During the first lockdown, we spent time considering the businesses that supported us as we navigated through those challenging months. Now with a second round of restrictions, we’re turning once again to those brands to help us through - and none more so than grocery stores and supermarkets.
When all else was shut and any form of social stimulus was off the table, a trip to the supermarket became a key source of variety in a monotonous week - and whilst uncertainty and economic instability has fuelled a fundamental shift away from discretionary purchases in most categories, the grocery sector is growing globally thanks to the necessity of its product offer (Quartz 2020). Tesco saw sales rise 30% in the first weeks of the pandemic, and nationwide grocery chains have seen an 18% point net gain in trust over the past few months. But despite success relative to other sectors, there’s much more that can be done in order to elevate the supermarket experience even further.
We’ve been exploring how supermarkets can harness the full potential of their current opportunity and enhance their brand experience in order to thrive as well as survive in this challenging new era.
We’ve seen brands across all sectors amplifying the functionality of e-commerce over the past few months as consumers have been forced to adopt online shopping habits. But the online experience can be dull, particularly when it comes to groceries. With no physical stimulus, trailing through pages of product can be painfully repetitive - brands should consider how they can inject an element of joy and impulse to make the process more scintillating. Amazon’s Treasure Truck is a fun example of how a few small tweaks can make a difference, with playful branding and a limited-time offer on carefully curated products, events and activities adding a sense of fun to the online experience. It would be fun to see food and drinks retailers offering their own take on this dynamic and spontaneous service.
Grocery brands could also look to integrate online benefits into their physical environments in order to blend the best of convenience and enjoyment. With the average UK household spending over 18 hours grocery shopping each month (Bother), any time that can be saved is valuable, and brands shouldn’t be afraid to adopt more digital tools and platforms in order to streamline the customer journey. Inspired by airport design, Walmart’s new concept firmly focusses on maximum efficiency, introducing an app to help time-sensitive shoppers navigate their way around the store, find the exact products they’re after and feel in control of their journey. Amazon has taken a similar approach at their new Amazon Fresh store in California. Each Amazon Dash Cart has a built-in tablet for visitors to access their shopping lists online. The tech-enabled trollies then provide visual instructions to help locate items and allow for contactless checkout - resulting in a seamless shopping experience.
At a time where many are cautious about entering stores, it makes sense that supermarkets should be considering ways to put shoppers at ease. Queuing software such as Qudini has been adopted by brands such as Asda already, but stores could also consider offering bookable slots to those who are particularly anxious about shopping at busy times. Swedish grocery chain Lifvs offers a unique, digital-first concept with an app-based process and no staff or cashiers in store to allow customers to have more space when doing their shopping. Open 24/7, consumers can check into the stores, scan products and pay all by using BankID - Sweden’s national identification app - for a totally contactless and safe experience. Alibaba’s Hema store in China was an early adopter of a similar process, allowing customers to scan as they go and offering AI-powered personalised recommendations based on past shopping behaviour.
Whilst the pandemic is undoubtedly accelerating the shift to digital within retail, there’s still a little way to go in terms of perfecting the basics. Scaling rapidly within tight timeframes has led to a dip in customer experience in some areas, from the impossibility of getting a delivery slot to having the wrong items delivered and trouble with accessing click and collect orders. But once the operational kinks have been straightened out, there’s a whole lot more that grocery brands could be doing to enhance the shopping experience in this space.
Having seen the “polo mint effect” of lower footfall in city centres and more shoppers in suburbs and local neighbourhoods, brands would be foolish not to explore a local format strategy if they’re not already. But as well as opening stores in neighbourhood locations, there are other ways for big supermarket chains to act small and deliver on a more personal level.
Demand for independent food and beverage brands is up - but supermarkets could still benefit by considering in-store collaborations, perhaps even a market hall set-up with a selection of local independent retailers which would emanate the authentic, homely feel that customers are craving right now. Walmart’s collaboration with community app Nextdoor helped neighbours support each other during the first lockdown - it was a nice touch, but it will be interesting to see how the brand builds on this avenue to promote community wellbeing in the months ahead.
Local formats aren’t the only option to explore. With growing consumer interest in plant-based diets, grocery retailers could follow Pret’s lead and consider opening vegetarian or vegan-only stores to offer a specialised service and build community around a particular cuisine. American supermarket chain Raley’s are experimenting with something similar, having recently launched their ONE Market concept store in California that promotes healthy eating by banning certain ingredients in their product offer, including artificial sweeteners and hydrogenated fats. Making a statement like this is a bold move, but it's a sure way to build brand loyalty amongst purpose-driven consumers.
Another change in consumption habits that supermarket brands cannot ignore is sustainability. Asda is emerging as a pioneer in this space - its new eco-friendly store format in Leeds should become the new blueprint for brands everywhere, not just in grocery retail. With refill stations offering products from leading brands including Kellogg’s, PG Tips and Persil, the new concept reduces the amount of plastic packaging instore and encourages customers to use reusable containers to top up their supplies instead. Whilst it’s great to see these sustainable formats coming through, it would be even better to see widespread integration into a brand’s whole store portfolio.
Whether driven by location, diet or sustainability, consumer behaviour over the past few months has shifted and supermarket brands need to react with more niche and flexible formats in order to serve customers the way they want to be served.
We all know the weekly ‘big shop’ can be dull and repetitive. Online disruptors such as Bother have built a whole service around delivering the boring or bulky items that no one wants to scour the shelves for and carry back home. But there’s more that supermarket brands can be doing in order to transform food shopping from a chore into an enjoyable experience.
The Harrods Food Hall is like a playground for foodies, but the sensory experience shouldn’t be reserved for luxury consumers alone. Other market players should consider how to stimulate the senses in order to intrigue and educate shoppers. Within the restaurant sector, Vivat Baccus’ refrigerated Cheese Rooms allow diners to learn about the vast selection of cheese from one of the restaurant’s expert staff and handpick their favourites to enjoy back at their table - supermarkets could draw inspiration and consider integrating mini-masterclasses into the customer journey. Yo Sushi’s infamous conveyor belt system could also be a fun way for supermarkets to present and serve food, or even whole meals - we’re seeing a growing trend for ‘Grocerants’ (a grocery store/restaurant hybrid) which offer a host of possibilities for a blended leisure experience. Canadian brand Loblaws are paving the way in this space, with more than 50% of their corporate grocery stores now including dining space and some offering cookery lessons and live music. Their vibrant and abundant displays of fresh produce in-store offer a visual feast to all visitors.
Surprising and sensory elements can inject some fun back into the supermarket shopping experience - brands should reinvent rigid customer customer journeys in order to have a bigger impact.
The level of opportunity across this category is huge right now. We believe that by elevating the customer experience across these various areas, grocery brands will be able to create new, meaningful experiences that will ensure lasting success during and post-pandemic.
For more information on how we can help you reframe your brand experience by integrating digital tools and platforms, developing new formats or introducing sensory moments into the customer journey, please get in touch.
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