The food industry must renew its focus on the centre of the store amid the “digital revolution” changing the way people shop, consumer goods giant Unilever has said today (9 October).

Jan Zijderveld, president of Unilever’s operations in Europe, told the IGD annual convention in London that suppliers and retailers had to “bring back the heart to the middle of the store”, where, despite the rise of the online channel, the bulk of sales are made.

The Unilever executive’s comments came at a conference that discussed the impact consumers’ increasing use of the Internet and of social media was having on the sector. Tesco CEO Philip Clarke echoed his call at last month’s World Retail Congress for manufacturers and retailers to “get personal” in order to adapt to consumers’ changing habits.

Zijderveld acknowledged the digital world was “revolutionising” the industry but said the sector should not forget the centre of the store.

“Digital is changing everything – it’s changing the way we buy and the way brands are communicating with consumers. We have to reinvent the store experience and give people a reason to come to our shops. There is a huge revolution taking place in the way people are shopping. What we need to do is bring back the heart in the middle of our store, bring back more engagement,” he said.

“We must not lose the focus of where a huge amount of business is still done and how we improve engagement in all the different elements and the whole shopping experience.”

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Zijderveld said there were examples of retailers seeking to engage with consumers via investment in fresh food. However, he claimed the grocery sector could learn from retailers like Apple that were mixing both the online channel and the physical store to appeal to shoppers.

The food retail sector, he said, had “become boring.” He added: “We basically built massive warehouses, without many people by the way? How do you inspire consumers? This is how our challenge. How do we bring back the engagement to this part of the store.”

The Unilever executive said retailers and manufacturers had to work together to get consumers interested in the store’s central aisles.

“To be able to stay relevant and to be able to stay engaged in the centre of the store, we have to reinvent the centre of the store, with our brands, categories and great consumer understanding and that is what collaboration is all about,” he said.