The Path to Purchase Institute has assembled its most impressive collection of thought leaders ever to reflect on the impact the COVID-19 crisis will have on shopper engagement. The following series of articles presents their insightful perspectives on four questions about the current status and future potential for the shopper commerce industry.
- What is the most beneficial lesson you’ve learned about shoppers during the crisis?
- What new business practice, strategy, process or marketing tool/tactic have you adopted that you will continue to use post-pandemic?
- What recent change in shopper behavior or retail operations do you most hope will continue after the crisis ends? (See answers below.)
- Moving forward, what do you see as the greatest opportunity for achieving success with shoppers?
What recent change in shopper behavior or retail operations do you most hope will continue after the crisis ends?
I hope that shoppers and operations continue to invest in last mile delivery and the overall efficiency of the supply chain. We have seen the function of supply chain become one of the most important business functions when the globe is faced with change. The resiliency of a supply chain is a leading indicator of a company's success. The data clearly shows when an operation is not just executing but also innovating and leading the transformation to enable changes in consumer behaviors those businesses deliver meaningful results in both economic and social outcomes.
As a shopper, I’m a fan of Instacart’s “Fast & Flexible” fulfillment option, launched in April as demand for online grocery delivery was reaching new levels. Instead of forcing shoppers to frantically refresh their browsers in search of scarce delivery windows before finally placing an order, this new feature allows shoppers to place an order and have it fulfilled as soon as shoppers are available to pick and deliver the order.
Coming into 2020, I was beating the drum that pressure to chart a path to economically and environmentally sustainable digital commerce would require more breakthroughs in product R&D, supply chain, and logistics. This crisis brought into focus the need to ruggedize the supply chain for yet another valid reason, and I’m hopeful that the industry continues to evolve from a just-in-time model to something more durable and flexible.
I hope to see more expansive use of e-commerce. The adoption of delivery and pickup services has skyrocketed. Usage was trending up 22% prior to COVID-19, but climbed as high as 250%. That growth clearly won’t continue, but the new baseline for e-commerce is far higher, and shoppers will continue to include these new shopping means as part of their repertoire.
Shoppers should continue to be discerning with brands, products, and retailers. Shoppers should continue to expect more from products and retailers. Those that deliver on shoppers’ expectations will continue to grow.
On the shopper side, we hope the openness to new shopping experiences will remain. It will be interesting to follow how shoppers incorporate the new into their lives to make shopping a pleasant experience no matter how it is done. We think that will challenge the retailer to offer a great experience in store and/or online. A shopper may become experience loyal vs retailer loyal. Shoppers will prioritize the retailer that offers the best experience that meets their needs. For example, if you are a pet store, you better have a great retail experience to entice that pet owner to come through your door. If not, then that consumer will prioritize the retailer that offers the best option for pick up or delivery.
On the retail operations side, there has been a greater realization in the ecosystem that we all need each other. We've found a greater willingness to work together to achieve a shared goal rather than relying on the tried-and-true processes exclusively. Brands and retailers are more open to innovation and experimentation, which we hope endures once the crisis ends.
I hope to see continued agility in programming with retailers. Traditional programming had 6-, 9-, or 12-month lead time to meet retailer merchandising calendars, inventory management and operations standards. Leaning into digital programming enables agility to develop programming that is responsive to the marketplace, addresses competitive opportunities for brands or retailers, and is the right message at the right time.
From the shopper’s perspective, I hope the return to more home-cooked meals and baking continues. It’s fascinating to see new generations experiment with recipes, and to take dishes I used to make to a whole new level. Brands that continue to surprise and delight these new culinary wizards have the best opportunity to bring new consumers into the fold.
From a retailer’s perspective, it’s been inspiring to see the unwavering commitment their front line of employees have been showing their shoppers both in terms of making sure we all had access to food and ensuring we were shopping in a safe environment. They’ve definitely been COVID-19 heroes alongside the healthcare workers.
In our Mars Wrigley Candy & Snacking business, more people are buying multi-packs and bulk orders of their favorite brands to share at home. The increased online availability of these products is helping the company meet consumer demand. These beloved brands have weathered the storms of recessions, depressions and World Wars. The advantage of variety in our portfolio, ubiquitous distribution across retail channels and increased presence on-line is being able to calibrate to meet consumers, wherever they are shopping.
