Are apps and voice assistants the keys to e-grocery adoption?

Source: Albertsons
Feb 11, 2019

A study from Bain & Co. finds voice assistants and grocery apps remain two under-utilized tools that could help break shoppers’ “analog” habits such as written lists that are holding back adoption of online grocery.

The research finds that grocery planning remains paper-based. According to a Bain and Google survey of more than 8,000 U.S. consumers, 52 percent use physical, handwritten lists to plan a grocery trip.

Shoppers who have not shopped online in the past 12 months said building a shopping list and having ways to compare prices are the two features they would value most from an online grocery retailer. Receiving personalized recommendations and substitution algorithms ranked lower.

The study further found that, although list building, sharing and research should be easier online, the browsing and shopping phase for grocery can be frustrating. Bain wrote that finding groceries via a web browser “can be a challenge — irrelevant search results, unhelpful product recommendations and limited filtering options increase the time required to fill a basket.”

Voice assistants remain at an early point on the adoption curve as only four percent of grocery shoppers said they use them on dedicated devices. Adopters, however are using them frequently — two-thirds of those using voice assistants use the tool weekly or more frequently for grocery planning.

Grocery apps at the same time can help shoppers research prices and digitalize their list building. Shoppers can also easily browse, share, store and redeem digital coupons, both in stores and online.

Bain said the online grocery experience has to catch up to the inspiration, education and price-comparison ease available with in-store shopping.

“Make shoppers’ lives easier by helping them move historically offline tasks such as couponing, list making, price comparisons and recipe searches to digital. Then embrace these digital sources and tools to reach consumers with the right marketing message exactly when they are making critical buying decisions,” Bain advised.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:  Will apps and voice assistants play a large role in elevating the online grocery experience in the years to come? In what other ways can the planning and browsing phase for groceries be improved online?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Only in a bi-modal environment in which voice inputs lead to an editable checkout screen will voice become a viable mechanism for ordering a full shopping list."
"...there are still gaping customer experience holes, and it mostly relates to platforms not “talking” to each other in an intuitive way."
"My question is, if we fast forward five or 10 years to when the technology has matured and the consumer audience has been trained — why will we still need apps at all?"

Join the Discussion!

30 Comments on "Are apps and voice assistants the keys to e-grocery adoption?"

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Ben Ball

When I tell my wife “I need shampoo” she responds “what are you telling me for? Tell Alexa.” The great opportunity for grocery retailers is to link their order apps to popular voice assistants. If all we had to do is say “Alexa, place my order” for retailers other than Amazon — one of our local choices (Publix, Kroger, Walmart) would increase our customer loyalty to at least 80 percent and probably higher.

Dr. Stephen Needel

There is an assumption that Bain is making – that doing this stuff online will elevate grocery shopping. Maybe that’s not true, which is why we’re not adopting apps and voice assistants.

Bob Amster

Grocery apps and voice assistants will definitely play a larger role and should. There is much functionality that can be built to streamline and automate the otherwise lackluster and tedious chore of grocery shopping. Digital lists of items, the ability to price compare, IoT appliances that can keep track of usage, voice-activated ordering, and the option to pick-up in-store or get delivery are all doable and will experience increasing acceptance in the next three years. The grocery industry is ripe for these enhancements.

Min-Jee Hwang

A few of the more frustrating or time-consuming aspects of grocery shopping include creating a list, finding the items on shelves, and checking out. Any way that apps and digital tools can help with this is great. This is already happening with online ordering and delivery, so I expect those features to help grow e-grocery adoption.

Shep Hyken
Yes, apps and voice assistants will be a part of our future. Some are good. A bad app will scare a customer away from trying a new/updated app — or any app from any other retailer. So the success criteria of an app is simple: customers must use it and like it. Remember the first time you decided to book an airline reservation online rather than call the airline? Or the first time you used PayPal instead of writing a check? Many people have moved to a point where they seldom, if ever call the airline or write and mail a physical check. In both of these examples, the customer had to break a habit — a life-long habit — of doing what they have always done. Apps are becoming more and more popular. To get consumers to use the apps, the retailer (grocery story or just about any type of retail business) will have to break the habits. The key is what I call “customer education.” Tell the consumer that it’s available. Give them… Read more »
Michael La Kier

Any technology that can make the shopper better (faster, smarter, spend less) will help. At this point, despite widespread penetration of mobile, the use of apps has been limited to, say, the best — but continues to grow double digits annually. And, while voice household penetration is increasing, the usage within households for grocery shopping is small. I think we are still waiting for that killer app to propel grocery shopping forward, something that layers onto apps and voice to make it more compelling.

Paula Rosenblum

I don’t think so, at least in the stated aim of increasing web-based grocery sales. Certainly apps will improve the in-store experience. I’ll avoid asking the question “Why are grocers wanting more people to shop online exactly and eat the rest of their margin?” until another day.

