Preparing the Davids of Grocery to Take on the Might of Goliaths

Adit Kohli
6 min readJan 3, 2021

The grocery industry has been forecasting a rise in the adoption of online shopping for some years now, and the pandemic eventually proved to be the most significant inflection point for the accelerated adoption of online sales in 2020. Almost overnight, grocery stores experienced an unprecedented spike in demand and consumers facing empty shelves and long lines started shopping for their daily needs from the safety of their homes, a majority of them for the first time ever.

From 3 to 4 percent share before the pandemic, online grocery has surged to 12 to 15 percent, according to research by consulting firm Bain & Company. And in some cases, it’s much greater than that.

This has sent the apps for grocery retail giants like Amazon, Walmart, Target and Instacart off the charts, indicating a surge of brand-new customers who may have never placed an online grocery order before.

In these times, where few platforms have come to own and dominate the underlying infrastructure of online shopping platform, fulfillment and shipment, where do regional grocers and small shops go from here? How can they compete successfully in such an intense environment? Can they use the pandemic as an opportunity to kind of start fresh again, make dynamic changes and offer an alternative to their customers?

We have just begun collaborating with a startup whose mission is to empower such local grocery stores, connect them with their consumers online and redefine the grocery shopping experience. Here I outline 10 of the most powerful ways we are enabling smart grocers in deploying a highly personalized digital experience, not only to stay afloat during these troubled times but to thrive.

  1. Allowing customers to choose their personal shopper

Lack of trust regarding the freshness of products is one of the major reasons that restricts people from shifting to online grocery shopping. In a store, customers can visibly check the freshness of produce, meat, and dairy but are forced to rely on some stranger they don’t trust, to do it online for them. Allowing new customers to pick who they want to do shopping for them based on their profiles or reviews from other customers and at the same time enable returning customers to easily pick their previous shoppers and adjust expectations as per their availability, will improve the overall customer and employee relationship.

2. Promote and feature local farmers and vendors

The pandemic is making people appreciate locally grown food more than ever before. Customers want to help their local community, the farmers and the food producers, as they are aware how important this is for them financially. Moreover, they consider locally sourced products safer as it touches less hands and you don’t have things sitting out on display where people can walk by and accidentally cough or sneeze. Family-run or locally owned grocery stores should prominently convey their commitment to the community through their marketing messages, both in store and online.

3. “Netflixing” grocery shopping

Knowing customers as individuals is as important online as it’s offline, not just to see what they buy, but to also understand why they buy what they buy. This can be done by offering customers the capability to let them build digital profiles of their specific preferences around sustainability, brands, etc. This way if a store knows that a customer is shopping for a family with 2 children aged 8 and 12, one child is dairy intolerant and one parent is vegan, on a budget of $100 per week, they can use this micro-level knowledge to generate automatic personalized catalogs featuring personalized product suggestions and search results tailored to each individual shoppers’ preferences, buying habits, dietary restrictions and allergies.

4. Increase findability of new and relevant products

Shoppers can be set in their ways, not straying far from their typical grocery list. This leaves much of the store’s product catalog comprising tens of thousands of SKUs, largely undiscovered. Personalization doesn’t mean offering the shopper the same branded product they already buy — instead it must help them explore and uncover relevant, never-before-purchased products based on contextual data that engage them to keep coming back for more.

5. Provide nutritional info and allergen warning

Discerning customers and those with special dietary needs should be able to check information about the nutritional value of products and must be warned against known allergens, nudging them towards suitable replacements, even if that means a frozen or preserved alternative in some cases. For instance, if a mother whose child is allergic to gluten is ordering a box of cookies, she will be warned of the known allergen along with being offered safer alternatives that are gluten-free. This will attract greater numbers of customers making each one feel as if they are being treated individually.

6. Know how to select produce, meat and dairy

Among those who use online grocery services, only half include produce in their orders primarily due to concerns over quality. Whether a customer wants to order a melon and bananas at peak ripeness, the perfect cut of meat and fish, or smooth unblemished potatoes, good quality and selection are chief concerns online. By encouraging customers to easily choose from pre-defined instructions that are specific to the items they are adding to the cart, there will be less guess work from the personal shopper, customers will get the quality they want, all of which will improve the overall customer and employee relationship.

7. Champion the origins of your supply chain

The growing number of people around the world are becoming more and more aware of food safety and curious about how their foods are being sourced and screened. They are interested to know the precise origin and journey of food, how fresh the produce is and whether or when it is ready to eat. There is a strong health and business case for enhanced food traceability and giving consumers more trust in their food, as advocated by Walmart, Kroger, Carrefour, Alibaba and other retailers around the world. Even smaller brands are also using the technology, with blockchain-traceable olive oil, coffee, chocolate, meat and bread now available on shelves of various stores across the nation.

8. Encourage customers to share carts and lists with family

Make it easier for family members or roommates to order items for a shared kitchen, via communal shopping cart and lists that anyone with the link can have access to from their own devices! In other words, your customers no longer have to corral everyone into the same room and pass around a single phone or tablet to add their respective items to the cart.

9. Enable seamless interaction between customers and their shoppers

What’s worse than encountering a stockout? Getting a bad replacement that customers are not expecting! While the best way to deal with out-of-stocks is to avoid them altogether, one can turn an unpleasant stockout situation into a positive one with the right customer service. One proven way is to allow customers to track the progress of their orders, chat and approve replacements in the chat with their personal shopper if an item is out of stock. On the shoppers’ side, giving them a better sense of what will be an acceptable replacement using smart technology will make the experience for the shopper as simple as possible so that they are able to deliver the best experience for the customer.

10. Drive sales online and in store

A typical customer will want groceries delivered some of the time but at the same time will want to go into the store some of the time. Online should not come at the cost of growth in brick-and-mortar sales for the small stores. An ideal online experience should be able to drive customers into the store, not keep them away. The app must be able to sense when a customer enters a store and switches to in-store mode to utilize features for locating items down to the exact aisle and bay in that store. For those who need to get in and out of the store quickly, knowing exactly if products are in stock and where items are displayed in aisles makes the shopping experience as painless as possible. This also helps to make sure items are in stock at the store ahead of time and eliminates waiting around for a store employee. Once an item is found, they can also use their smartphone cameras to scan items on store shelves and get nutritional info, known allergens and any offers.

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