Fixing Online Grocery's 'Failure to Launch'

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An employee stocks yogurt for sale on the opening day of the 365 by Whole Foods Market store in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles last year.
An employee stocks yogurt for sale on the opening day of the 365 by Whole Foods Market store in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles last year. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg
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Despite e-commerce taking a firm grip on much of our shopping behavior, there's one category that continues to buck the trend

That, of course, is grocery. Not the soul-crushing search for a parking spot, nor the interminable queues at the checkouts, nor the inevitability that the one item you need for your recipe will be unavailable, have been able to break the retail habit.

Today, only 7% of shoppers order their groceries regularly online. Even among millennials that figure is stuck at 12% (and not rising). While other categories such as electronics and sporting goods have an online share up at 50% or more, grocery continues to flatline around 4%.

Why the failure to launch?

Online shopping has become too much about online and has forgotten about how people really do their shopping. The problem can be broken down into four key areas: Experience, habit, effort and trust.

Make online grocery analogous to the physical experience

Humans are creatures of habit. In grocery, that habit has been formed since we were first pushed around in a shopping cart as babies. The fact is, a supermarket shelf is simply the best and most efficient way to find and make decisions about low-interest, habitually-chosen products.

So why does our online equivalent look and behave so differently?

We need to redesign e-commerce grocery to be more like the physical experience, not try to make grocery more "digital"!

What would this mean in practice?

  • Replace lists and grids with … a shelf! A virtual shelf will have any number of user benefits, such as enabling the viewing of entire categories of products in one screen (just like in real life).
  • Enable the display of products in proportionate sizes. Most of us have no idea of the different weights of various sizes of, say, canned tomatoes.
  • Replace navigation with simple scrolling.
  • Add touch. If users can zoom in, examine and "physically" toss items into their cart, they'll have a more tangible and satisfactory experience.
  • Incorporate promotional features such as aisle-ends. These will not just add to the digital experience for shoppers, but will also provide bargaining power and measurement for grocer category managers when negotiating with suppliers.

Cater to people's real shopping moments

While there are countless different occasions and motivations for going shopping, rarely, if ever, are attempts made to cater for this. Our research shows that core occasions are the following: weekly restocks, fresh top-up (a smaller produce trip), specialty trips (recipes you need to make) and emergency trips.

Yet, personalization is an extremely rare activity in online grocery, despite the reams of data that grocers hold on their customers.

If the online experience was geared towards the real needs of each individual, we could streamline and reward the experience of shopping online. Grocers must implement an actionable, multidimensional segmentation that would help us define the content, experience and opportunities for each segment. Event-driven CRM messaging allows grocers to keep track of customers' online and offline shopping data in one place, enabling them to predict and proactively market.

Erase the gap between our love of food and our loathing of grocery shopping

The peculiar tension in the grocery space is that while we love food and cooking, we really hate shopping for it.

The online shopping experience is almost entirely devoid of the inspiration and excitement that the planning of mealtimes should imbue in us. By leveraging insights from data, generating a rich program of suggestions for food or drinks and inserting them seamlessly into the shopping experience, grocers could provide added value to the busy shopper. By reminding consumers of the endgame (a delicious meal) while they are shopping, grocers could eliminate some of the existing tension.

In the not-too-distant future, we can expect to see the main interface for browsing the web move from the screen to an immersive VR, AR or AI experience. A "virtual" shelf could allow shoppers to navigate between aisles and make product selection as easy and natural as "grabbing it" with your wand. While we are some way off from achieving this experience, it has to be the ultimate destination for the evolution of online grocer. It'll be a world where every customer gets to shop in the perfect outlet: open 24/7, no checkout lines and where nothing is ever out of stock.