Based in Pittsburgh and privately owned, grocery chain Giant Eagle, with 34,000 employees across 570 locations, raced to deliver new digital experiences and buying capabilities for their customers during those intensely challenging early months of the pandemic. And it’s during that time when Ball joined, in June 2020.

“The pandemic certainly accelerated the growth and adoption of buying online, and that certainly caused us to accelerate the landscape and breadth of the offering we have,” he says. “We had to mature that offering very quickly to handle the scale and scope of demand, and the ability to personalize the digital interaction with households and customers.”

With annual revenues of around $11 billion, Giant Eagle also decided to disband their corporate office—not temporarily but permanently. So it’s a completely virtual enterprise, and all efforts were made to maintain the close-knit culture Giant Eagle had, as well as transform the culture to one that’s more proactive and assertively aligned with business partners.

“We worked really hard as a technology group to walk a mile in our business partners’ shoes, and understand what kind of objectives each is trying to accomplish in their particular area of responsibility,” he says. “We are here to help you be successful, and that’s gone a long way in deepening relationships where they support and help us to be successful and vice versa. They know we are there to do that with them.”

Kirk Ball, EVP and CIO at Giant Eagle

Giant Eagle

Another evolving priority is their ability to effectively manage data and create an analytics platform that provides insights into the stories the data is telling, and, in turn, reveal those stories to decision makers across different functions in the business.

“We give them more opportunity to peer around the corner as how trends evolve in their particular area so they can either do a course correction or accelerate in a particular way, whether that’s in growth of a category of sales or driving some efficiency in terms of our supply chain,” he says. “That analytics platform is consistently growing in importance.”

CIO Leadership Live host Maryfran Johnson, recently spoke with Ball about effective digital retail strategies, aligning with the CEO and optimizing the customer experience. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On the CEO as an enabler: I haven’t worked with other CEOs across the grocery retail landscape, but as the CEO, [Laura Karet] is incredibly brilliant. She is very curious and takes a genuine interest in technology. Whether it’s the ability to personalize a customer’s experience, create a very rich loyalty program to interact with customers, use technology to drive efficiency and effectiveness for our team members, or her analytic capability, she recognizes that technology is a competitive differentiator in the industry we’re in. It’s awesome to work with somebody like that. She and the whole executive leadership team have been big supporters in investing in technology so we can create competitive differentiation in the marketplace.

On IT talent: When I got here, I recognized we had a lot of very capable people. In many cases, though, they needed a bit more support, encouragement and empowerment. The pandemic, I think, helped us realize that all of our team members in North America remained very productive, or even gained a bit of productivity, as we went to a completely remote work situation. I think that helped open the mindset of the organization to say whether you’re in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati or anywhere, let’s continue to try and expand the areas in which we search for talent. We then started a journey to open a global capability center in Bangalore, India because we recognized there’s a wealth of talent there. Now we have up to 125 team members over there, but we’re searching for more. We’ll still have a rich, robust presence in North America but this allows us to create a global technology team. It exposes different cultures and approaches to technology. I think that enriches the capability of the whole team.

On emerging tech trends: One thing I have a high degree of interest in, and I think we are curious about in our organization, is augmented reality; virtual reality may be a little bit further out. I think something like up to 95% of business for grocers occurs in a store setting. That implies there’s a lot of opportunity to continue enriching the experience. So how do you animate inanimate objects in a store to create a deeply immersive experience for customers as they come into that store? That ability to bring additional information about product on shelf to life is added promotional information. I can tell you where the source was from, how long an item has been on shelf, some things you can do with this product you may not know about, and so on. That ability to augment reality is quite interesting. Once we figure out ways to maybe have contact lenses or glasses that could see that virtual reality and make it a hands-free experience, I think there is something to that.

On data analytics: The first thing we’ve done is put up a master data management capability. What that’s resulted in, for example, is we no longer have people in a meeting with different reports than others on the same topic, who then spend time arguing because there isn’t a master system of record for that particular data object. We’re also giving people introspection into various sets of data, the way the business operates, so they don’t have to take one set of data. The way the business runs is you have to look at all of those sets of information together to make a collective understanding. Do you have the right product in the right location at the right price, creating the right margin? Putting data objects together the way that the business runs has been very impactful for our business partners to better understand item and product margin, how products are moving through a particular store, and if we have the right products in the right store to match the taste and preferences of that local community.

