It’s All About the Experience

After decades in and around the food business, Phil Miller has come to one indisputable conclusion – the customer experience is much more important than having the most unique products at the best price.

“In the past, retailers and wholesalers could steer people towards items they wanted them to purchase,” said Miller, Vice President of Sales, Western Region for C&S Wholesale Grocers, and incoming Chair of the CGA Board of Directors. 

“With technology where it is, new emerging markets for home delivery and easy access to products from all over the world, the industry has to be more creative and diverse in its product offerings and change them more frequently to stay ahead of the consumer demand curve,” Miller said. “To me, that’s the biggest dynamic impacting the business.”

Miller, who grew up around the business, has had a bird’s eye view of the changes the industry has gone through. His maternal grandfather was a butcher by trade who managed an independent grocery store in Pine Bluff, Ark. His paternal grandfather was a farmer who owned and operated a local market store on his property in Cotton Plant, Ark., a small rural town about halfway between Memphis, Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark.

However, Miller’s journey didn’t start in the food industry. 

His father was a physician and partner in the state’s first integrated medical practice, and his mother was an educator and passionate pioneer in community service for decades in the central Arkansas community. 

“My family placed a high priority on education and encouraged me to gain exposure in a variety of areas but to ultimately follow my passion, dedication and God-given talents of working with people, stating, no matter what you decide to do, be the best at whatever it is,” he said.

After exploring the thought of studying to become a dentist, he landed on the discipline of finance. He graduated from Kennesaw State University in Georgia with a degree in finance and spent several years working at United Parcel Service as well as in the financial industry with a local Atlanta investment firm. 

He got into food retail with the national retail yogurt chain TCBY and relocated to New York, where he eventually became District Manager of Franchise Operations for the Northeast Region. 

In 1997, Miller joined the Refreshment Services Division of Aramark as General Manager in Allentown, Pa., quickly being promoted to similar roles with increasing responsibility in Boston in 1998 and back to New York City in 2000 before relocating to the West Coast in 2007 as District Manager of the Western Region. 

In 2009, he accepted his current role with C&S Wholesale Grocers, reconnecting him to his family industry roots growing up in Arkansas.

Assessing the grocery industry today, and California in particular, Miller noted that it’s easy to pinpoint competition, including e-commerce as the driving force or disrupter in the business. 

“But,” he adds, “To me, it’s all about having a unique brand and competing for customer loyalty with customization, convenience, and providing your customer with a memorable shopping experience.”

According to Miller, these are the portals that change constantly depending on your customer base.

“Everyone these days has to remain nimble enough to make changes that attract new customers as well as keep current customers loyal and interested in the shopping experience you offer,” he shared.

“Our business environment is changing so rapidly that we have to adapt constantly,” he added. “Sometimes, we can get used to doing things a certain way, but there’s always the need for creativity not only in how we take care of customers but also our employees.”

Miller says that with today’s record-low unemployment rate, hiring and retaining a talented workforce is one of the industry’s biggest challenges. 

“I think the industry as a whole is experiencing a shortfall in attracting motivated talent willing and ready to work certain positions, especially on the warehouse and transportation side,” he said, adding that the solution won’t be an easy one.

“It has to revolve around training and development,” he recommends. “We have to focus on ways to attract, develop and train young people in a way that offers them a personalized career path that will allow them to eventually realize a vision of how to work hard, navigate and eventually move up in our organizations.”

Looking ahead, Miller’s focus remains on people in the industry – especially independent retail owners who may be looking at retirement or getting out of the business outright. 

“We service several chains throughout our C&S network, but the heart and soul of our customer base are our independents, so I am always looking at issues from an independent’s perspective,” he said. 

“With all the consolidation in the market, the population of aging owners is a concern. When we get down to the third or fourth generation operators, we don’t often see the same level of passion for running the business. 

“This makes succession planning an essential issue for the years ahead. We have to ensure that we maintain a diverse independent grocery population that won’t disappear,” he said.

However, changing demographics must also remain a top priority for the industry, said Miller. 

“Some retailers started out supplying a consumer base that might have been 80 percent Anglo and never took an inventory of the changing demographics in their marketing areas and never changed the product mix,” he shared. 

“You can no longer assume that populations will remain the same forever. Grocers must make constant use of data analytics to understand the large and small changes in their target market area and make changes to their product portfolios and service options to stay viable. If not, many will one day find themselves behind the eight ball,” said Miller, noting that demographic changes that once took place over a five to 10-year period can now occur at a much faster pace.

This plays into the e-commerce piece of the business. 

“If I’m in rural California and the majority of my consumers are first and second-generation members of their respective ethnicity, it’s easy to assume there’s no interest in online shopping or grocery delivery options and therefore no urgent need to get into that business,” Miller said.

“That is a fallacy that every independent grocer has to get over,” he adds. “Look at the market for cell phones. In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone, and now they’re up to version 11. Technology and consumer demand are moving ahead so rapidly that all retailers have to get into the game sooner rather than later.”

This brings up the issue of keeping up with retail technology. 

“I know the first thing to happen is sticker shock, and it can be difficult in some cases for retailers to see the return on investment,” Miller said. “But, I believe there’s a growing population of grocers that have the benefit of employing a younger generation who understands the value of technology from a consumer’s perspective and can have a lot of influence in helping others understand the importance and urgency of implementation of e-commerce platforms.”

The theme of this year’s CGA Strategic Conference was Minding the Gaps and provided a perfect opportunity to help advance the industry, according to Miller. 

“We’ve got to find a way to bridge that generational technology gap. It is perfectly okay to cherish the past, but only to use those principles as a solid base for moving forward and holding hands with the future,” he said.

Miller believes technology will be a priority this year and wants to take the learning’s from the conference to develop a platform for CGA moving into 2020 – one that connects the dots and continues to bridge the gap for retailers. 

“We want to give them (retailers) the tools to enhance their ability to serve their shoppers for years to come,” he added.

Turning to CGA, Miller said the association’s staff is “an amazing team who are unique in terms of their passion for and knowledge of the industry.” 

This is the strength that helps the association build productive relationships throughout California, whether it’s at the statehouse in Sacramento, or working with single store operators throughout the state, Miller said, adding, “They do an incredible job of staying connected and understanding what the pain points are for all retailers and advocating on their behalf.”

“CGA is all about encouraging innovation, not just from a technology perspective, but altering, reshaping, or completely redesigning ways to educate members about the issues affecting their business,” he said.

At the same time, all members need to be actively involved in the association, according to Miller. 

“Part of our challenge is showing the independent operators the value and return on investment for being part of CGA,” he said. “That doesn’t fall completely on CGA’s leadership but also on companies like C&S that work with retailers every day.” 

CGA President and CEO Ron Fong has tremendous praise for his incoming Chair.

“I have known Phil for some time, and his enthusiasm and love of this industry are evident in everything he does,” Fong said. “His ability to communicate, build relationships, coupled with his considerable knowledge, makes him the perfect chair during this very volatile and transitional period in our industry. I look forward to working closely with him this coming year.”

The C&S executive will take the reins of CGA in early December and serve for one year. During that time, Miller will help guide the Association’s Board of Directors, and participate in numerous leadership opportunities, including meeting with local, state, and national elected officials, as well presenting at various CGA and other industry-related events.

Asked about his personal agenda for the coming year, Miller replied: “I’m big on education and awareness, and believe we are stronger because of our association’s diversity. 

“I want to continue building an association that is respected not only in California but across the country,” he said. “I think we’re looking at a window of opportunity to do some special things in the coming year.”