From the outside looking in, one might think Julie Bierman’s role as senior buyer of retail food for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service caters to a very specific demographic — military personnel. But that group is far more diverse than just the men and women actively serving.
“Our customer is male and female, they’re active duty and they’re retirees, they’re dependent wives and they’re kids, and they are located all around the world,” Bierman tells Candy & Snack TODAY, noting only military members and their families can shop at The Exchange stores.
She has been with the Exchange for more than 30 years, but that would be selling her time with the company short. One could more accurately say she’s spent a lifetime with the Exchange going back to her infant days around a military base when her father worked for the company.
Bierman’s experience at the Exchange hit nearly every rung on her way to becoming senior buyer. She started with the company’s college training program in 1985 and spent two and a half years as an assistant sales and merchandise manager and then as an assistant store manager before transferring to the company’s Dallas headquarters.
There she began learning her craft working as an associate buyer in hardlines in the lamp and furniture category. She then moved to softlines as an assistant buyer, a buyer and then a senior buyer before joining the retail food team responsible for seasonal candy in 2011.
While the Exchange is a benefit for soldiers and their families, Bierman doesn’t take her customer base for granted, acknowledging there are always options elsewhere.
“While only our customers can shop in our stores, they can also shop anywhere else, so we want to make sure we’re the destination,” Bierman says. “We want to make sure we’re offering the right product at the right price at the right time, and that we have the value proposition and the name brands they’re looking for.”
To help make sure the store remains a destination, she’s implemented a year round seasonal program to generate excitement and improve the customer experience. Her seasonal program incorporates the traditional holidays along with the company’s own “Chocolate Fest,” “Candy Carnival” and “Summer Sweets” events. She says the seasonal sets help showcase the entire candy department with impactful in-store marketing highlighted with key brands.
She works with vendors to come up with innovative displays that highlight summer items and interact with customers such as when Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds showed up in stores with iconic candy characters riding along. Or, when she organized a scavenger hunt for customers to play throughout the store.
It’s one thing to come up with the ideas but it’s another thing altogether to execute them. If it weren’t for Bierman’s relationships with vendors, her imagination and her patience to listen to feedback, these programs would have never gotten off the ground, according to David Arens, divisional merchandise manager for retail food at the Exchange.
He goes on to explain: “You may be a very large vendor or you may be a smaller vendor, but Julie’s going to give you quality time and listen to the unique features of your products.”
This strategy of promotional events is all the more important given the company’s closed market, which makes advertising more of a challenge. Using in-store radio and the EXTV channel, which exclusively broadcasts the stores’ promotions, Bierman says the company has helped keep consumers coming back. Shoppers are also notified about sales through social media, weekly tabloid ads, specialty books and the company’s app.
But all of that is useless if Bierman isn’t offering the latest trending products. She focuses on industry data along with the company’s own internal analysis to identify what is in demand, but sometimes a product can just evoke a certain feeling.
“There are times when a new item or vendor will just resonate with me and there is not necessarily any market data to support it,” Bierman says. “In those cases I go with my creative instincts. You have to be open to that to keep assortments fresh and interesting.”
Right now she finds many of the trends that are taking hold nationwide apply to the Exchange stores as well. She says sour items are strong in the non-chocolate sector with premium chocolates taking hold in the candy aisle. Her job is about finding new ways to apply these everyday trends to seasonal selections, which is something she’s done very effectively through promotional displays.
One of the accomplishments Bierman says she is most proud of is helping to enhance the customer experience through an extensive number of sweepstakes and promotions in partnership with vendors. A few of the events promoted in store are Ghirardelli Chocolate Co.’s sponsored trip to San Francisco, a Darrell Lea Pty Ltd. sponsored trip to Australia, The Promotion in Motion Cos., Inc.’s Smart Car giveaways, The Hershey Co.’s $5,000 gift card sweepstakes and Mars Chocolate North America’s sponsored trip to M&M’s World.
It’s these types of programs that provide something extra for her customers and make her line of work all the more rewarding, she explains, pointing to the “The Sweet Story Book Contest” sponsored by Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. as a particular favorite. For this one, consumers sent in stories of their most memorable Christmases, and reading the submissions had Bierman and the rest of the judges in tears.
Bierman says while approaching vendors looking for support on such a large scale might seem daunting, she’s come to realize it’s just a matter of asking.
“Everyone has a soft spot for military families, so we get a lot of really good support for giving back to them,” Bierman says. “It’s great to get a price cut, everyone appreciates value, and it’s great to have co-op support, but just going a little outside that is a really great give-back to the consumer.”