On leadership: I was always big about frequently walking around and stopping by peoples’ cubes and being informal. And I guess you take that for granted a little bit. I realized, as we got into the virtual world, just how important it is for that frequency of communication when you can’t do it in person. But it’s still important. So I meet with those that I work with directly three times a week, and the leadership team once a week. I also meet with the whole enterprise group once every three weeks. So there’s a frequency of communication because it’s important for those you work with to be noticed, recognized, and listened to. The whole experience with our global capability center has just reinforced that. It’s very important for people to have their ideas heard, and to be able to contribute to the development of the strategy so it becomes their strategy, not my strategy. There’s so much power in that. People buy in and they get energized when they have a chance to contribute like that.

Analytics, Augmented Reality, CIO, Digital Transformation, Employee Experience, IT Leadership, Retail Industry, Virtual Reality

Kirk Ball, Chief Information Officer/Chief Technology Officer, Giant Eagle, joins host Maryfran Johnson for this CIO Leadership Live interview, jointly produced by and the CIO Executive Council. They discuss grocery retail innovations, digital customer strategies, sourcing global talent, augmented reality and more.

Watch this video:

Listen to this episode:

CIO, CIO Leadership Live

Like any other retailer, grocery stores want to build trust with their customers and keep them coming back. But the average bill and already slender margins in grocery can make it challenging to create a loyalty program that provides sufficiently compelling rewards.

Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort, given that loyalty programs are a powerful incentive for grocery shoppers. In the US, for example, more than 60% of grocery store loyalty program members say that the financial incentives (such as discounts and promotions) influence where they shop and how much they spend.1

The first challenge is persuading customers to sign up for a loyalty account. Stores with a digital presence tend to roll loyalty programs into their online accounts. However, stores entering the digital space report that almost 57% of their online customers prefer to check out as a guest, rather than register for an account and the associated loyalty rewards.2 How can stores persuade customers to sign up and keep them coming back for more? Follow these tips:

1. Know your customers and what matters to them

Know who your customers are and make sure the rewards you offer reflect their wants and needs. This involves making a genuine effort to understand your most loyal customers and what will entice them to keep shopping with you. Initially, you’ll probably need to gather insights from surveys, customer service data and customer interviews. Once you have a body of customers signed up as account and program members, you’ll be able to gather data about their shopping behaviors directly, enabling you to further refine and personalize your loyalty program and offers.

2. Make it easy (and rewarding) to sign up

Make the enrollment process as straightforward as you can, while ensuring you capture all the relevant customer information. Consider offering an incentive to new joiners, such as a ‘welcome’ promo code or discount off their first shop.

3. Make rewards about more than just shopping

Think about offering bonus points or other incentives to program members who refer friends and family members to the program. And give people a reason to keep coming back, such as a reward for opening your mobile app every day for seven days, or for visiting the physical store twice in a week.

4. Deliver seamless transactions at the point of sale

Give loyalty program members a smoother checkout experience instore with reserved tills, or the ability to pay using a barcode, QR code or the app itself (with additional rewards for doing so).

5. Provide genuine value to your customers

If your loyalty program is mostly focused on benefiting your business, customers will likely see through that. Instead, make sure that customers feel like they’re getting something in return for all that loyalty they’re showing you. One approach could be to offer different tiers of rewards or exclusive offers based on spending thresholds.

What technology can help optimize the loyal customer experience?

Optimizing the experience for loyal customers means recognizing them regardless of how they interact with your brand, so you can offer them the privileges, promotions and personal touch that will help them feel valued.  

With Cybersource’s sophisticated Token Management Service, you can recognize your customers regardless of the global payment types, brands, methods, channels, or devices they use. Token Management Service creates one, unified, proprietary token identifier, which centralizes and orchestrates management of all tokens to provide a 360-degree view of the customer. That enables you to support the development of omnichannel experiences and incentives that help to further increase customer engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty.

The ongoing shift to digital grocery shopping means that the competition is often only a tap away. A well designed and well executed loyalty program can play an important role in strengthening customers’ loyalty to your brand.

For more about building customer loyalty in grocery and additional insights, download Cybersource’s “Food Experiences” guide.

IT Leadership