I am a fairly ardent user of Instacart. Because the app (which still needs work) keeps track of what I have purchased in the past from a given store and presents them to me first, I end up with a de facto list of staples that I buy regularly. Admittedly if they are out of stock, or if it’s an infrequent purchase, I’ll just go online to buy it, but I’m finding the app serves its purpose.

To me, the real magic is in the store. Use apps to make life easier in the store and improve THAT experience.

Bob Amster

I don’t like going to THE store, but I do it anyway. In fact, I find myself going to multiple stores for different specific items that I prefer. To me, the improvement would come in allowing me to prepare an accurate list (by store) and get out of the store as quickly as possible. We order some consumable staples online.

John Karolefski

Here’s a simple prediction: Yes, grocery apps and voice assistants will play “some” role in elevating the online grocery experience in the years to come, but — it will be a LONG time before that happens. It will be be a generational change, and it might not happen until the generation after Generation Z.

Brandon Rael

Anything that makes the grocery shopping experience more efficient and friction-free is a very welcome development. The grocery stores that integrate their offline and digital experiences will come out on top in a very competitive field.

The best example of this transformation has been Kroger and Microsoft’s partnership, as they build the grocery experience of the future. Kroger, America’s biggest supermarket chain, has remodeled two stores to test out the new features, which include “digital shelves” that can show ads and change prices on the fly along with a network of sensors that keep track of products and help speed up the shopping experience. Kroger could potentially roll out the cloud-based system it developed with Microsoft in all of its supermarkets.

Jon Polin

Voice ordering is a game changer — in theory. Today, given the dialogue required per product (confirmation of size, price, etc.), voice does not add significant convenience for buying more than one to two products. Only in a bi-modal environment in which voice inputs lead to an editable checkout screen will voice become a viable mechanism for ordering a full shopping list.

Anne Howe

Could there be an opportunity for an app developer to actually work side-by-side with shoppers to co-develop a useful app? Where is IDEO when they’re needed?

Rob Gallo

Apps and voice assistants may help in the long run but there are more fundamental issues that need to be solved. In an effort to “force” online adoption, many grocers are making the in-store experience worse. The store is still where the shoppers and profits are and will be for a while. Meanwhile, grocers have now added the following challenges to an already arduous and lackluster store experience. Reduced parking spaces due to premium parking spaces being reserved for pick-up orders, coupons that only work for online orders and fulfillment carts and associates that are often blocking the merchandise.

Mohamed Amer, PhD
Mohamed Amer, PhD
Independent Board Member, Investor and Startup Advisor
3 years 4 months ago
Simply trying to replicate an “offline” process onto online tools misses the real opportunity to improve the underlying practice. In other words, we tend to look for ways to make existing processes faster and more efficient rather than create new ones or combine existing capabilities in novel ways. Ben’s example of telling Alexa is a good example of new directions in grocery purchasing. Additionally, flexible subscription programs are another way to capture repeat purchases that help to enhance loyalty and trust between store/brand and consumer. Increase use of grocery store apps and voice assistants will transform the entire path-to-purchase journey and require greater flexibility in delivering multiple and simultaneous means of interacting with the store and brand. The word of caution here is not to ignore the need to have near real-time inventory visibility across the store, accurate data throughout the supply chain and shelf replenishment through the checkout process. The powerful results from creating beautiful apps and convenient voice interactions can be enhanced or diminished by how well, and in real-time, these are connected… Read more »
James Tenser

Crucial points about “near real-time inventory visibility across the store” and “shelf replenishment,” Mohamed. Voice interaction cannot reach mainstream acceptance in the absence of such data accuracy. Otherwise, at best we have a shopping list app, not an ordering solution.

Dave Bruno

Grocery and CPG are far and away the “lowest-hanging fruit” for for voice-based shopping. Creating shopping lists via voice in real time from the kitchen as you realize you need an item is ridiculously convenient. Amazon will even help you replenish the items you purchased previously with the simplest of commands: “Alexa order more paper towels.” Grocers need to act fast and embed Alexa (or another competing voice service) in their apps to help them compete against, well, Alexa. It’s time to get into the voice game before consumer habits are established. Voice is still quirky, and memorizing skills is a pain, but research shows that people remember the skills that bring them value. This is a great chance to bring value and increase frequency – and have consumers learn their skills.

Ryan Mathews

The quick answer is yes — once voice recognition improves, natural language communication evolves and systems are free to source on an open digital market rather than being “slaves” to an Amazon, for example. I believe, and have written here many times, that voice assistants will play a critical role in the future of retail because they are a more natural, easier interface. So my question is, if we fast forward five or 10 years to when the technology has matured and the consumer audience has been trained — why will we still need apps at all? If voice assistants work, why wouldn’t I just talk to my phone, appliances, house, whatever directly? So I think Bain hasn’t thought this through to the end which looks to me like the interface of AI and the human voice linked to a series of environments and functions.

