Online Grocery Shopping Could Continue Post-Pandemic, But So Could the Challenges

Coronavirus quickened the pace at which consumers adopted e-commerce
Photograph: Shutterstock

Trends are what shape our society and the industries that support it. Take, for example, omnichannel marketing and engagement. Being able to connect and communicate with consumers via multiple digital, social and physical channels has enabled both brick-and-mortar and online retailers to build and maintain relationships with all consumers, regardless of their shopping preferences. 

In the retail food industry, we’ve seen trends driven by consumer lifestyles, such as snacking, greater interest in deli-prepared entrees and locally produced items. We’ve seen trends driven by technology that impact other industries as well, such as blockchain, product information and promotions being delivered digitally and through social media channels, and self-checkout. And we’ve seen consumer demographics impact the types of food and the manner in which they’re marketed and sold, such as single-serve packaging and a greater interest in new and exciting flavors and ingredients.

Trends typically grow over time, allowing businesses some time to adapt to these changes. However, not every trend follows the same path. Some trends seemingly pop up overnight, while others that were slowly emerging suddenly are thrust into the forefront due to unplanned or unexpected circumstances.

COVID-19 has been the catalyst for major operational changes in the retail food sector. One only needs to look back to the start of 2020, when face masks and social distancing were absent from the vocabulary of supermarket operators and shoppers alike. Now—just like barriers at the checkouts and hand sanitizer stations—they’ve become the norm. How long they continue to remain so is anyone’s guess. However, there is one trend that potentially could continue in popularity, one that has seen much greater usage since the start of the pandemic: online shopping.

Online shopping was already experiencing steady growth prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as reported in IDDBA’s What’s in Store 2020 report. The rate of growth, however, was not quick. That changed as consumers began to adapt their shopping patterns in response to the pandemic. Whether it’s for one’s own health concerns, that of their family or for other reasons, 31% of households shopped for groceries online in March, compared to 13% in August 2019, according to Brick Meets Click. This resulted in a 193% jump in overall monthly order volume. 

Lifestyle changes often kickstart new ways of doing things. So the question becomes: Will consumers continue to shop online once they feel that it’s safer for them and their families to shop in person? Only time will tell, but there’s evidence to believe that it will. According to IRI, 35% of consumers said they’re very likely to continue purchasing online after restrictions have been lifted, while 49% said they were somewhat likely to.

The demand for online shopping, pickup and delivery could be there. But so are the logistical challenges that come with it. For some retailers, the rate of usage of its digital shopping platforms may have been at a manageable level pre-pandemic, but perhaps they faced difficulties in keeping up with the unplanned volume of consumers now shopping online. These could include:

  • Staffing – Having sufficient staff assigned to handle online orders (receiving, compiling and possibly delivering the orders).
  • Inventory management – Ensuring that consumers receive what they order (i.e., what they view and purchase online is currently available at the store they’re placing the order at) can be challenging.
  • A user-friendly and reliable program – Just like creating an exceptional customer experience is vital, so, too, is an online experience.
  • Adequate IT staff – A commitment to a robust online grocery program requires the talent to properly manage and support it.

When Amazon purchased Whole Foods in 2017, the online grocery shopping sector was instantly ushered into the spotlight. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken it several steps forward, making it one of the leading trends in the retail grocery industry. While no one can predict when our society and industry will return to a greater sense of normalcy, online grocery shopping could remain as an important service to your customers.

If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, I encourage you to attend our July 21 webinar, "The Impact of COVID-19 on the Digital Supply Chain," which will examine ways to develop a great digital shopping experience for shoppers.

Mike Eardley is president and CEO of the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).


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