It’s the million-dollar question many want answered: “What really goes on inside the minds of fmcg and retail industry leaders?”

For the lucky 1,200 who attended LIVE by The Grocer x Retail Week, that question was answered.

Speaking over two days, a series of high-profile CEOs revealed exactly what they thought about big issues, business opportunities and threats to success, as well as what it’s like being a CEO of a leading retail brand.

In a special Daily Bread, we pull together some key thoughts from some of retail’s most powerful minds.

How will AI evolve within fmcg retail?

John Boumphrey, Amazon UK country manager said generative AI would be “the most transformational technology for the retail industry since the arrival of the internet” and “every single team at Amazon” was exploring its use.

Generative AI, a type of artificial intelligence that generates new and original content, using techniques like neural networks and deep learning, had “broken into the collective consciousness” in the past 18 months, Boumphrey said, adding its development and deployment was happening “right across our business”.

The technology is already being used at Amazon to generate summaries of customer reviews “so that you don’t have to read 100 entries to get a sense of what most people like or dislike about a product”.

Generative AI is further being used by “100,000 small and medium-sized UK businesses” to create product listings.

“This is only the beginning. We are but a few steps into a marathon.”

Sophie Neary, managing director retail and fmcg at Google said using Google AI tools on YouTube had “helped retailers reach 44% of customers”.

Some 63% of YouTube viewers say they have purchased from a brand they saw advertised on the platform.

“In the future you won’t just be competing against AI, you’ll be competing against who uses AI the best.”

High Street heroes – what the biggest names on the block are thinking

Sam Perkins, Loaf CEO: “Life as a CEO is good, it’s a privilege. I’ve been in my role at Loaf for a year. The biggest focus is we know to be successful you must understand what you’re trying to do for customers and sticking close to that.

“For any leader, you need to be clear on what you’re trying to do because it can be overwhelming if you get distracted. You can’t do a million things brilliantly. Having a strong team from a couple of perspectives helps to share the burden. I think of the team as a kind of sports team, you’re clear on where you’re trying to get to but you have to take it in stages. But also I build in an amount of time each morning that doesn’t get disturbed where I make sure I have that time to reflect, think and plan and if I don’t have that I find myself less capable.”

Jo Whitfield, Matalan CEO: “Being a CEO is a fabulous job, there’s a lot of responsibility and it’s such an opportunity. From a ‘what’s on our minds point of view’, for me it’s the customer and colleague in equal measure. Customers are evolving rapidly, so we need to focus hard on them. From a colleague point of view, we need to know we’ve got the talent so that when the customer returns we can succeed.

“During Covid we [as a sector] collaborated a lot more. We’re now dealing with very different regulatory changes and we need to all understand that. There’s also the geopolitical changes and we need to understand that and also the tech side. I think to deal with all that, no one person can be an expert in all those things, so building the right talent around you and the right team around you is vital.

“There are lots of ‘oh shit’ moments as a CEO and rightly, because if you’re not being tested and learning then you’re not growing. People think of you – as a CEO – as being fully formed, but you’re not, you’re growing.”

Leanne Cahill, Bravissimo CEO: “Always front of mind for me is, are we doing our best for our customers? In this role you’re a custodian of the brand and you don’t want to move away from the essence of that brand, so we need to focus on what our strengths are.

“In the three years since I came into the role it’s moved on. We all know what we were dealing with three years ago and it was tough, but it was a good time too because there was lots of collaboration and openness to get to the result we needed to get to it. I think it’s gone backwards since then and I think that’s something we could all do better at again. When times are tough, people are more competitive and we’re all dealing with the same challenges, so that’s a change I’d like to undo a little.

“There’s a difference between ‘oh shit’ we haven’t got the answer to this, versus how am I going to do this and that is where the resilience comes into it. You’re building that over time when you’re trying not to stretch yourself and learning how to bounce back.”

Chirag Patel, Pentland Brands CEO: “I’ve been CEO of Pentland Brands for three years now. You feel like you know what’s going on, but a couple of things I’m focusing on is trying to see the business as if I’ve just joined – I call it an outsider mindset – to try and improve in areas you don’t always see. Then creating an environment where people can be the best version of themselves.

“Being resilient as a CEO is a learned skill and we all have that capability. You can only do the role if you’ve developed resilience. Also, making sure if I bring pressure in, [I understand] it’s part of the environment of the job, but I feel more pressure as a parent than I do as a CEO. How we use that pressure to drive performance is a choice. Am I going to let it overwhelm me, it’s my choice to let it drive me but to never own me.

“In terms of that feeling of ‘I don’t have the answer’ it’s on a daily basis because generally I suspect there are things across all our desks where you don’t have the right or wrong answer.”

Co-op’s ‘fast’ food business turnover ramps up

Matt Hood, food managing director for Co-op said the brand had added over one million new members in the past 12 months “the majority of whom” are under 35.

“That shows the reality that something was relevant in 1844 can still be just as relevant in 2024. One hundred and eighty-year-old uniqueness modernised”.

While staying true to what makes the Co-op special is important, Hood also says it’s important to innovate – using quick commerce as an example.

“Seven per cent of the food businesses’ turnover is now fast, immediate, quick delivery in under 20 minutes,” he said. “We’re 23% of the UK’s quick commerce market and have built a £500m business in five years.”

Retail’s value to the UK isn’t always acknowledged

JD Sports and BRC chair Andy Higginson: “The role of retail is one that the government should welcome. We employ a lot of people everywhere, up and down the country. We are in every town and every city. We don’t need subsidies, we are happy to compete on our own and just get on with it. What we ask them to do is play their part and create an economic framework that is positive and progressive and provides a level playing field.

“We are huge contributors to the tax system, which is completely disproportionate to the size of the industry. In addition to that, we employ a lot of people.”