In our Mars Petcare business, there’s been an increase in demand for pet food and adoptions during the pandemic. Pets make our lives better; that's become even move clear during this crisis. Also, our Mars Petcare veterinary hospitals and clinics have pivoted to telemedicine and curbside pickups for helping pets. In India, for example, our teams partnered with a local large food home delivery app so people could simply order products online instead of visiting stores. We don’t know which of these trends are long-term, but we hope we can continue the trend of pivoting fast to help our consumers with multiple options and multiple paths to purchase, providing them the right convenience and right experience regardless of trend.
As for practices we’ll continue, it's really all about balance and timing. We want to be nimble and fleet of foot in managing through the crisis while also applying what we’ve learned to help our business succeed in the longer-term.
Shopping behavior seen during the COVID crisis, and likely long after in the economic recovery, will lead manufacturers and retailers to more overtly think and act upon SKU rationalization, consumer value pricing (not lowest price), product quality and safety in a way that will actually be more shopper centric and lead to greater in-store and online effectiveness and efficiency. Both have to improve upon these areas to maintain new users gained during the pandemic or attract new shoppers who have turned to their categories, either for the first time or more often, or channels as a result of this enormous societal change.
Chief of Staff & Omnichannel Deployment Lead
Peapod Digital Labs
I think contactless delivery and pick-up will continue. Many customers have a preference to have as few touchpoints in the fulfillment process as possible. Having this option provides a better experience for those who opt for it and makes fulfillment more efficient for the retailer.
First, I hope that we will all come to realize the importance of front-line retail staff so that they will be forever seen as critical to the functioning of society. With that, I also hope they will be compensated appropriately and gain the deserved respect of citizens that rely on them.
Beyond that altruistic hope, I think that we will continue to see the acceleration of other senses beyond touch in retail. Retail has always been about touching the merchandise. We had started to see an increase in the importance of visual language (such as emojis) and of voice (think Alexa), and as with many things, COVID-19 has bought the future forward and accelerated their use by brands and acceptance by shoppers. Consider also the increased importance of signage, visual cues for social distancing, increased screen time and the challenges of mask wearing. These all open opportunities for retail experiences that are more visually driven and for innovations such as functional and immersive audio.
It is not new news that shopper behavior has been shifting substantially, and in some cases erratically, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It has not followed a linear path from the panic buying of late February to what we’re seeing now, and that will likely be true as we continue to navigate through, and eventually out of, the crisis state brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is the reaction from retail to these ongoing shifts in shopper behavior that I hope continues ad infinitum: a willingness to embrace and enact fast, sweeping changes in direct response to shopper behavior.
In recent months, many consumers have reported shifting their normal in-person grocery trip online. Some estimates posit that COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of e-commerce grocery shopping by a factor of up to3-5 years. The response from retail was a swift explosion in BOPIS and delivery options, e-commerce offerings and partnerships with third-party facilitators like Instacart. These options had been slowly appearing across the industry over the last few years, but in response to COVID-19 have rapidly taken up a widespread presence from big box chains to corner grocers. Omnichannel options have become table stakes for success almost overnight.
Not every move on this front has been perfect. Shoppers have reported issues with things likeout-of-stock items, late deliveries and high service fees, but these issues haven’t turned shoppers away. Shoppers needed solutions; the industry responded by providing options, however imperfect, and shoppers grabbed onto them. Prior to COVID-19, we saw retailers trying to anticipate every possible issue, analyze every potential problem or negative outcome, and solve for them before ever putting an offering out in the market. During COVID-19, retail has thrown some of that caution to the wind in favor of meeting consumers where they are with what they need and then adjusting as they go to improve.
That is my hope for this industry as we progress — that we continue to innovate without a paralyzing fear of change. We should make educated guesses, take calculated risks, and accept smaller short-term failures in the pursuit of long-term gains.
Digital technology enabled shoppers are irrevocably transforming the traditional model for customer, retailer and brand interaction. In a soon to be 5G environment, there is no turning back, just fast-forward. Brick & mortar, e-commerce, phygital, BOPIS and last mile delivery are all combining to create an interactive and interrelated customer expectation set. That transformation requires, right now, an update and upgrade of the retail/brand customer journey. A cloud-centric software stack that leverages the technology we have and the solutions we need to build.