Jonathan Brodsky

There are a few issues with moving to a digital app for grocery shopping:

  1. Many retailers still only can take paper coupons. This is a hugely manual process, and it’s how many people actually do their planning (by gathering the coupons that they have and crafting a list around that). So all adding digital to this process does is just change the medium from a readily available paper and pencil to a slightly more portable phone-based list.
  2. Most list-based apps are a pain in the butt to use. I’ve moved to trello for my to-do and squid for handwritten notes, primarily because it’s a launch-and-go experience.
  3. Voice-based transcription of brands has a bit to go — when we ask Google to do something, it’s fine if you say “add chocolate to my list” (assuming you’ve already set up your lists properly), but it’s pretty bad at the way I pronounce words like “Valrhona” or “Ghirardelli.” Plus, voice-based apps lend themselves to my five-year-old saying things like, “Ok, Google, add Oreos and Pop-Tarts and cookies to the list.”
Doug Garnett

What Bain seems unable to appreciate is that a physical grocery list may well be already the most efficient and effective way to plan a grocery trip. It’s a beautiful fit to the vast range of human interest and challenge of finding what you need.

I started attempting to use grocery list apps 10 years ago. They’ve never worked because they are clunky, complicated, and laborious — for me.

So let me challenge Bain back: Why is there a presumption that online ordering of groceries is best for humans needing to keep food on the table? There’s no evidence to show that it is or ever can be.

Adrian Weidmann

Let’s split these two issues apart: 1.) apps and 2.) voice assistants.

I’ve long maintained that in-store apps just don’t resonate with shoppers. Retailers should focus on their in-store shopping experience instead of making their store a warehouse to theoretically have items available for online shoppers. Also, I encourage readers to read the news on the geolocation price-flipping issue discovered at Target. They have since resolved this issue but they got away cheap.

Voice assistants on the other hand will be the next interface — leaving keyboard entry as a museum relic. Refer to this clip from the 1986 movie Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home.

Yes, ” … that is the ticket, laddy.”

Lee Kent

What interests me here is that it does not appear the consumer is all that interested in online grocery. There are plenty of online list apps but the consumer says they still make lists. I know, I know, we didn’t know we needed an smartphone before it came out either however some things may be best left in the store. If I were in grocery, I would look at the in-store shopping experience first and find ways the consumer would like to have their journeys enhanced. And that’s my 2 cents.

Kiri Masters

The adoption of e-grocery does not rest solely at the feet of voice assistants. As other commenters have pointed out, Voice could assist in making the online grocery shopping experience better, but there is a ways to go. As an avid online grocery shopper, there are still gaping customer experience holes, and it mostly relates to platforms not “talking” to each other in an intuitive way. For example, my Alexa device is always going to steer me to shopping on Amazon, which may not be ideal for the product I’m looking for.

Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Managing Partner Cambridge Retail Advisors
3 years 4 months ago

Grocery is one of the retail segments that is a great fit for voice assistants and apps. Consumers think of items to add to their grocery list several times a day and often don’t have a pen and paper handy to jot it down. With a voice assistant app, consumers can say their item to add to the list wherever they are – even driving. This is a great convenience.

Integrating the shopping list with customer preference and history, inventory status, product in-store map, online ordering, drive-by pickup and delivery are key to making grocery shopping more convenient. With an app on consumers’ phones, it should be easy to link to customer history and loyalty information. The greatest challenge is how smart the voice recognition is to make accurate matches from what was said to actual products. There is nothing more frustrating than correcting voice recognition interpretation as we all have experienced.

As these systems evolve, voice shopping lists and ordering will likely be a natural way for consumers to shop for groceries.

Ralph Jacobson

I have found adoption of online grocery shopping to be primarily location-based. The question is, how easy, convenient and affordable is it for me? Urban versus rural sites, single versus large families and other characteristics are driving adoption. Intuitive apps and other tech are only enablers.

David Leibowitz

An app to create a grocery list is good for the FIRST trip. But what about follow-up trips?

Voice assistants will begin to shine when they add value through AI and ML. Sure, you can ask your assistant to “add three cans of beans” to your list, but that merely saves you a few swipes on a screen. But what if instead you could simply request “add ingredients for a killer taco casserole from my favorite foodie blog?” Or if your assistant pinged YOU (instead of the other way around) and suggested “Based upon your last trip and your typical consumption, you many be running low on a few items…shall we add them now?”

And once we lay this foundation, other opportunities emerge — like automated recurring subscriptions or integration with calendars (“You’re going on away on vacation for a week, so let’s hold on another milk order..”) or IoT for actual home consumption (“You’re running low on dog food. You might want to order now or Fido will be sad.”).

Kai Clarke

No. e-Grocery adoption is not a resounding success because we don’t think of it as a better retail option. It is not because of the poor usage of the technologies to empower it, but instead the need for this. This is a solution looking for a problem where one does not necessarily exist. Most people prefer to go to the grocery store and buy their products, and their dollar “votes” reflect this. Apps and voice assistants are available and the consumer spending habits clearly demonstrate that they are not desirable ways to grocery shop. Consumers clearly prefer to choose their own bananas, cuts of meat, vegetables, etc. Also, attaching minimum purchasing levels (minimum orders) does not give e-grocery any help.