Online Shopping: Tipping Point or Temporary Trialing?

Three keys to retain online shopping customers post-pandemic
Photograph: Shutterstock

Given the recent surge in demand for online shopping, time will tell if this is indeed the tipping point that many have been predicting would eventually come. Due to COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus—with the constraint of what a given retailer can handle in terms of staffing personal shoppers, implementing new technical infrastructure or an online shopping partner, and/or adding delivery capacity amid tremendously difficult product availability challenges—online shopping has grown by leaps and bounds in a very short period of time.

We know from previous Retail Feedback Group research about online shopping that repeat trips lead to higher satisfaction. But that is under “normal” circumstances. How forgiving will shoppers be in giving grace to a store that has not done as well serving them in these challenging times? Will they keep trying the same store out of necessity or loyalty and eventually find a more positive experience in terms of item availability and pickup or delivery slots? Or will they trial different stores and services, providing they are available in their area, to see who is best at meeting their needs? And in the end, will they stick with online shopping once they can emerge from being socially distant and sheltering in place or will they go back to shopping in-store? Is this truly a tipping point or just temporary trialing out of necessity?

To gain more firsthand knowledge of the customer experience in the midst of a pandemic, I shopped online at two different Twin Cities retailers the last week in March. Given the tremendously challenging time we are in, I am not naming names because it’s beside the point, because everyone has had to ramp up their online shopping platforms in a short period of time. Rather, I wanted to understand how their services were holding up and, most important, what each experience might look like to a shopper. This is the first time I had tried online shopping at either of these retailers so I had no preconceived notion of how the experience would go.

In the case of Retailer A, I found the item selection process challenging on their platform and with no ability to select specific items to substitute for out-of-stock items (they made this clearer after I ordered by indicating they would not contact the customer for any substitution questions).

I was unable to secure a delivery spot for more than a week out so I opted for a pickup spot, which I was able to secure for a day later (but had to drive several cities away despite being much closer to a different store in the chain). I selected 53 different items (many with multiple quantities), paid for my order and the pickup fee, which was half of the delivery fee. The results? Fourteen of the items were out of stock and no substitutions provided (26% of the items and 28% of the dollars of the original order). Items missing and not substituted were from across the store, be it cheese, canned items, cereal, condiments, meat or frozen vegetables.

Additionally, four items were substituted with acceptable items or different sizes. There was no communication about this anywhere in the process until I got home and looked through the order and receipt.  

Turning to Retailer B, the ordering platform was much easier to use, and I could select specific items for substitution, as well as leave notes for the personal shopper. In this case, I ordered 32 items (again, many with multiple quantities). However, a major frustration emerged. Once I had my basket together and tried to select a delivery slot, there were none available in the current or next day, and there was no option to select a spot further out nor could I have checked in advance of putting my basket together. I was simply instructed to “try again later” which was more than a little irritating.

After refreshing the page periodically, a spot for delivery popped into play. I lost the first one but then another popped up a half-hour later, and I secured a spot for the next morning. I couldn’t switch my order to pickup as many of the items indicated “not available” for pickup, which also seemed strange given the personal shopper would be picking them and delivering them, at least in theory, from that store. The results here? Much better!

First, the personal shopper was very attentive to my requests, and if there was any item or substitution unavailable, I received an immediate text with a photo of an option, or a question to determine if a substitute was acceptable. As a result, I received 100% of my order (including acceptable substitutions), which ended up costing me more than my original basket (approximately 22% more), which is certainly a win for the store, and I was happy to receive all products I needed (despite paying more). Plus, four weeks of free delivery was included as a trial. I might be hooked given how positive the experience turned out.

Three key recommendations retailers need to consider if they want to retain online shopping customers post-pandemic:

  • Consider always allowing the shopper to check on available slots for pickup or delivery (if applicable). Yes, it might be disappointing for shoppers to know they can’t get a slot ahead of placing an order, and they might go elsewhere, but negative feelings likely multiply when a shopper takes the time to build the basket and then can’t get the order fulfilled. On a related note, allow for scheduling out a bit further with the caveat that product assortment can change.
  • Substitutions need to be easily handled. Retailer A indicated that they will no longer “call” people for substitutions given the current volume, which is understandable. But that clearly isn’t a scalable approach. Retailer B, offering customers the option of a photo/text to determine substitutions was highly effective and much more efficient than the many phone calls that would have been required. Further, it didn’t result in lost sales but actually increased revenue for the store.
  • Personal shoppers (and related training) can make or break the experience. I can’t say enough good things about the personal shopper at Retailer B. She was attentive, offered great substitution ideas and was very communicative. In other words, she was a pro. In today’s environment, it is understandable training might need to be more abbreviated, but you wouldn’t know it if Retailer B is doing that or not based on the experience.

The jury is still out on whether this is a tipping point or a period of temporarily trialing online shopping. I suspect that with the investment many retailers are making in the ability to quickly provide click-and-collect and/or delivery service, that they will be placing more emphasis on online shopping going forward. And many will learn a great deal during this time period about offering their service at a high-volume level. Shoppers, many experiencing online shopping for food for the first time, may decide to permanently make the switch, part or all of the time, whether out of convenience or concerns about what may become a new normal of more social distance.

But in the end, just like in-store shopping, those retailers and providers who create the best online grocery shopping experience will win.  

Brian Numainville is a principal with Retail Feedback Group and can be reached at bn@retailfeedback.com.



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