OPINIONRetailers

How Has the Pandemic Changed Independent Grocers?

Shoppers habits have changed, but fundamentals still important
Self checkout
Photograph: Shutterstock

After almost six months of living through a global pandemic, we have a clearer picture of what life looks like in the new normal. What has changed and what remains the same?

Grocery store owners and the public remain rightfully vigilant about safe social distancing and mask wearing. At the same time, while people are taking necessary precautions, there isn’t that same palpable sense of fear when grocery shopping, likely because data has shown that person-to-person contact is the primary form of transmission, which can be greatly reduced when following guidelines.

In short, we’re in a holding pattern. We’ve gotten used to seeing plexiglass partitions and individually wrapped self-serve items, but grocery aisles are generally full, although we do continue to see significant manufacturer shortages.

A new hybrid shopping model seems to be emerging as shoppers settle into a new pandemic-induced routine. According to a 2020 U.S. Online & In-Store Grocery Shopping Study by the Retail Feedback Group, within the past month, 50% of in-store shoppers also ordered groceries online. Shoppers aren’t entirely abandoning their old habits, but what does this mean for grocery owners?

Successful grocery store owners recognize that the situation is fluid and they’re willing to adjust their operations to meet the changing landscape.

For example, independent grocers have begun embracing new technologies such as e-commerce. By the end of this year, we at Alpha 1 Marketing expect to double the number of stores that offer online shopping. Meanwhile, consumer demand for the service has skyrocketed, with stores experiencing a 600% increase in online usage since the start of the pandemic.

Beyond e-commerce, customers are increasingly asking about more expensive technologies such as self-service checkout, which was practically nonexistent for independent grocers pre-pandemic. After all, this is a six-figure investment, and many of our inner-city stores were loathed to consider this as an option—until now.  

Once a vaccine is available and the virus is contained, some shoppers will likely go back to their old routines, but many will continue to stick to their new behaviors, such as online shopping, even if on a less-frequent basis. Developing and investing in technologies will always be worth the long-term investment.

But technology isn’t a replacement for human connection. There will be life post-pandemic, and independent grocers should start thinking about the business in the months and years ahead. When we emerge from this crisis, will consumers crave the simple pleasures of browsing through store aisles instead of trying to get in and out as quickly as possible?

We believe that there will be a hunger for connection. While independent grocers are rightfully investing in technology and safety and sanitation measures, they shouldn’t diminish the appetite that people will have for experiences like leisurely strolling through the store in search of something that catches their eye. Merchandising that creates impulse buys is not just a tool for increasing purchases, but a service that fulfills a consumer’s shopping desires. Connection is powerful.

So, while technology like self-serve checkout and online shopping will continue to be a draw, independents shouldn’t forget the tried-and-true benefits that keep customers coming back: knowing what they want and customizing your inventory to fit the community—elements that have always set independent grocers apart from their chain and big-box competitors.      

Gus Lebiak is chief operating officer of Alpha 1 Marketing, an affiliate of Krasdale Foods Inc., an independent grocery servicer and supplier. The company serves more than 300 supermarkets under its C-Town, Bravo, Aim, Market Fresh, Shop Smart and Stop1 banners in the Northeast and Florida.

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