As COVID-19 has forced shoppers indoors, the growth curve of online grocery has suddenly accelerated, with downloads of popular grocery apps increasing by as much as 2000%. Shoppers who were previously hesitant to buy groceries online have found themselves now doing so out of necessity. It’s a bittersweet victory for online grocers who have long struggled to gain real traction.
But as the old adage says, “this too, shall pass.” The current crisis will subside, and when it does, it’s anybody’s prediction if grocery shoppers will retain their newfound affection for buying foodstuffs online. I believe that the outcome of that question will be determined by the kind of customer experience that online grocers deliver to shoppers now.
Here are three levels of effort that online grocers might want to focus on to make sure that experience will keep bringing shoppers back after the crisis has passed.
1. A functional platform and robust delivery capability is crucial
Online grocers with holes in their game need to scramble. They had better eliminate technical glitches, ensure that their back-end can support purchases in large volume, secure agreements with suppliers for gluts in demand, and validate that their pickup and delivery services are built to flexibly scale.
Even some very established players have seen troubles during this spike of new traffic. British online grocers like Ocado and others came face-to-face with this problem recently, as sites and apps repeatedly crashed under the weight of new users. Some ultimately had to turn new customers away, or create “virtual queues” just to use the service. Morrisons quickly updated its payment terms to make sure that deliveries from small suppliers would not be stymied by cash flow problems.
American retailers have rather famously faced logistics problems. Instacart, Amazon and others have been unable to meet their typical delivery commitments while Walmart, Target, and Amazon are all facing severe inventory problems on high-demand items.
While it’s understood that these are unusual times, online grocers should take a lesson and develop contingency plans for higher traffic. It’s a good time to take a hard look at both the technology and the support systems that you will need to service your new customers.
2. Make sure your shopping experience is easy
Adoption of online grocery shopping to date has largely been driven by tech-savvy millennials. Provided that your online grocery shopping website and app have a half-decent user interface, these young shoppers will natively understand how to navigate them. But that may not be so true of those who have hopped on the bandwagon recently. Either way, ease and enjoyment of the online shopping experience can make or break loyalty to your online platform.
If your online shopping experience is not already as easy and smooth as it could be, now’s the time to change that. Products must be easy to find through search functions and intuitive shopping categories. Consider carefully how you are organizing product by category and sub-category, by brand, price, and even by lifestyle or dietary choices. Think about how to best present holiday and promotion items. If shoppers feel that it is difficult to find what they want, they’ll soon switch back to what they know.
Don’t neglect sign-up, check-out, and re-order, either. Think of online grocery as a means to “always have the customer in the store.” You can make shopping easier by proposing automatic delivery of common staples each shopper routinely purchases. The more seamless these routine functions are, the more customers will appreciate the convenience of shopping online.
3. Make online shopping about personalization, imagination and discovery
So what about online grocers who already have a functional platform that makes it easy for shoppers to get what they need? If you are one of these grocers, you are positioned to create not just a functional shopping experience, but an extraordinary one. Online grocery should not be just “a store on a website.” By making your online platform emulate something that it is not, you’ll miss out on making it something much better.
That something should include smart, personalized recommendations to customers. When a shopper puts fresh chicken breasts, bouillon cubes, and vegetables in their cart, you could recommend egg noodles for the chicken noodle soup they are making, but you could also suggest freshly squeezed orange juice or hot tea, honey, and ginger for whoever is nursing a cold. That vegan shopper who is always buying garbanzo beans and tahini will probably appreciate you suggesting the imported middle-eastern spices that just came in. And for that customer you know is looking to shed a few pounds, you could prioritize delicious, healthy foods that help him or her choose wisely.
Henry Michaelson | Co-Founder, President & CTO at Halla
While studying computer science at UC Berkeley, Henry co-founded Halla, a taste intelligence company that enables retailers to predict the personal preferences of their shoppers, all in real time. He is responsible for constantly improving Halla’s machine learning algorithm and for internal leadership, especially with respect to technology. Henry’s previous projects include machine learning based classification of supernovae in the UC Berkeley Astrophysics department, a speaking role in the Warner Brothers blockbuster comedy Project X, a three year stint as lead guitarist for Joe Banks, and a patented algorithm that has distributed over $7M in awards to mobile gamers.