot topic.

It’s no surprise that ChatGPT and other burgeoning AI tools were the talk of the town at the CatMan conference. Here are just a few snippets:

  • A session featuring Mondelēz International—one of the world’s biggest snack companies—touted ChatGPT as technology that could “advance CPGs and category management as we know it” and, “when combined with augmented analytics, large language models can make analytics and insights more accessible to users than ever before.”
  • For assortment strategies in particular, Tyson Foods discussed its success with AI in store-level assortment analysis and optimization. After using AI to automatically conduct analyses at a store level, the multibillion-dollar corporation determined it was a much more feasible approach than manual processes, which had limited the teams to cluster-level analyses. It also enabled teams to become better at their jobs and prevented them from missing granular information that may typically have gotten lost in clusters. 

More change is inevitable, so don't get left behind.

Phil Lempert, the consumer analyst known as the “SupermarketGuru,” asked Hy-Vee’s Edeker about the grocer’s drive to constantly innovate. After all, many retailers have determined that as long as they have the most appealing prices for consumers, they don’t need to rock the boat and experiment with new ways of bringing people in.

According to Edeker, however, if you aren’t constantly “moving and recreating” in today’s evolving market, you’ll be left behind. 

“The digital economy of today has removed barriers,” he explained, “making the playing field more even.” In other words, it’s entirely feasible to compete with the bigger competition, as long as you stay ahead of the curve, knowing the next big thing the customer wants before the customer even gets there. 

To put it bluntly?

“Innovate or die,” he said.

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Ready to embrace the changes?

The 2023 CatMan conference was all about preparing organizations for a “dynamic future,” a theme that was evident across the three days of learnings—from sessions to conversations we had with CPG leaders and other vendors. 

Making decisions backed by data, category management leaders are ready to take on whatever the world (and industry) throws at them next. However, many are still relying on legacy business intelligence software that can provide only high-level reporting—not painlessly explain what’s driving so many changes. Managing millions of data points, they find that manually slicing and dicing for answers is inefficient or sometimes even impossible. 

To learn how Tellius helps category management and shopper insights teams manage all of this data, move at the speed required to keep pace with competitors, and continue innovating, read more below:

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