Given the crisis, people are forming many new habits and behaviors. We are cooking at home more, we are cleaning more, doing more dishes and washing clothes more often. Additionally, consumers say they’re spending more time on their smartphones since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, and they’re reporting that they spend 29% more time online shopping according to research conducted by our Facebook IQ team. This was a trend that was already happening, but has accelerated quickly. A common viewpoint I have heard from around the industry talking to CPG and retail clients, researchers and industry experts is that COVID-19 has accelerated change and is making the future happen faster. While it’s too early to say definitively if the CPG shift to e-commerce will change after shelter-in-place restrictions lift, a common view I’ve seen is that this will in fact be a permanent change and we will continue to see CPG e-commerce grow from here. We know that a lot of people have discovered that shopping online for CPG products is actually pretty easy and convenient, and there are more high-quality online shopping and BOPIS options than ever before, so we expect this trend to continue.
Chief Commerce Strategy Officer
Consumers will continue embracing digital shopping tools. More than 70% of all purchase decisions are now digitally influenced. We won't be able to put that genie back in the bottle.
Before the pandemic, grocery e-commerce had yet to take off. In fact, according to Nielsen, just 4% of grocery sales in the United States were online in 2019. I have always heard the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention.” Now I truly see it at work. I hope that people continue to see utility in the benefits of e-commerce and that grocery retailers innovate in this area such that it becomes a more profitable proposition for them. I also hope we see continued innovation in areas like supply chain come out of this crisis.
I hope that retailers continue to embrace a customized approach to the way their shoppers want to shop. In other words, during the crisis some people have become delivery people, some curbsiders, some brave folks were the first back into physical stores because they want to see the product first hand, others want subscription solutions and products direct from the manufacturer. This should be just the beginning – maybe you’re an Alexa list-maker, maybe you’ll embrace anticipatory shipping for regularly used products, or maybe you’ll buy an appliance that does the ordering for you.
Post-pandemic, I hope the depth of e-commerce use only continues to grow from its pandemic elevated level, as it will only accelerate solutions to opportunity areas already being worked on: the shopper experience, channel profitability, ease of content syndication to sites and shifting of e-commerce from a sales channel to a marketing channel.
CEO & Chief Shopper
WSL Strategic Retail
I hope that both shoppers and management will have greater respect for retail employees and what they deliver every day – before, during and after this crisis, and recognize that they are the face of their business and the connection to shoppers.
I expect we’ll continue to see elevated online shopping. Retailers are doing a great job of offering fulfillment options, and the CPG industry as a whole has really responded well. We can continue to make progress, but the amount of progress that’s been made is exciting.
Contactless experience is now forever important, and we hope that retail operations seek to accommodate and innovate against shoppers’ new behavior and willingness to use technology for both browsing and choosing.
We expect to continue to see adoption of a range of e-commerce interaction and shopping models, which will provide a wealth of new purchase behavior understanding as well as enhanced platforms to market. Shoppers have a heightened expectation from brands, which will inspire strong brands to be much more responsive to shoppers needs while amplifying their relevance and overall value to shoppers.
Director of Omnichannel Marketing
Demand for quality.
It has been really nice to see the acceleration of several business practices prompted by COVID-19 and the need for retailers and brands alike to pivot strategically. Some key examples are:
Ecosystem Expansion into Services:
- Amazon Care telemedicine expansion to greater Seattle employees with aims to launch publicly in near future.
- Kroger Health telenutrition services launched to help customers choose the healthiest diet on any budget.
- Boots in the UK launching tele-beauty consultations behind their No7 brand to support beauty and skin care needs while hindered by beauty bar closures and restrictions in-store.
- DSW partnered with Hy-Vee while their physical shoe stores have been closed to bring their offerings in-store on display at Hy-Vee grocery store locations
- Hilton partnered with Lysol to implement the new Hilton CleanStay room preparation process to establish even more trust and engagement with guests as people begin to resume their travels.
- Kroger partnered with Frayt to display outdoor furniture offerings at select stores with direct-to-home delivery due to furniture store closures amid COVID-19
- Costco furthered its partnership with Instacart to deliver prescriptions, a critical capability for serving all customers, but especially those at greater risk of exposure.
Convenience of Vending and Self-Service:
The case is increasing for more contactless payment and fulfillment options, as well as for greater availability with so many businesses closed temporarily or long-term from COVID-19.
