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Why we started a grocery store (nearly) overnight

May 18 2020

Kacha Azema

Skidmore’s journey through this pandemic has revealed some wonderful new things about our teammates, our adaptability, and what we can do when we’re turned loose to get creative.

In the first week of quarantine, we quickly realized everything is different now. Our studio leaders stepped back and took a good hard look in the mirror. The building blocks we used to create our branding agency—talent, experience, expertise, relationships—were still our core building blocks. But we felt we could use them in different ways, stacked in a different order, to build something new.

There are two key ways of thinking that resonate at Skidmore. First, we’re a “How might we…” team. This is the phrase we use to state problems because it invites unbridled brainstorming and free thinking. Second, we’re a human-centered team. Around here, you can’t move five minutes into a project without someone asking you to define the target audience and identify their needs, pains, and priorities.

So, when COVID-19 hit, we posed the question: “How might we… use our talent, experience, expertise, and relationships to bring something positive and valuable as we’re all struggling to navigate life in lockdown?” 

Ideating a way to help—quickly

We knew from our own experience in quarantine, and from the experiences of our friends and family, that trips to the grocery store had suddenly become a significant challenge and risk. 

Because much of our branding work is for Michigan-based retail food brands and producers, we had a hunch we could leverage these relationships and get great local products in the hands of a wider audience.

The obvious channel to use was e-commerce. We concepted a site that would serve as an online marketplace, connecting our neighbors to Michigan-only grocery products at a time when the community wants to support small businesses more than ever and small businesses need all the help they can get.

Then we bumped into the “last mile” problem: How might we get these groceries safely from our e-commerce store to the customer? I’m not gonna lie, we didn’t have a clue how to create a sophisticated delivery routing system, but my teammates and I trusted we’d figure it out. (Spoiler alert: we did!)

It was only because of the trust that we’ve built working together over the years that any of this was possible. As a studio team, we’ve developed clear work processes, predictable project rhythms, and strong creative partnerships. This foundation of process, understanding, and empathy allowed us to move fast.

Launching in 10 days

Because of the incredible and immediate need in our community, we quickly committed ourselves to building and launching an online grocery store that would reconnect Michigan families with their local Michigan food sources—all with safety in mind.

We named it Michigan Fields, and in 10 short days we:

  • Developed a brand position, logo, and key messaging
  • Built a fully functioning e-commerce website
  • Stocked top-quality products from local farmers, ranchers, dairies, and bakeries
  • Figured out how to pick-and-pack, getting product from digital orders into physical boxes
  • Solved for delivery with two trucks, two drivers, and really slick route optimization software
  • Launched a marketing campaign to introduce ourselves to the community

If we’d have been handed a client’s brief for this project, we probably would’ve estimated six months to launch. But the extraordinary times we live in, the skills we have, and the relationships we’ve developed gave us the passion and enthusiasm to move at lightning speed.

We’re still on this journey

At the time of publication, Michigan Fields has been live for about six weeks. We’re encouraged because the feedback from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive and our daily order volume includes about 40% repeat customers. It appears that we’re on the right track but we’re learning, tweaking, and improving every day—both as a grocery brand and as individual team members who can now proudly add some version of “grocer” to our resumes.

Through this journey, we’ve been reminded of the value of close-knit creative teams. We’ve confirmed our belief that staying human-centered leads to extraordinary results. And we’ve grown our appreciation for all the amazing small businesses in our state and the Michiganders who support them. We’re all in this together, and we wish you the best.

One of our refrigerated vans, which delivers Michigan groceries to Metro Detroiters, shows off the brand we concepted and designed.