How can grocers hold onto their new most valuable customers?

Photo: @ksenia_she via Twenty20
Jul 01, 2020

It’s long been argued by Target, Walmart and other retailers that their most valuable customers shop in both their stores and on their websites. If that’s true for other retailers that sell groceries, then recent research shows that the ranks of the most valuable customers is growing significantly.

Half of all in-store supermarket shoppers have also ordered groceries online in the last 30 days, according to the “2020 U.S. Online & In-Store Grocery Shopping Study” from the Retail Feedback Group (RFG). Younger consumers trend higher in this regard: Gen Z (66 percent), Millennials (61 percent) and Gen X (52 percent). Fewer Baby Boomers (37 percent) and members of the Silent Generation (38 percent) ordered groceries online while also having shopped in stores.

The “U.S. Grocery Shopping Trends” report released by FMI last month confirmed that a higher percentage of grocery sales have shifted online since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the country.

Last year, consumers reported that 10.5 percent of their grocery spending was done online. In February of this year that figure had risen to 14.5 percent before jumping to 27.9 percent of all purchases in March and April.

A larger percentage of those shopping for groceries online also decided to take a leap of faith and order categories such as produce and fresh meat that they had previously only purchased in stores.

FMI found that fresh produce ranked fifteenth and meat nineteenth on the list of 26 categories purchased online in February. By mid-April, each category had moved into the top 10.

The pandemic has proven to be a sales bonanza for many grocers who have seen revenues increase as more consumers eat their meals at home. New research from Acosta finds that concerns among consumers about going out in public remains high and is likely to drive further in-home consumption.

Thirty-five percent are more concerned than they were at the start of the pandemic, and half of Millennials express those sentiments. The biggest concerns that people have include contracting the virus (72 percent), a new wave of cases and a shutdown (65 percent), the impact on the economy (56 percent) and household finances (48 percent).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How good a job are grocers doing at establishing a unified view of their customers’ behavior? What will be the keys to satisfying grocery customers who shop both online and in-store from this point forward?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Junk the 'omnichannel' strategies and realize the only 'channel' you have to figure out starts in the mind of your shopper. "
"The best customers who spend the most want to be recognized, and they will buy more than they came in for every time."
"In The Incredible Dissolving Store, walls disappear and data matters more."

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20 Comments on "How can grocers hold onto their new most valuable customers?"

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Neil Saunders

I don’t think creating a unified view of customers has been on many short-term agendas. The priority has been managing unprecedented demand shifts during the pandemic. That said, it has to be a medium-term necessity as retailers need to understand how consumers behave across channels.

Getting online data is easy as consumers have to identify themselves for delivery or collection. Getting the same information for in-store visits is more challenging, which makes putting the pieces together extremely difficult.

Target has done a great job of joining the two sides via its Target Circle loyalty scheme. Members now scan a barcode on their phone when shopping in-store which lets them collect money-off points for future trips. This also helps Target identify who is shopping and what they’re buying. The information is used to help target marketing and to analyze how shoppers are behaving across channels.

Amazon has done a similar, though less comprehensive, job with Whole Foods and Prime members. Other retailers will follow.

Jeff Weidauer

Grocers have consistently struggled with a unified shopper view. Online is seen as an add-on to the “real” business of bringing shoppers in-store. COVID-19 has created a true cross-channel shopper who can no longer be ignored.

Ralph Jacobson

This actually leads to the decades-old challenge of loyalty. Are your “loyalty” programs simply mass, untargeted discounts? There are tools available today to precisely determine who your most profitable customers are and how to incentivize them to remain loyal.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
2 years 4 days ago

A lot of retailers are re-evaluating their loyalty programs for their customers. For example, Target has really upped their game using their Cartwheel program. I am offered deals weekly on things that I buy on a consistent based and on affinity categories on items I have purchased in the past (either online or in-store). All relevant deals that are tailored to me. Normally it is a big production to use electronic coupons, but the process here is pretty easy. It needs to be this easy for all retailers that decide to retain their customers using offers tailored to those customers.

Ken Cassar

Large grocery store chains do a uniquely good job of tracking customer behavior across channels, tethered by loyalty programs with high participation rates. This manifests itself far more effectively in the online environment than in stores because stores struggle to deliver the tailored experiences that websites and apps can offer. The biggest opportunity for grocers is to more effectively use digital tools to influence the store shopping experience.

Suresh Chaganti

From a data perspective – there has to be a holistic view of the household. Multiple people shop from same household, people use different credit cards or check out as guests, so constructing a household-level holistic view is a prerequisite.

Once the stage is set, then comes understanding of share of wallet, personalized offers, and what it takes to maximize the share of wallet. If a family of four spends $400 on groceries, knowing which categories are underrepresented in the spend is the start of knowing the customer better and target accordingly.

