As 2023’s Produce Business Retail Sustainability Award recipient, Giant Foods touts the many benefits of its green initiatives.
Originally printed in the May 2023 issue of Produce Business.
When it comes to sustainability, local counts, and Giant Food minimizes food miles traveled by the products it carries as an eco-friendly way of supporting the communities where the banner operates.
That’s just one of the factors that prompted Produce Business to name Giant Food its Sustainability Retailer of the Year.
The connection to local vendors, especially in produce, is becoming a more noteworthy issue, not only due to concerns about freshness at purchase and food miles traveled, but also with food waste and sustainability aspects. More consumers are demanding local seasonal fruits and vegetables and are looking to retailers to support local food production and consumption, both for authenticity’s sake and to boost regional economies.
“Local produce is important,” says Robert Nickels, director of produce and floral at Giant Food, based in Landover, MD. “We look for every opportunity to partner locally, particularly at the height of our local growing season. Many of our local farms cannot fully supply all our stores, so we often offer a mix of traditionally sourced and locally sourced products. Our customer looks for and purchases local products, and we continue to see growing interest in locally sourced produce.”
In its 2022 Good Neighbor Report, Giant Food noted it grew local vendor partnerships to more than 200 and partnered with more than 50 local farms to offer 800+ products from its regional partners, with plans to add more. The company also launched a local aisle online at giantfood.com that initially included more than over 70 online exclusive items.
In January, Giant announced a new brand campaign, Find Your Local, as a way of calling attention to the company’s longtime commitment to the communities it serves — a commitment that includes educational programs, partnerships and product offerings. At that time, Giant noted that its local program had expanded to more than 1,000 items from 100-plus local vendors.
Nickels says beyond other considerations, consumers have become aware of the sustainability advantages attached to local produce as it is available in season.
“I believe most customers understand the environmental impacts associated with transporting products over great distances,” he says. “We look for every opportunity to provide products that travel the shortest distance possible. This not only means less fuel, road, rail and air travel time, but often, we receive fresher, higher-quality produce. I believe our customers do care about ‘connectivity’ as they look to connect with products they buy and consume. Part of that connectivity is recognizing and appreciating the benefits of products that are grown within and near their communities.”
CONSUMERS’ CONCERNS VARY
Giant’s local efforts are a part of a broad, companywide sustainability strategy. Giant Food’s sustainability brand lead, Steven Jennings, says shoppers, particularly highly educated shoppers, are more aware than ever of food miles, water usage, animal welfare, biodiversity, regenerative agriculture and deforestation.
The shoppers who are exploring such topics aren’t uniform and may focus on some things more than others, but they are questioning supermarket operators and other retailers about their concerns. Once companies could easily talk about sustainability goals, Jennings says, but today, they have to demonstrate progress. As such, he says, Giant has made a concerted effort to advance on big picture issues.
“Where we are today, from five years ago, we’re night and day for sure,” Jennings says. “But we are nowhere near where we need to be.”
On the sustainability declaration posted on its website, Giant Food expresses its commitment to greater transparency, providing shoppers with a better understanding of where the food they buy originates and what ingredients it contains. As Jennings noted, eco-conscious consumers tend to have both general and more specific concerns, so Giant ensures that, whether it’s using less plastic, ensuring humane treatment of animals, finding products free from chemicals or whatever their concerns, consumers can get information they need to make acceptable choices.
Jennings says, although Giant wants to serve as broad consumer base as possible, the company’s core shopper tends to be a younger, individual, single parent or newly married across most of its market area, which stretches from Delaware to northeastern Virginia and includes Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. The core customer tends to have an educated understanding of sustainability, with local products and animal welfare being areas of major interest, along with processes and food miles.
“They basically want to know farm to fork,” Jennings says. “‘Where did this come from? And, if something is wrong with this after I purchase, how do I know I’m not going to be impacted? How can Giant tell me this was part of a recall or something of that nature?’”
PRODUCTS SCORED ON SUSTAINABILITY
Giant Food underscores that it is working to lead the food retailing sector when it comes to industry traceability. It also offers an environmental social impact rating system based on an analysis developed by HowGood, an independent research company, and SaaS data platform that claims the world’s largest database on food product sustainability.
The relationship with HowGood is an important part of giving consumers access to information. Although it began six years ago, not many people outside of Giant and its concerned customers are aware of what the HowGood relationship means.
“One thing that Giant Food is an unsung hero on: Giant is the first and, still to this day the only, grocery retailer in the world, and, yes, I can say that with confidence, that has partnered with a third party, largest scientific data repository of sustainable attributes,” Jennings says.
The rating system weighs each ingredient in a product against environmental and social criteria, such as farming practices, treatment of animals, labor conditions and chemical use. It uses a one-, two- or three-leaf rating rating system, displayed on Giant shelf tags, to give shoppers an immediate sense of a product’s eco-friendliness. The more leaves a product has, the more sustainable it is.
HowGood incorporates 75 attributes into its ratings. They range from fair labor to management ethics to sustainability, based on publicly available certifications and audits. HowGood is not only a factor in working with consumers, but vendors, as well, because Giant can look at certain attributes and demonstrate that products offering them are gaining sales. As such, Giant starts a dialogue with its suppliers and makes the case that they should adopt those attributes. The HowGood system is available online, as well.
The company also pledged to work with independent certification organizations to advance regenerative agriculture and to work for 100% sustainable plastic packaging. Through its parent company, Ahold Delhaize, Giant Food is a signatory to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use packaging models to reuse practices.
