Long-Term Changes Coming to Grocers

Research predicts shifting dynamics may mean permanent shifts for brands, retailers.

April 21, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—U.S. grocery shopping behaviors changed overnight with the onset of COVID-19, social distancing and safety precautions, reported Blue Chip, a Chicago-based brand marketing company that surveyed grocery shoppers April 4-5.

As detailed in SmartBrief, the survey found that consumers are struggling to navigate the lifestyle disruptions brought on by the current pandemic. Some have turned to online grocery shopping to fulfill their needs, while others still visit their local markets. With these dynamics in mind, the question for businesses is how the pandemic and resulting changes will affect consumers’ shopping behavior after the COVID-19 crisis.

The Blue Chip national survey, which included 500 primary grocery shoppers across the United States, was conducted to better understand how their shopping habits have changed due to the pandemic, what they think of the new shopping environment and what they predict their shopping behavior will be in the future. This is what the study found:

Even as the virus spread in March, 9 out of 10 shoppers still preferred to shop for groceries in a physical store. At that time, shoppers said that going to their local store and making their own product selections gave them a sense of control. They enjoyed choosing from products on sale (83%), having a broad selection (69%), discovering new products (69%), comparing prices (64%), interacting with store employees (20%) and seeing friends or neighbors (20%).

Although 90% of consumers surveyed still shop in-store, those shopping experiences have changed dramatically compared to pre-pandemic times. Everything is unfamiliar—from social distancing to one-way aisles to inventory challenges. Self-serve areas of the store, such as hot bars, bakeries and delis, have closed. In many outlets, prepared foods are temporarily discontinued. The in-store experience that took years to create is now dissolving, and the pendulum is moving toward a fundamentally transactional experience.

Today, shoppers go through stores with a purpose: to get in and out with what they need quickly while limiting exposure. They have strategies for their limited trips. There is less browsing, less focus on brands and less discovery. Adding to that, brands and grocery merchandisers have reduced in-store promotions.

Brands in the commodity categories that shoppers consider essential have been in high demand. Stores nationwide have seen frantic buying and out-of-stocks. Shoppers now make purchase decisions based upon what is available and whether they need to stock up.

Until the pandemic, leading brands in essential categories, such as toilet paper, had loyal shoppers, but out-of-stock problems have forced many people to purchase competitors’ offerings. Those less-familiar brands will be in shopper consideration sets when the crisis has passed, which means leading brands in essential categories must re-establish their dominance in the marketplace and re-evaluate their value proposition. At the same time, those brands gaining trial due to their availability should consider ways to stay top-of-mind and turn new triers into future buyers.

When the pandemic subsides and Americans once again feel safe shopping in-store, recently learned shopping behaviors are likely to remain. A heightened concern over cleanliness and sanitation will certainly remain, potentially disrupting long-held practices of food and beverage sampling. The store, the aisle and the category will be shopped differently. So, what should manufacturers and retailers consider going forward?

Sampling: Once a key discovery and trial driver for food and beverage, sampling will not come back immediately, if at all. Rethink the in-store sampling strategy (e.g., individually wrapped, single-serve packages).

Price and promotion: Both price and promotion will be important as brands get back in front of shoppers, and they will help ease the squeeze felt during the pandemic period.

Loyalty: Brands will need to rebuild loyalty with consumers who may have temporarily switched to other brands. Premium brands will need to promote their value proposition and rebuild those relationships. 

Experiences: Retailers must determine how to bring back experience elements within boundaries of the new normal.

Online grocery shopping has jumped during the pandemic. While 90% of shoppers were making in-store trips, online and click-and-collect increased 32% during March 2020, compared with before the pandemic. The survey found that half of people who haven’t shopped online yet are open to doing so in the future.

Prior to the pandemic, consumers shopped online for convenience (86%), good prices (79%) and to save time (75%). But as of March 2020, consumers were shopping online to minimize exposure to health risks (89%), for convenience (85%) and to reduce stress (84%).

Until the arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S., online grocery shopping was largely functional and transactional. It imparts a higher-level benefit of control over one’s time, which is critical for many people. But for others, it hasn’t risen to the level of true shopping. It lacks the feel of shopping, the visceral reward of shopping, the personal touch of shopping. It lacks the feelings of trust, humanity and control that comes with the in-store experience.

In the future when heightened emotions around health and safety subside, the pre-crisis e-commerce selling point of convenience alone will not be enough to keep some shoppers in the e-commerce environment. Retailers and brands can evolve the online experience to fill the emotional voids of trust, humanity and control in the current online grocery environment with a focus on the following:

Offers: Brands and retailers should implement shopping offers to entice repeat purchases online.

Enhanced Delivery: Surprise and delight in delivery orders can keep margins and “sweeten the deal” on some of the price disparity. Brands also can consider incentives to help offset delivery fees.

Online is important: Brands must show up meaningfully and consistently online. Brands that don’t have an e-commerce strategy in place should plan one now. Invest in e-commerce but as a brand equity builder.

Re-evaluate content: Take the time now to re-evaluate e-commerce content. Ensure there are guideposts for size comparison and product variations and inspire further exploration and discovery.

Customer service: Online customer service for brand and retailers will be more important than ever. It will involve more than providing technical support; it will require human interaction, advice and guidance.

Brand personality: An e-commerce space must have the same elements of brand personality found in the in-store experience, including associates, interaction and selection. Humanize the person fulfilling the order to build trust and affirm that they care about the order as much as the shopper who placed it.

The Blue Chip survey concluded with the prediction that U.S. retailing will see a “Brave New Shopper,” one with new adaptability, a sharpened set of shopping skills and higher expectations. To incite discovery and rebuild loyalty in-store, brands must reteach that shopper how to navigate categories and encourage them to shop the aisles.

In e-commerce, retailers must offer a richer shopping experience. Emotions such as trust, control and humanity must be instilled into online shopping to boost the consumer-retailer relationship and inspire online loyalty. In the end, the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the appearance of a new omnichannel reality born of uncertainty but fed by action and adaptability. This new reality defines a bright, promising future for those brands and retailers who embrace it.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.