Expert Analysis: Disrupted Landscape — Grocery During COVID-19 & Beyond


With the rise of COVID-19, the grocery shopping experience was radically and abruptly disrupted. For many, online shopping suddenly became the desired method of buying groceries – and pickup and delivery slots are now increasingly hard to come by. Trips to the grocery store are prefaced by careful planning, and conducted as infrequently as possible. Safety is paramount, and customers will choose fulfillment methods and store experiences that ensure that safety.

All at once, customer behavior has fundamentally changed. That change, while driven by health and safety considerations, carries another benefit: the convenience of digitally-enabled shopping. Following are our predictions on the implications of that change.

How We Shop

During intense periods of social distancing, customers will first turn to online shopping for groceries, either for delivery or pickup. For those who are able to secure grocery slots, the ease of shopping online without having to go into a store may be significant enough to permanently change their behavior, shifting them from in-store shoppers to online shoppers. As life returns to normal, the keys to retaining these customers will be inventory accuracy, substitutions avoidance and personalized product recommendations. 

In the medium- to long-term, assuming online grocery continues to grow, the role of the store picker will become increasingly important, and potentially a competitive advantage. Given that trust in another person’s ability to select fresh grocery items has always been a deterrent for customers, the picker becomes a key part of the experience. Grocers who provide more visibility into the pickers themselves, who streamline communications between the customer and the picker, and who even allow customers to rate and review their pickers have the potential to create unique selling points for customers. 

For customers who must go into stores to shop, the immediate safety benefit of shopping with as little contact as possible will also have other benefits. The ability to scan items, add them to one’s own shopping bag, check out on a phone and simply leave the store supports the customer’s safety, but also delivers convenience. If social distancing creates an initial reason to download a “scan and pay” app, the positive experience a customer receives may transform how they shop in the long run. Contactless shopping may evolve to other categories, as big-box retailers with Grocery offerings have an interesting opportunity to connect Grocery and General Merchandise.

The ready availability of platforms like Shopify creates a low barrier to entry for online commerce, even for smaller brands and specialty retailers. The trend of CPG brands offering experiences in which customers can shop directly will continue to grow, and will expand to grocery items.

As customers become frustrated with the limited inventory offered by grocers, they will seek out other options. Once the relationship between consumer and brand is established, and the shopper has a positive experience ordering directly from a brand, that behavior will likely continue well after the need to do so is gone. In the longer-term, grocers will need to lean heavily on the promise of a “one-stop shop” in order to remain competitive.

What We Buy 

The limited availability of grocery items, coupled with economic pressures, creates an environment in which people must be much more intentional about how they shop. By living through a time in which one simply cannot get the things one is used to buying, essential items become much more critical.

With retailers like Carrefour offering essentials “kits”, and restaurants selling sets of items, the trend towards purchasing a bundle of weekly staples may pervade after the COVID-19 crisis. Customers benefit from a more predictable grocery spend and a much simpler search and browse experience, and grocers benefit from better inventory prediction.

The Role of the Store

As stores become less grounded in the customer’s experience, and more grounded in picking orders as efficiently as possible, grocers will continue to evolve the ways in which they fulfill online orders. We may see stores begin to carry less inventory on the floor, and more inventory in the back of the store — or even shift to “dark” stores altogether. We will also likely see more purpose-built micro fulfillment centers. While this trend began well before COVID-19, the surge in online shopping will likely see it continue — especially if customer behavior moves to online and stays there.

Interestingly, the response to COVID-19 was largely dependent on capabilities that many grocers were pursuing before social distancing, because they delivered on the promise of convenience and a more digitally-enabled customer experience. While longer-term shifts in the grocery experience will likely be informed by how long social distancing continues, and how long safety remains a key concern, the positive changes in the customer experience may be enough for customers to permanently transform their behaviors.

Eiko Kawano is group experience director at digital consultancy Publicis Sapient and is a member of Publicis Sapient’s retail experience leadership team. She has an extensive background in customer experience strategy, journey mapping, and customer research, and loves working with brands to find meaningful ways to reach people.

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