THE FUTURE OF GROCERY POST-COVID-19, IS THIS THE END OF THE GROCERY STORE BROWSE?

Despite being in the midst of a pandemic, the time on lockdown has highlighted some key areas in grocery that may look to change forever. What will grocery shopping look like for consumers once all of this is over? Are some measures truly temporary or set to be permanent fixtures?

Consumers continue to seek out alternatives to grocery shopping with direct to consumer offerings, subscriptions and one-off orders. These D2C offerings have been in the background for years and have waited for their moment in the spotlight. But with all of this going on outside of the store, there is a lot to be discussed for what will happen in-store and what the layout and protocols will be going forward.

For example, what if the habit of ordering and subscribing to online offerings becomes the new norm? The grocery store itself could move to be more like a convenience store, corner dairy-type footprint, or even just become dark stores completely, delivering groceries to doors or have just click and collect options.

Post-COVID-19 it will be interesting for consumers to see the changes unfold. The plexiglass shields installed between every checkout operator and shopper, and between staff will not necessarily be removed after Level 4 is lifted, not just because of potential transmission of COVID-19 but because there will always be cold and flu viruses in the community. Statistics are already showing that the new hygiene regimes for both workplaces and home are resulting in less transmission of everyday winter ailments.

Then there are the trolleys and baskets. Surely the sanitising of these will become automated – a carwash-like drive through for trolleys perhaps?

With the closure of food outlets during lockdown, the supermarkets have also looked to change the way serve-over offerings are packaged. Items are pre-packaged, something that stores prior to COVID-19 have worked hard to try to eliminate with the implementation of BYO containers, could this mean a resurgence of plastics? Bulk foods also need to be pre-packaged, but looking ahead, the answer to this could lie in dispensing vending machines however they would need to be sealed prior inside the unit. Enter the amount you want and out comes 150g of nuts in a sealed bag that you would have normally snacked on around the store. There is a lot of opportunity for innovation in this area.

Over the years, banks, and even post offices have changed significantly, not just with the amount of physical locations decreasing, but also staffing levels. Innovations and technologies have developed for consumers to be able to conduct transactions, requests and speak with bank tellers from anywhere and at anytime. In the USA the Bureau of Labour Statistics forecasted in 2017 that teller jobs would decline around eight percent in the coming 10 years. Within just a year, it had already decreased over eight percent. Post offices now offer so much more than just postal services, a key factor in keeping branches alive and relevant in the digital world. Banks and post offices have also continued to use plexiglass and security barriers to ensure the safety of its staff, this has, until today, been for the physical safety not for health reasons.

There is, no doubt, a vital role that supermarket staff play, from customer retention to customer experience, merchandising and checkout, but will this role be one that will be carried out from a distance? With everyone testing out various online shopping options, none have been operating at  such high levels as Foodstuffs and Countdown, and despite being well-oiled machines, the two bigger players in the market have seen their fair share of hiccups over the past weeks, however their ability to scale up has been impressive. Smaller players coming to market in this environment aren’t so lucky and get one chance to impress customers to ensure repeat orders. Even if the product hits the mark, if the packaging, delivery and continuity of service miss the mark, second chances are few and far between.

Although predictions on the pressure on food and beverage supply chains could have been seen by consumer panic buying overseas, New Zealand didn’t have the technology in place to be able to restrict buying quickly enough. There should have been and should be practices in place for when the system looks to become overloaded. Smaller businesses that received too many orders, then had to either not deliver or email contact those customers to say it was unable to deliver. This left bad impressions on the brand with customers, leading them to find alternatives. Even though the country is facing hardship, and businesses are doing everything they can to fulfil orders, it seems that consumers aren’t as forgiving when it comes to food not being able to be delivered.

Was Amazon just a few years too early in its investment in cashier-less stores and eliminating human contact altogether? Perhaps this pandemic will accelerate technologies such as this so shoppers can just scan their phone at the door to enter (provided they have no symptoms, and are not sick – as apps in China are starting to include), shop for what you need and leave, being charged automatically, without the need to use a pin-pad (a petri-dish for germs).

Connecting consumers with grocery products, particularly new flavours, variants and brands, has traditionally happened in-store. With reduced foot-traffic in-store, how will the introduction of NPD, alternative brands or products, browsing or impulse buys crossover to the shopper? Merchandisers and in-store staff are more than just shelf-stackers and checkout operators, they hold the key to connecting and directing customers to products, something that is hard to do when you are ‘just browsing’ online.

For some transactions, convenience, speed and technology may eliminate the need for a bricks-and-mortar location, but the grocery store, for some is much more than a chore, it is an outing, an opportunity to get out of the house, to interact, to spend time walking and browsing the aisles, the complete opposite of grocery shopping during lockdown where customers get in and get out as quickly as possible. You better hope that your product really does shout out from the shelf, or you have put a lot of effort into advertising and marketing so that it ends up on shoppers’ grocery lists for the big occasion that is going to the grocery store.

What if consumers could connect with a personal shopper online, someone who recommends new products. With the overload of information in the inbox, emails just aren’t going to cut it for NPD reach. Virtual shopping is one way of making the store experience more open to NPD. Browsing the aisles online, instead of clicking through tabs and pages to get to the end of 45 pages of products and forget which page you saw that one product on that you should have added to cart after all.

If shoppers do decide to head in-store, how will they navigate the aisles without ‘bumping’ into someone? Like a giant life-like version of Pac-Man. Will the aisles be wider? Will shoppers finally have to adhere to trolley etiquette and rules, going the right way up an aisle? Will it be one-way only?\ Keep left and no turning back? Kroger is testing out one-way aisles at one of its stores to keep in-line with social distancing rules. Just like in an airplane, the floor lighting and decals will guide you around the store.