This is not an easy task with different point-of-sale systems, multiple channels and all the bureaucracy that one can find even in a mid-sized business.

Ryan Mathews

Most retailers, not just grocers, struggle with this issue. “Born digital” retailers struggle to make physical stores work and vice versa. The key is to quit thinking in terms of online and in-store and start thinking like a consumer whose primary goal is to source products in the most friction-free way possible. Once you orient yourself to the idea that you are in one business — getting consumers what they want — rather than two, physical and online; three, physical, online, mobile; four, physical, online, mobile, voice-activated; etc., it gets much easier to see customers as real people and work out real world solutions. Junk the “omnichannel” strategies and realize the only “channel” you have to figure out starts in the mind of your shopper. The rest will sort itself out.

Ryan Grogman

Grocers have been lagging behind the rest of the retail community with regards to the journey towards unified commerce. However the pandemic has accelerated that quest and it will be imperative for grocers to take to heart the same priorities that general retail has been focused on the past few years: creating a personalized experience; establishing a real-time, unified view of product data; leveraging a single view of their customers across all channels; and providing customers the ability to buy anywhere/receive product anywhere.

Shep Hyken

Online shopping accelerated during the pandemic. It taught consumers who would normally only shop in a store that online was a viable option. The key to keeping those online shoppers will be to deliver an easy and flawless experience. The first is easier than the second. However if there are problems in the delivery, how the retailer handles them will be the difference between a consumer abandoning online or returning to try again.

Lisa Goller

Overall, grocers have room to improve at unifying consumer data. Knowing shoppers on an individual level boosts sales and loyalty by making consumers feel special and more willing to buy.

Years ago, when Metro sent me coupons for products I frequently buy, I felt valued, delighted and more willing to shop with them soon because they were paying careful attention. (Notably, I immediately wondered, “What have you done for me lately, Loblaws?”) Deep familiarity with consumers creates a distinct competitive advantage.

To effectively unify omnichannel data and boost consumer intimacy, grocers need to:

  • Smash the silos between online and in-store insights;
  • Consider special offers involving consumers’ most frequently purchased items;
  • Use exclusive private label products as a strategic differentiator to boost loyalty.
Andrew Blatherwick
The longer that people’s concerns about COVID-19 continue and they continue to shop online for their groceries the more that behaviors will become entrenched. Grocery retailers do not have to do anything special except manage their inventory well to ensure it is fresh and has good availability, and customers will continue to shop online in greater numbers. However if they fail on availability or freshness those same customers will find alternative competitive retailers and switch to them. Once things settle down and the risk is significantly lower, a percentage will go back to their old behavior of not buying fresh foods online. But for many that fear will have subsided and they will continue with the new normal. It is at this point that grocery retailers will have to start to work harder to keep those customers because the competition will ramp up again as retailers try to regain some of their past shoppers or entice them online or into their stores with special offers and promotions. However, good inventory availability and fresh product always… Read more »
Richard J. George, Ph.D.
As I have often said, we tend to define the concept of loyalty backwards. There is no reason a customer should be loyal to his grocery store. Be loyal to your family, country, Alma Mater, etc. Retailers need to be loyal to their customers by simply delivering on their promises. When it comes to online and in-store shopping the process needs to focus on speed, convenience and seamlessness. Make it easy to shop in the store during the process of picking up online purchases. For example, have designated preferred parking and delivery to the car of online purchases when exiting from an in-store shopping visit. Online purchases including fresh and refrigerated products will go into the vehicle last and then the shopper is off to their home. Retailers need to focus on every aspect of their customers’ shopping experiences (online and in-store) and identify all of the places where these valuable customers are forced to compromise, namely doing something they prefer not to do. Fix these compromises and retailers will enjoy enhanced continuity of purchases.
Mark Price
Mark Price
Chief Data Officer, CaringBridge
2 years 4 days ago

Traditionally, grocers have been able to track customer behavior using their loyalty programs. It is critical that the loyalty program information be used even when a third-party is doing the shopping (such as Instacart). Otherwise the grocery store will lose track of customer behavior and be unable to calculate value and take activities to increased cross-sell and retention.

It is very clear that consumers have gotten much of their trepidation about shopping for groceries online during the pandemic. It is unclear whether or not this behavior will continue as the pandemic abates in 2021. Grocers must be proactive in engaging their customers in order to sustain that behavior.

