RL Pro Exclusive Q&A: Croatia’s Largest Grocer Talks Innovation, Digital Solutions

Retail Leader Pro got the intel on how Croatian grocer Studenac is improving its customers’ experience through smarter, faster, more convenient digital technology.
Elizabeth Christenson
Editor, Retail Leader
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  • Optimizing the individual, in-store journey — along with introducing new store formats, including pop-up shops — remains important for retailers to engage consumers to come to the physical store.
  • Every retailer needs a specific customer-facing digital tool that will create more customer value or enrich the shopping experience.

Late in 2022, Nina Mimica was appointed chief innovation officer at Studenac, joining the management board of the Croatian grocer (the largest retailer in the country by number of stores) to oversee projects, including the Studenac Digital Center of Excellence. Retail Leader Pro talks with Mimica about the latest digital tech and staying close to consumers even through expansion. 

Retail Leader Pro (RL Pro): As Croatia’s largest retailer by store count, how are the trends you face similar to U.S. trends?

Nina Mimica
Nina Mimica Studenac's chief innovation officer

Nina Mimica: Croatia is part of the European Union and joined the Eurozone on Jan. 1, so we are also facing a lot of the same trends as the U.S. and Western Europe. Just like in those countries, customers are demanding more flexibility, and a better response to their needs and desires. Those include convenience, a renewed focus on health and well-being, as well as sustainability.

And like consumers in every country, Croatian shoppers are once again facing inflation after a long period of price stability. That is a huge challenge for all retailers, and we are working to respond to our customers’ price sensitivity.

How do we do this? First, we are observing shoppers’ behavior and listening to their needs. Digital solutions are indispensable here; they help us create stickiness. We use advanced analytics and automation to improve business processes, and use data to improve our decisions. Second, we are strengthening our private label in response to increasing demand.

RL Pro: Tell us about the Studenac Digital Center of Excellence. What innovation and digital transformation products are you working on?

Mimica: The overall purpose of Studenac Digital is to help us stay close to our customers, who in Croatia are quite diverse. This is becoming increasingly important as we grow; we have almost tripled our store count since 2018 with almost 1,100 outlets across the country. Studenac Digital has three core goals: to make our internal business processes better, faster and smarter; to make our points of sale better, faster and smarter; and to provide our customers with better offers, a more pleasant shopping experience, interesting solutions and new projects.

RL Pro: How is Studenac evolving the physical store experience to engage with today’s consumers?

Mimica: We are using planograms to improve the layout of our stores, optimizing the individual journey and the flow of shoppers through the physical space. We are also introducing new store formats, such as our modular pop-up shop, which we rolled out this summer. Person-to-person interaction is still very important for us, but for those who prefer shopping via an app we also launched a collaboration with Wolt in July, the first such venture between a retailer and a delivery platform in Croatia. 

RL Pro: What trends are you currently seeing gain momentum in the retail tech landscape?

Mimica: The big trends that I am noticing globally are the use of robotics in logistics; automation in stores, such as self-checkout and automation to speed up certain processes, such as advanced analytics; and solutions to help understand customers better, such as heatmaps. The first one is still a bit over the horizon for Croatia as a whole. In-store automation is happening but once again, on this market we place a lot of emphasis on person-to-person interaction. Heatmaps of shopper flow are definitely a great way to understand your customers better.

E-commerce continues to gain momentum, as do all ways of making shopping easier, such as click-and-collect or curbside pickup. Multisensory interactions (touch, smell, audio) are growing, as are augmented reality solutions as an add-on to the in-store experience. In addition to these tech-driven trends, there is also a move to simpler, healthier food: ecologically friendly, vegan, vegetarian and low-salt options.

RL Pro: What digital technologies/innovations do you think every retailer should have in their toolkit?

Mimica: If I have to narrow it down to just three, I would say the first is tools for analyzing customer insights and behavior, and for optimizing your approach to customers. In all of our excitement about tech and innovation, we need to make sure to keep the customer at the center. The second thing is finding ways to automate internal processes in the core business — this could include things like automated processing of reports or handling of invoices. Finally, every retailer needs a specific customer-facing digital tool that will create more customer value or enrich the shopping experience — most often an app, but really it is whatever you find most relevant based on your customers’ needs.

RL Pro: How is Studenac using technology to improve store operations, especially with the ongoing staffing challenges in the retail industry?

Mimica: While those staffing challenges are certainly present in Croatia too, in our early days, Studenac Digital is focused on innovation in different fields, such as advanced analytics. We will certainly be announcing new initiatives for store operations as well as many other areas.

RL Pro Rapid Round:

For this last segment, we asked Mimica to fill in the blank for these rapid-fire questions below…

The future of retail is: using technology to improve daily life.

The best career advice you ever received: If I need to share just one thing, let me share something which is not just career advice, but advice for all of life, which I received from my father. He is not a businessman, but a psychiatrist: "Remember, things are not the way they seem." It took me some time to understand this, as it is at the same time both practical and quite philosophical; it made me develop into an open-minded person, rarely satisfied with the status quo. When you learn that nothing is as it seems, you grow to be creative, to think outside the box, to synthesize concepts across multiple business areas.

Piece of media (podcast, book, movie, etc.) that’s inspired you recently: I love books (e.g. “Ikigai,” “Atomic Habits,” “Sapiens,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Alchemist,” “The Girl With Seven Names”); at the same time, I regularly find inspiration for retail in daily life and in unrelated things from outside retail — observing art, people’s behavior in general as customers, and other industries, and trying to understand whether elements from there can transfer to us, and how they can be of use to Studenac.