OPINIONTechnology

Can Your Online Grocery Platform Support a Barrage of Customers?

Tackling key issues that emerged in the online COVID boom
Photograph Courtesy of Mercatus

In the past few weeks, as consumers flooded grocers’ websites to place delivery and curbside pickup orders, there have been many stories about overwhelmed grocers and frustrated shoppers. As shared in a previous post, Mercatus data indicated a 305% increase in new online grocery accounts registered across our customer’s online store fronts during the first week of March. This rapid and sudden increase in shopper adoption caught some grocers off guard.

Though the panic buying and hoarding have largely subsided, online demand is still strong—and will continue to be, particularly if a second wave of the virus hits. The past weeks have provided important lessons for the entire grocery e-commerce industry. By continually evolving, we can help ensure that grocers are able to meet shoppers’ needs going forward, and turn these new adopters into lifetime, loyal customers. Here are some of the key issues Mercatus has identified and the solutions we’re recommending.

Have You Increased Time Slot Visibility?

Bringing more visibility to delivery and pickup options earlier in the basket-building process will improve the online shopping experience. By letting shoppers know at the beginning of the ordering process which time slots are available, grocers can alleviate the frustration experienced when customers take the time to fill their cart only to find a lack of fulfillment options. This relatively simple improvement to user experience can have a huge impact on success and is something Mercatus is now recommending as a best practice.

How to Improve the Order Picking Experience

When demand surges, the order picking process is generally the bottleneck. Anything you can do to increase organization and efficiency in this area will help you process more (and larger) orders. One of the ways e-commerce providers can help clients is by routing orders directly from the online order screen to the store location through a Pick App. This means associates can receive all details about an order on their mobile devices without having to create a printout. Some technologies can even tell the picker when to begin assembling the order and when to take it out to a customer who has arrived at the store.

How Can Retailers Manage Inventory Shortages?

During the first few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, panic buying crippled aspects of the supply chain. Thankfully there has been a slowdown on stockpiling and hoarding, but there are still many items that are highly coveted by shoppers, resulting in prolonged shortages and even some complaints about price gouging.

Grocery retailers can manage supply chain constraints by placing purchase limits on high-demand products in-store and online, but it’s essential that limits are communicated quickly. Retailers who control their own storefronts should be able to set these thresholds beforehand based on daily in-store product availability. Alternatively, retailers have the option of working with real-time inventory solutions that can be integrated into their online experience. The net result of taking these steps is to better manage shoppers’ expectations upfront, reduce out-of-stocks and minimize order substitutions or at least communicate them more effectively.

Are You Staying Connected With Shoppers and Employees?

Delivering clear and consistent communication to shoppers and employees will maintain their trust and loyalty. Concerns around safety are high, and people want to know that their grocer is considering their needs. You can do this by:

  • Explaining the steps you are taking to ensure the safety of everyone in the store.
  • Communicating any changes to store policies and adjustments to services or hours of operation.
  • Providing in-store and online notices to shoppers about inventory shortages.
  • Informing shoppers about alternative products or locations when there is a shortage of high-traffic items.

We recommend that grocery retailers also leverage social media to keep their customers informed, especially when customer support is inundated with phone and email requests from online users. Driving customers to social media means that every post is an additional opportunity to stay top of mind and increase brand loyalty.

How Can You Prepare for a Recurrence?

As COVID-19 infection rates have not yet subsided to safe levels and public health authorities prepare for a second wave, grocery retailers need to make sure they are prepared for high levels of online orders. That means:

  • Make time slot availability visible up front.
  • Automate order picking to maximize efficiency and handle as many orders as possible.
  • Be transparent about inventory levels and limits.
  • Communicate with shoppers and employees.

There are a number of online groups and forums to discuss grocery industry best practices and stay up to date on what is working for grocery retailers in your region. Likewise, a trusted grocery e-commerce provider can provide insights into technology that will help future-proof your grocery e-commerce. 

Sylvain Perrier is president and CEO of Mercatus Technologies, Toronto.

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