Chuck Ehredt
Grocery strikes me as a category of retail where some have digital teams that make the most of their data and others might collect a lot of data, but struggle to make it actionable. I tend to think the current pandemic is driving home two main lessons: 1.) they need to be more digital to respond to spikes in demand, and 2.) the data they are collecting can dramatically improve the customer experience – such that rather than selling potatoes, the brand can sell a service where the combined attributes of experience, product, payment, accuracy, etc. make a customer want to shop with a particular brand – whether online or offline. Of course, a loyalty program is not necessary to enable this, but it can be a lot easier to engage the customer when they understand the value exchange. Therefore, a unified view of the customer is essential and modern SaaS technology is making it easier for those brands that understand digital, but also accessible to those who have been struggling. Those that have been… Read more »
Brandon Rael

It’s all about providing outstanding customer experience and an outstanding customer journey to help retain and attract new customers. Every single grocery and wholesale distributor go-forward strategy should start with the customer in mind, and what specific services and experiences they could provide to differentiate them from the sea of competition in the grocery space. It will take a far more collaborative model between the wholesale distributors and grocers to drive this transformative change.

It’s imperative for grocers to leverage digital to not only offer more seamless shopping experiences but, more importantly, have a full perspective of the customer at every step of the shopping journey. A data- and analytics-first strategy will help grocers to drive their assortments via optimization strategies, de-invest in non-performing categories, and invest in value-added perimeter store experiences.

The competitive forces are out there, and COVID-19 has become the great accelerator of trends that were already in motion. Now is the time for grocery companies to re-imagine the shopping experience.

Doug Garnett

Let’s challenge the idea that the “most valuable” customers are those who shop both in-store and online. That might be true in revenue numbers this week.

A store’s most valuable customers are those who return the best long term value. And the law of double jeopardy indicates the best long term value comes from having many more new, low spending customers today.

Part of the truth here is that high spending customers are also most aware of alternatives and least loyal to your store. So store health only comes from a constant stream of new, low spending customers — and that turns into the rich mix which makes store profits stable and strong.

Tony Orlando
As a small supermarket owner, it has been my job to make sure I engage with my customers as often as I can. My greatest strength is being one-on-one with my customers, and that hasn’t changed since I started working many, many years ago. Adding our social media platforms to reach out in different ways has helped quite a bit but, unless you can get to know your customers, all the media and online offers will have a limited effect. I know that I am not a Mega Box store. But being small can also be an advantage for those most loyal customers, who love the personal attention and look for things like top quality meats and deli prepared from scratch.That is why I’m still here. They always come here to buy their perishables, and my keeping up with my closeout vintage wines has made it even better. I can personally help pick out what they need. No one size fits all for any retail business. The best customers who spend the most want to… Read more »
Rachelle King

Many retailers have long been aware of the omnichannel shopper but marketing and engagement strategies are still catching up to this most valuable segment. There is still too much segmentation between the online and in-store shopper; too much consideration to a linear purchaser journey (which doesn’t exist anymore).

What retailers are trying to balance is, while there is undeniable growth in both online and omnichannel shopping, the vast majority of revenue is still generated from the box. The arc of general retail practice is slow to bend, especially in traditional grocery. They must stay engaged with the omnichannel shopper, meeting them when/where they need on increasingly personalized journeys but at the same time, protect the box; this is likely not as easy as it sounds.

James Tenser

In The Incredible Dissolving Store, walls disappear and data matters more. Supermarkets have a potential leg up in this regard because of the high penetration of frequent shopper programs, which can enable them to tie in-store and online behaviors to a unified household picture.

I say “potential” because the unified picture is still more aspiration than reality. Most chains were unprepared to calculate the impact of the COVID-19 surge in online shopping. The unprecedented disruption in on-shelf availability further muddied the waters, distorting the demand signal beyond recognition.

Supermarkets need to confront this moment on two fronts: The first is operational. Get store inventories back in hand with more accurate ordering processes and link real-time store inventory data to the online shopping system.

Second — and this is only going to work well if the operational part is nominal — track emerging shopper behavior patterns in all modes and channels and begin to formulate a new, more accurate, picture of reality.

Ananda Chakravarty
Getting a unified view of customers and their behavior is challenging for grocers. Grocers are high frequency purchase points — with buying (before the pandemic) in the range of 1.5x per week per household. More importantly, the frequency has seemed to relax slightly in the form of larger cart sizes, although these are bloated with shipping and delivery costs due to the pandemic. The fact is that grocery is still high frequency buying. We all need to eat. Most consumers also buy from multiple sources to fill their grocery needs — the C-store down the road, their local grocery, the fresh co-op stand at their workplace, and more. Compound that with the online/offline buying cycles pushed by online selling and curbside pickup options, plus personal shopper buying through various services like Instacart, mapping the complexity of behavior becomes almost untenable for a grocer. Instead, focus on the needs of the customer: Service, e.g. having the right products in stock, available times Basics, e.g. clean stores, social distancing and safety, fast checkout (online & off) Community,… Read more »
"Junk the 'omnichannel' strategies and realize the only 'channel' you have to figure out starts in the mind of your shopper. "
"The best customers who spend the most want to be recognized, and they will buy more than they came in for every time."
"In The Incredible Dissolving Store, walls disappear and data matters more."

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