Supermarket chains and mass merchants are finding that they must leverage convenience to win over time-strapped shoppers, especially younger consumers who have grown up in the digital age and are not used to waiting for anything.
Today, 61 percent of adults younger than 35 live without a spouse or partner, according to the Pew Research Center, with millennials often residing alone in urban centers and forgoing or at least delaying car ownership. They favor omnichannel grocery shopping and make smaller and more frequent trips to brick-and-mortar stores, the Food Marketing Institute reports. Because it’s impractical for single apartment dwellers to buy in bulk, packaging size and ease of closure play a major role in their perception of convenience.
But consumer convenience extends beyond the shopping experience, the transport of the groceries home, and the consumption of the products. Retailers today need to learn as much as they can about their customers’ everyday challenges and preferences and then offer tailored solutions, experts advise.
Managing choice for customers
On the “About us” page of its website, Arlington, Va.-headquartered Lidl U.S. emphasizes the convenience factor after high quality and low prices: “Hassle-free shopping that gets you in and out,” as the chain puts it.
Indeed, the first two of six bullet points describing Lidl’s philosophy and operating procedures focus on streamlining the shopping experience. “Instead of offering a myriad of brands in every category, our stores offer carefully curated selections that are top-quality and best-prices,” Lidl states. “So your precious time is not spent sifting through endless versions of products you don’t want.”
For Asheville, N.C.-based Earth Fare, a natural and organic grocery chain founded in 1975, building consumers’ trust is a big way to save them time in the store, says Frank Scorpiniti, the company’s CEO. Because the retailer sells only fresh, fresh-prepared and minimally processed products and has a comprehensive food philosophy and “boot list” of banned ingredients and chemicals, customers know they can count on Earth Fare to do the rigorous vetting and legwork for them, he notes.
Unlike many supermarkets with natural and organic sections and scattered clean-label items, Earth Fare limits itself to clean food, which is reassuring to shoppers, Scorpiniti maintains. “When I go to other retailers’ stores and see customers who want to eat clean, they commonly have their iPhone in one hand and a box in the other hand and are looking things up online,” he observes. “They are scrutinizing all of the containers, which turns shopping into a job. At Earth Fare, in contrast, we have a saying: ‘We read the label so you don’t have to.’
“If you look at our food philosophy and you believe in it, you could literally shop Earth Fare blind-folded and know that nothing you put in your basket is ever going to contain the ingredients you are trying to avoid.”
With an average store size of under 25,000 square feet, Earth Fare and Lidl also have significantly smaller footprints than conventional supermarkets and mass merchants, which help customers find products faster and leave sooner.
Smaller-format stores additionally enhance convenience by their ability to be situated closer to customers such as in dense urban neighborhoods and on college campuses, points out Jacque DeBuse, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based Target, which today operates approximately 60 such stores out of a total of 1,834. Of the 32 stores Target opened in 2017, the majority were small format, she says, noting that the company is on track to operate 130 smaller-footprint stores by the end of 2019.
The smaller stores vary in size but are typically around half the size of Target’s 135,000-square-foot conventional store layout, and they carry a customized selection of categories and products.
“These stores have a curated product assortment that really makes the shopping experience relevant to the neighborhood,” DeBuse emphasizes. “The assortment may include things like smaller pack sizes that are easier for guests to carry home, especially for those who live in large cities. Or a store might have categories that guests in that locale really want or need like fresh food or home décor.”
Before opening a new smaller-footprint store, it’s essential to not make assumptions but rather survey neighborhood residents to see what they really want and what the product and service gaps are in that community, DeBuse notes. For example, in response to feedback from local consumers, a Target store that opened recently in San Diego has a large assortment of tools and other products normally carried by hardware stores.
Having strategically located smaller stores is also beneficial for Target’s growing e-commerce business, DeBuse adds. “Order pickup is available at all the small-format stores,” she says. “You can go onto Target.com and place an order and pick it up in a store later that day.”
Speeding up returns
Of all of the possible hassles involved in the shopping experience, whether in store or online, returning items that don’t meet expectations can be the most irksome. Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart is striving to streamline the process with its new Mobile Express Returns initiative.
Currently available only for online items shipped and sold from Walmart.com, Mobile Express Returns debuted in November 2017. The program allows consumers to start the return process on their mobile devices through the Walmart app. At their nearest Walmart store, customers then can “fast-track” through the Mobile Express Lane at the customer service desk by pulling up a Quick Response (QR) code on a card reader, scanning the displayed QR code with the Walmart app, and handing the item to be returned to the associate.
“We are looking at all aspects of the shopping experience and how we can make it quick and easy for our customers,” says Walmart spokeswoman Erin Hulliberger, who notes that lines for returns are among the “pain points” the retailer has been addressing. “We just really want to make those experiences that may have been a bit tedious in the past even a little bit enjoyable by allowing customers to use their smart phones to shoot through lines using our Mobile Express Lanes.”
As more and more retailers have discovered, flexibility is the key to customer convenience. When perishable and other groceries are ordered online, supermarket chains and mass merchants increasingly provide more than one way to unite customers with their purchases. Home delivery within a specific, usually two-hour time window remains an attractive choice for many people. But for some on-the-go households, especially families with children who have multiple activities and appointments, click-and-collect may be a more desirable option.
Walmart has joined a growing number of grocery chains in providing what is generally known as “curbside pickup.” Walmart’s Online Grocery Pickup (OGP) program is rapidly expanding, points out Molly Blakeman, another Walmart spokesperson. “We ended 2015 with 100 OGP locations, 2016 with 600 locations and 2017 with 1,100 locations,” she says. “And next year we will add another thousand.”
Customers who place orders through the Walmart Grocery app or on Walmart.com\grocery can use the service if an OGP location is nearby. In most cases, the specific pickup points are in a section of the Walmart parking lot.
“You would go up to a designated parking spot and check in there with your mobile app or call a special number that would be on the parking spot for you to locate really easily,” Blakeman explains. “Then when the shoppers know that you’re there, they’ll bring the order out and put it right in your car for you.”
Schierhorn, the managing editor of Store Brands, can be reached at [email protected]