SHOW VALUE TO CUSTOMER
Jennings says Giant Food has two important priorities: to serve its established customers today and to embrace its emerging customers, including Gen Zers. In Giant market research, consumers questioned about sustainability made an eco-friendly response 80% of the time, even when making the choice would cost a little more money. However, when confronted with a significantly higher price, consumers would generally favor the lower-cost item.
“So, part of our challenge as a retailer is selling value, but value is different to everybody,” Jennings says. “What we have to do — and this goes all the way back to our vendor partnerships, and in the end it’s every department, from fresh produce to fresh meat all the way to nonperishable in the middle — is to show the value in whatever form for that customer. It’s telling the whole story.”
Besides its own research and dialogue with consumers, Giant Food has the opportunity to learn from the activities of its Ahold Delhaize parent, based in Amsterdam, although priorities aren’t always the same. For example, in the Netherlands, the company is encouraging consumers to eat more plant-based foods to reduce their carbon footprint, which isn’t surprising given the low-lying nature of the country; and it is especially susceptible to the effects of climate change.
Jennings says Giant isn’t doing that in the U.S., but is taking what has been learned on either side of the Atlantic and considering it within the context of its own market area. Bottom line: Giant is more determined than ever to provide as much information as possible and let consumers make their choices.
But forging ahead when it comes to eco-friendly solutions that resonate with shoppers is a challenge, with consumers also concerned about inflation and food prices. Still, Giant is determined to advance its sustainability goals. Among the company’s engines to move forward on its environmental and related health goals is the Healthy Living Team, Jennings says, which is taking a broader stance on what constitutes healthy living.
The team is comprised of 10 in-store registered dietitians and nutritionists and led by a director of healthy living. “They are the gold standards for our brands in how to promote awareness around health,” Jennings explains.
“They’ve added — kind of unofficially, but they’ve been doing it because they realize the value to the customer and how they’re interconnected — sustainability to a lot of their conversations.”
The Healthy Living Team offers a library of podcasts that covers core nutritional issues as well as topics like the effects of packaging and plastics on the environment. It also offers better-for-you meals on a budget.
“What’s nutritionally valued tends to be more sustainable, as well, and we find this through the data,” Jennings says.
“To emphasize how important produce is to our business, we publicly disclose what we call our healthy food sales,” he says. “We have a 2025 target of 54% of our own brand sales that will be deemed healthy by the Guiding Stars rating system.”
Guiding Stars is the nutritional counterpart to Giant’s sustainability ratings system.
“Sixty percent of all our healthy sales come from produce. You can imagine how important produce is to our business; the margins are higher in the fresh department and, of course, we want to sell more produce.”
TACKLING FOOD WASTE
On its website, Giant offers seasonal produce in a box for $20, which contributes to sustainability by deterring food waste. If one piece of fruit is bad in a package arriving from a vendor, the food box creates a destination for the good items other than the trash.
“With bags of apples and pears and oranges, back in the day, we would have had to throw the whole bag away,” he says. “There was nothing wrong with the other nine in that bag of 10. So, what we do is, we remove that one, but now we can’t sell the rest of the bag. Then, we can make these produce boxes at an affordable price for anybody. We try to emphasize them in food insecure or low food access areas so there are more options for healthy food.”
The produce box is an important way to connect people on lower incomes with healthy eating. “It just puts healthy fresh produce, in particular, but healthier products in general into the hands of customers who are purchasing down,” Jennings says.
The produce box initiative is only one part of a program Giant has advanced to cut food waste, which includes food donations, too. In an 18-month effort, Giant has increased the amount of food that it diverts from the waste stream from 3% to 17%.
However, one side effect of having high standards for national and international growers is that local, fresh-from-the-field produce doesn’t always live up to the aesthetic ideal Giant shoppers expect. So the company markets local produce to help consumers understand its benefits, even if it doesn’t have the same uniformity, and employees get training so they can explain the value of local produce.
Giant is testing a program, focusing on tomatoes right now that adds QR codes that will tell the entire story of a produce item. If expanded, Jennings says, it would be a new way to engage customers in general, with sustainability factoring in, given the transparency provided.
“You won’t find more disclosure or transparency than what you find through that QR code,” Jennings says.
How the program might expand is unknown, but Jennings said there are several possibilities for systems that link a product with online material. Eventually, Giant might even run promotions based on its relationship with a particular grower.
Nickels says the Giant Food produce department is evolving with the preferences and needs of consumers who are concerned about sustainability, but who also look at the produce department as a place where they can satisfy their desire for fresh experiences and flavors.
“We are seeing some new varieties and an ongoing focus on quality and consistency,” he says. “We are seeing more small farms that help contribute additional varieties and better availability, and we look for every opportunity to expand our offering and our presentation in our Giant Food stores.”
As in marketing, Giant is merchandising local produce to ensure consumers know its availability and its origins.
“We display and market local produce when it is in season and use in-store signage and advertising to communicate with our customers,” Nickels says. “These signs and ads include information about the actual farms and farmers who provide our local products, which again helps drive connectivity between our customers and the foods they choose.”
“Our merchandising teams communicate details and plans ahead of seasonal product launches with our store associates and store leadership teams,” Nickels says. “In addition to that support, we also have a team of dedicated sales managers who visit our stores regularly to educate, coach, counsel and help store associates.”
• • •
Giant Food delivery has gone electric
Among its other sustainability initiatives, Giant Food has gone electric.
In June 2022, the Maryland-based company deployed two new, fully electric Giant Delivers step-vans, which joined its fleet of 128 vehicles based in Hanover, MD.
The vehicles make daily deliveries to customers throughout Giant’s markets area, which includes Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.
The new electric vans can travel 105 miles on one charge and will allow Giant Delivers drivers to omit fuel stops during the course of daily deliveries. Over the next several years, Giant plans to transition more of its fleet to all-electric.