- In addition to the more traditional snack and beverage vending machines, there will undoubtedly be an expansion of vending capabilities from retailers like CVS, Best Buy and others, as well as innovations within food preparation vending. API Tech just launched Smart Pizza, a vending machine that makes 96 hot pizzas with 200 recipes.
- Amazon launched its white label Amazon Go checkoutless technology service at what might seem an inopportune time in market during COVID-19 lockdown; however, it may have unknowingly been the most advantageous time as retailers seek ways to reduce exposure for shoppers and employees and optimize costs and store experiences.
The enhancement of the overall customer experience and the consumer safety journey through contactless and virtual experiences.
VP, Brand Commercialization and Shopper Services
Match Marketing Group
One of the major shifts in behaviors has been cooking from home. I hope this shift continues as it puts more emphasis on what used to be a flagging portion of brick-and-mortar sales: center store. Often considered a dead zone, the center store is now becoming more front and center as this behavioral shift sets in. Brands that have long been forgotten, ignored or overlooked now have the opportunity to initiate new narratives and engagement with consumers. As behavior shifts, it is led by exploration from consumers, and right now consumers are hungry for information and learning. As an agency we have an opportunity to help guide brands during this historic time to be on the forefront of helping achieve historic growth numbers for re-introduced brands.
I see the pandemic as further crystallizing the role of the physical store in a world that increasingly straddles the digital and physical spaces. We saw commodity categories grow in the e-commerce space at the most rapid pace, while it was clear the in-store experience was still important for other categories. Post-pandemic, I think we will see retailers continue to put more effort into categories that are successful with sensory engagement, which will inevitably push for a more optimal store experience while streamlining retailer operations.
I have enjoyed the respect and focus on the front-line retail employees. Retailers are offering additional pay, benefits and a general recognition of these essential workers. They are on the frontlines of helping shoppers; they are the retailer’s brand ambassadors at all times and the person that is there when a shopper buys a CPG brand. They execute our programs in-store. They deserve recognition for being a part of the path to purchase.
As I stated, the rapid change in shopper behavior and retail operations during this pandemic was like nothing we’ve seen before. What this change has, in some ways, forced to happen is for shoppers to rewrite much of their rote behavior of the past. The saying “old habits die hard” may need to be reconsidered, and I hope what lasts is the opportunity for brands and products to find new ways of connecting with shoppers and retailers, and there being a renewed openness to test innovative ideas and technologies in this space.
Marketing Director, Shopper Marketing
Increased trial of products they haven’t tried before.
VP Customer Service & Customer Supply Chain, North America
The recognition and understanding about what it takes to get product to the store, to get it unloaded, to get it stocked and to have it available for shoppers to take home to their families. In summary, a deeper gratitude for all elements of the supply chain that we might have taken for granted in the past.
Shoppers have been much more open to trial during the crisis. More specifically in regards to replacement brands/products. Trial has always been one of the highest hurdles to overcome and a silver lining to the current environment/trend gives marketers an opportunity to engage with new prospective shoppers. There have also been demand upticks for products that compliment more of a social distancing/sheltering lifestyle.
A couple of things really. I’ve been really inspired by food and beverage outlets turning into not just takeaway shops, but also packaging up staples like flour and produce and getting basic provisions available to shoppers. Also seeing smaller brands and retailers leap into action to become e-commerce businesses has been really encouraging. I think we all will want those smaller boutiques, bakeries, and food shops to maintain their brick & mortar presence, but knowing they can deliver is exciting. For the larger retailers, I think we are seeing more than ever how essential they and their staff are, so I hope that in-store staff and delivery drivers are all provided with hygiene items and protective equipment. From a shopper perspective, I’m encouraged by the way I see shoppers behaving to one another and to staff – even in a stressful time, I think by and large shopper behavior has been pretty good – after the toilet paper hoarding, ha. Also, the return to cooking I think is really interesting for some brands. Will categories like baking supplies continue to grow? Will more shoppers feel confident cooking now? And what does that mean for ingredient manufacturers? And what could that mean for ready meals and convenience foods?
Personally speaking, the accelerated shift into e-commerce/ BOPIS. Within the context of a heavily regulated in-store environment where it is difficult to execute the kind of surround sound that can be done in other markets, I’m most excited by the opportunity to try, test, build out and deliver exciting and differentiated digital programs where you can see, measure and course correct activity that is relevant to your target shoppers in a really agile and time sensitive way.
Further engagement with direct-to-consumer models that predict my needs.