Barbara Connors is VP of commercial insights for Kroger-owned data and media company 84.51. In the company's latest monthly survey, a poll conducted Jan. 18-21 of 400 consumers who have shopped at a Kroger banner in the past three months, shoppers shared heightened concern about COVID-19 and frustration with inventory issues. Sixty-two percent said out-of-stocks have prompted them to switch brands for an item they sought, and nearly half (49%) said too-high prices for their usual brand of choice are prompting brand swaps. Connors spoke with Winsight Grocery Business this week about what she sees in the sentiment behind the numbers—and how retailers can respond.
Christine LaFave Grace: What stood out to you in 84.51's latest numbers? What does that data indicate to you about consumers’ mood right now?
Barbara Connors: There is increased fatigue and just a sense of unease. As the numbers with omicron have gone up in January, it has translated to increased concern back to what we saw with delta.
Really, that high, even?
Yes. It is back up to the back-to-school period, and I think that is what is directly translating into less satisfaction with shopping. People are stressed. I mean, personally, I’m going on week three of quarantine of children due to various class closures.
People don’t have time right now. When we look at what makes people feel uncomfortable, three-quarters of people say what makes them uncomfortable is the level of COVID cases. That is top of mind for a lot of people. When we ask what makes them feel comfortable, half of people say, “me wearing a mask.” So it’s you getting some control over your situation amid what’s going on in the world around you. And then just shy of that, 48%, say, “I’m just over it; I want to get back to normal.” And so there’s this tension there still and overall frustration with the environment that we’re in.
How this translates into grocery shopping is, one, it’s why people enjoy shopping less, because there’s a dissatisfaction in general around us. This directly translates into the out-of-stock and brand-switching that we’re noticing. When we say that 62% of people would buy different brands if their regular brand was out of stock, what that signals to me is the importance of time. People are not going to wait for that brand to come back in stock; they don’t want to go to another store to see if it’s in stock. They just need to pick up that item now.
This speaks to the urgency of now and the importance for brands and retailers of making it easy for customers to get what they need. Now this is exacerbated by increased supply-chain constraints and inflation, so no one has it easy right now. Brands and retailers are doing everything they can to get items on shelves. And that is the most important thing right now, is just having the ability to fill your basket.
Given the pressures all players are under, how can retailers respond most effectively in this moment? How can they get across a message of, “We see you; we get where you are; here’s how we’re here for you right now”?
That’s a good question. From a marketing standpoint, I think the brands and retailers in their advertising have shifted to be more cognizant of the stressors around us. You could see the shift in what big advertising campaigns looked like around Christmas; there was a lot more nostalgia, reflecting on what matters most, and using that as an opportunity to connect what you are selling—groceries, health and beauty care, sports—to living simpler, better lives and connecting with the ones you love.
From a merchandising standpoint, there is an effort to just be simpler. Less disruption in stores equals better execution. And right now, what is most important is having stocked shelves, clean shelves, servicing stores so you can help customers complete their order. And while we would all like to have joy and inspiration, I think right now what is most important is just getting what you need.
"Less disruption in stores equals better execution. ... While we would all like to have joy and inspiration, I think right now what is most important is just getting what you need."
There was a bit of a balance in there that we hear from customers that what they like about going into stores is just to browse seasonal aisles, for example. Right now, we’re going into Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, and people are thinking about that. I mean, even more consumers are saying, “I want to buy presents for my pets.” Eight percent of customers are planning to buy a Valentine’s Day gift for their pet.
So you do want some of the fun in-store. From a merchandising perspective, there will still be that, because we know that that’s what people want, but there’s also a balance of saying, “Let’s keep things simple so that we don’t overcomplicate the experience in-store.” That makes it easier for customers and associates.
As a consumer yourself, what moves by retailers have stood out to you? What do you look at and say, “They get it”?
I used to look at merchandising stands that would put, for example, all of your holiday items together, and more from an industry perspective, I’d say, “Oh, that looks neat.” From a customer perspective this holiday season, I found that really helpful. I think retailers are being really smart about what they put on those extra displays to make things timely and fast for customers. When I was doing baking with my kids over the holidays, those stands had everything—the chips, the sugar, the powdered sugar, everything I would need in one place. And I thought, wow, this isn’t just a merch display; it actually made it easy for me, because there were things that were on different aisles of the store that were in one place. That can be something that helps brands and customers.
What else in the most recent data stuck out to you?
There’s a bit of an overall trend now of getting back to basics. When we asked customers, “What do you plan on focusing on this year?”, one thing that stood out to me was that 40% of customers said they are planning on focusing on mental health. Which isn’t a surprise, but 40% is high, right?
That to me signals again just the stress that people are under right now and the desire to improve it. When we think about that as it translates into food … last summer, the No. 1 attribute [sought] was clean, simple ingredients. How can I strip down what’s in my food? And I want the simplest, cleanest packaging possible. Right now, that’s No. 3, but what rose to the top was high protein and low sugar. And I think it’s just a little bit of a different way of looking at the same thing.
People need everything to be super-functional. If I’m going to eat something, it needs to give me energy; it needs to serve a purpose. And so it’s even more important for brands and retailers alike to say, what are consumers looking for? How can I help them be happy, less stressed, get food on the table in the easiest way possible with minimal cleanup, get through their shopping trip as quickly as possible, and do so in a way that gives them emotional and functional benefits? I think this will be a very interesting year. We’re going into the third year of this (pandemic), and already in January we’ve seen such swings. Helping people navigate all of the swings—we know there are going to be swings—and trying to create consistency wherever possible for them will be important.