These sweepstakes also help enhance product and pack type launches as well as promote current items. “We want to stimulate sales, we want to create a great customer experience, and we want it to be fun. Candy is really very spontaneous, so if you walk into a store and see a colorful and impactful sign or a sweepstakes opportunity, it’s going to make you want to walk over,” Bierman says. “We don’t want to have just another item on sale, we want to create an event.”
By staying agile and ready to adapt, Bierman is setting an example for all buyers in the confectionery category and offers them the following advice: “Don’t be afraid to fail. Take risks and stand by them. Even if it doesn’t work, you will learn something.”
With wisdom, expertise and the all important experience in her corner, Jennifer Dilts has consistently strived to bring the highest quality products at affordable prices to shoppers at Dollar General Corp.’s more than 12,000 outlets, industry sources tell Candy & Snack TODAY.
It’s this drive that allows the discount retailer to outpace category growth among comparable stores year-on-year, as Dilts’ sets have regularly increased by double digits in her current role as senior buyer for candy and snacks.
She began her 16-year career with Dollar General as a vendor relations specialist before being promoted to merchandising assistant for home cleaning and paper items. In 2004, Dilts became assistant buyer for home cleaning, and two years later moved to the food and pet desk. Three years later she was promoted to buyer for pet items as well as regional salty snacks, Little Debbie products, bread and sweet goods. Dilts became fully entrenched in the confectionery industry in 2010, when she took over the candy and snacks desk. Two years later she was appointed to her present position.
She also manages a buyer and a merchandising assistant, who help her evaluate candy items as well as cookies, crackers, warehouse salty snacks, nuts, popcorn and front-end products.
Her buying prowess will be further tested this coming year. Dollar General’s aggressive growth plan is calling for 900 new stores as well as relocation or remodeling of another 700.
Dilts notes this will result in approximately 6 percent more square footage. Further, the discounter began shipping from a new San Antonio distribution center earlier this year and construction has begun on another storehouse in Janesville, WI.
Despite this growth, she continues to tackle her job with the shopper in clear focus.
“I view my role in a consumer-centric way. I want to serve the needs of our shoppers by purchasing the best candy and snacks, and offering them at the lowest price possible,” she says. “It’s all about delivering quality and great value.”
In addition to affordability, Dilts says data rankings from The Nielsen Co. and familiarity with flavor profiles that resonate with shoppers are critical in evaluating new products. However, trend reports only weigh about 25 percent into her final decisions,
she says, reiterating: “It’s truly about the affordability to our shoppers.”
With locations in more than 43 states, Dilts is also charged with developing multiple sets to meet unique geographic demands. “We choose those regional items based on consumer demographics and Nielsen insights in specific areas,” she explains.
As might be expected from the channel, peg bags of non-chocolate products and $1 snack packs are among the best sellers, with the former being the highest performing sector, she says.
“They are the most affordable for low-income consumers looking for a treat or something to share,” Dilts explains, adding she keeps assortments fresh with new products, but remains committed to items with consistently high velocity sales.
With all this on her plate, Dilts still finds time to meet with 15 to 20 vendors a month as well as hitting the road for trade events two or three times annually.
Although more face-to-face time is available during in-office planning meetings, she says trade shows are critical for her role as they showcase all the new products being launched as well as offering the chance to meet with potential new suppliers.
“ISM is a very beneficial show to be able to meet with vendors from overseas and the Sweets & Snacks Expo in May is also very beneficial for meeting with potentially new and current suppliers,” she says, adding the Expo is the place to be to see a majority of new items being launched.
In addition to trade shows, she makes store visits part of her routine to get input on what shoppers are clamoring for, how manageable planograms are, feedback on off-shelf merchandising and how well seasonal items performed.
“The interaction between merchants and store personnel is invaluable. We have to listen and learn from the employees we ask to implement programs,” Dilts explains.
Her merchandising strategy includes leveraging some of the most efficient in-store marketing tools such as customized side wings, unique fixtures and PDQ trays to grab shoppers’ attention.
Concerning in-aisle items, she says shoppability is the top priority as Dollar General consumers tend to spend less than 30 seconds making purchase decisions when perusing the center store.
Without divulging too much on Dollar General’s future plans, Dilts notes her promotional aims are to drive store trips with the overarching goal of saving money for consumers.
“We are working with our suppliers to support their brands and participate in a variety of promotions,” she says, noting these programs include BOGO deals as well as digital and traditional coupons.
For example, Dollar General is running a special on 100 calorie chocolate bars positioned at checkout that retail for 2/$1. “This is an off-list buy that adds to the basket and has been very popular with our customers,” she points out.
While collaboration and promotions are important for strong sales, Dilts says being passionate and loving what you do are almost as vital as following her buyer mantra: “Always consider the shopper when making decisions.” CST