Jimmy Wright is defining “high tech, high touch” services in food retail

Jimmy Wright, owner of the independent grocery store Wright’s Market in Opelika, Alabama, learned the ins and outs of the grocery business at an early age. The first thing he learned from working with his father, who owned the store before him, was how to get himself a little extra free time: “I tell people one of my biggest claims to fame is that I have been fired more than anybody in the history of this store combined. So I come to work at 12 years old and do something really goofy, and my dad would get mad and send me home. And then he’d get busy at the store, so he’d call me back.”

Jimmy took over the store from his dad in 1997. Ten of his 32 employees have been with him since the beginning. In an increasingly competitive market, Jimmy understands the importance of the relationships between him, his employees, and the community he serves as what distinguishes Wright’s Market from its larger competitors.

Jimmy calls his approach “high tech, high touch,” a philosophy that informs his mission as an independent grocer: “We want to feed families and we want to nourish them physically, but we also want to nourish them emotionally.” That mission led him to participate in the Double Up Food Bucks program with Fair Food Network, an initiative that expands the buying power of SNAP beneficiaries, incentivizes healthier food choices, and benefits local growers. It also made him decide to create an on-demand van service for members of his community who had trouble making it to and from his store.  

His desire to serve the community also led him to embrace all kinds of new technologies, from e-commerce, for people who can’t make it to his store at all to basic biometric scanners, so Opelika’s underbanked citizens have a place to cash checks. He’s even developed an active social media presence; posts celebrating employee birthdays illuminate their contribution to the community while also spreading his message about the “high touch” role of independent grocers to thousands of people, many far beyond Opelika.

Going forward, he sees an increasing role for technology in his business. For Wright’s Market and the 21,000 stores that make up the independent-focused National Grocers Association, on whose behalf Jimmy testified before Congress last year, he sees one clear goal: “The thing for us is efficiency.” Those 21,000 stores generate reams of data. If they had access to effective and affordable data analysis and machine learning tools, they could harness the power of that  data in service of more efficient stocking and distribution. Having a better understanding of how much to order and when would save independent grocers time and money while also preventing food waste and bringing fresher products to the consumer.

Like so many independent grocers, Jimmy’s story is one of constant innovation in service of his community. Developing user-friendly and affordable AI systems, with input from him and his peers, is one way to ensure that independent grocers like Wright’s Market can use high tech tools to support their communities across the US.

Diana Huang
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