Hillary Reeves is vice president of marketing at Chicory, a shoppable recipe firm that works with retailers such as Walmart, Wakefern and Peapod.
For the past five years, we’ve heard about the looming rocket-like liftoff of online grocery usership that was coming. In 2019, it was estimated that $51.4 billion would be generated in online grocery sales by 2020. But as that deadline crept closer, it became clear that we might have been way, way off. In June 2019, IBISWorld estimated that $35.2 billion in sales was coming through online grocery channels. That’s 0.05% of total grocery sales.
We continued to ask ourselves, "What would get consumers moving toward buying their groceries online?"
First we thought it was convenience. Shoppers moved to buying via e-commerce channels for other verticals because it was simpler than heading to a store. A shopper who didn’t have time to shop for Christmas sweaters this weekend could definitely find time after dinner on a weeknight to place those orders. And a shopper researching a new TV found it convenient to buy that TV online and get it delivered rather than lug it home in the trunk of their car.
But buying groceries has never been all that inconvenient. In a major city, there are bodegas or convenience stores on every corner. In the suburbs, there’s always a supermarket on the way home from work or soccer practice. Depending on what a family is craving, it might even be easier to stop at the grocery store on any given night than try and predict what a week’s worth of food could look like ahead of time.
Then we thought “personalization.” Millennials might shop for food online more if we can follow their past purchase behavior and recommend something similar. But food isn’t like beauty products or books. Just because a person bought a frozen pizza last week doesn’t mean their needs are the same this week. In fact, 63% of millennial shoppers say they like to try new foods and recipes on a regular basis, according to Kantar. Yes, we might consistently need toilet paper, but food items are less simple to track, particularly as diets or food fads became more pervasive. (Who could have predicted the rockstar status of acai or avocados before smoothie bowls or fancy toasts?)
Omnichannel was a big concept that meant shoppable everything. But, really, who was going to buy a six-pack of Coke from an Instagram ad or display media campaign? Shoppability was an interesting tactic for basket building, but whether it was actually catalyzing the use of online grocery among consumers was completely unclear.
We even thought Amazon could make it happen. When it acquired Whole Foods, experts thought a tidal wave would sweep over the grocery industry. But, usership of its online grocery tools was slow to grow among consumers, and year-over-year growth dropped by 25% from 2018 to 2019. If anything, Amazon forced other grocery retailers to take online grocery user experience more seriously if they were going to stack up. Consumers, though — not so much.
What made online grocery adoption actually happen? A pandemic. Fear and an attempt to be socially responsible led consumers to begin using online grocery at rates that were completely unpredicted and more impactful than any marketing campaigns of the past.
We misunderstood what consumers wanted from online grocery. It wasn’t drones or driverless cars to ensure quicker delivery. It wasn’t couriers delivering groceries straight to the fridge in case they couldn’t be home to receive the order. It wasn’t a VR experience that made them feel like they were walking the aisles. And, though consumers will often say this, it might not even have been the fear of someone else picking out the right bananas.
What got consumers to adopt online grocery shopping was a scenario that made it necessary. Changing the way that consumers buy something as basic as food is hard. We consume our groceries daily. It’s a personal, often emotional act. For most people, convenience or one-click shopping matters for the stuff that’s annoying to buy and that doesn’t bring us all that much joy, like toilet paper. Personalization or fun retail experiences work for items that feel indulgent or discretionary, like makeup.
In order to change the habits for buying very basic items, brands and retailers have to meet the needs of consumers more than their trendy preferences. Buying essential clothing online requires companies to offer a lot of flexibility, like ThirdLove’s try-before-you buy guarantee for their bras and underwear. Other essentials like rent payments, gas or utilities are nearly impossible to move completely online, as they’re needed instantly, need to offer all consumers ways to pay (aka, cannot be limited to cashless credit card payments) or require more complex supply chain planning.
Groceries are complicated because they sit somewhere in the middle. Food is essential-meets-pleasure. But at its most basic, groceries meet very fundamental needs. If there is a lesson to be learned from the adoption of online grocery channels amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that online grocery has had a serious PR problem.
Online grocery does not need to be convenient, fun or filled with robots. Perhaps those could be means to an end, but what online grocery has to do is fulfill basic needs. Therefore it has to be reliable, quick, affordable and flexible. Without these essentials, consumers will never thoroughly adopt online grocery into their shopping habits, and it will remain a backup plan for in-person shopping.