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Back to basics

Loading up on expensive tech isn't the only way for grocers to compete with online and other non-conventional retailers
Illustration by Hayden Maynard

Not everyone agrees that food-retailing prosperity depends on the ménage à trois between consumer, grocer and a consumer’s smartphone. Yes, mobile devices can play a part in elevating the march down grocery aisles. But some experts maintain that dependence on technology may be depersonalizing the shopping experience. And the experience, which begins when the shopper enters a store and ends when they drive away, is often considered the determining factor of whether the shopper will return, for how long and how much they’ll spend.

U.K.-based retail futurist Howard Saunders consults, blogs and lectures—much like a standup comedian—on the misadventures of retailers eager to jump on the tech bandwagon. He says that retailers, in a bid to compete with fulfilment centres offering frictionless click- and-deliver services or retailers that promise scan-and-go, are ignoring the essentials of a successful shopping trip—the human connection and a sense of community. “Removing friction from the shopping experience has become another target in the battle against declining sales,” he writes. “But as is so often the case, they have completely misunderstood us.”

The marketplace has been the centre of community life for hundreds of years. Replacing the cashier with self-checkouts and talking to customers via phone, smart carts or smart shelving, Saunders believes, will hasten the migration to online shopping. Shops could do better with decidedly low-tech, old fashioned service-with-a-smile and some “How’re the kids?” conversation. He maintains that retailers must invest in the human side, providing places where shoppers can interact, learn, taste and laugh together.

Jordan LeBel, associate professor of marketing at Concordia University with a special interest in food retail, says supermarkets also have to think outside the sector for inspiration. “Look at amusement parks,” LeBel says, “look to other industries, look for a unique feel and decor and apply it to the entrance of a grocery store.” The possibilities are endless: layout, colour scheme, lighting and even aroma can all attract customers. “Use anything that makes a customer want to shop there,” he says.

Terrific service and convenience are must-haves for a personal shopping experience, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to self-checkouts or self-scanning. For many retailers, says LeBel, it means having well-trained, capable staff. At food stores such as Valmont and Latina in Montreal, Longo’s in Toronto or Save- On-Foods in Western Canada, excellent service means having knowledgable clerks on the floor. Clerks can bring a customer to an item she’s seeking, rather than pointing to a numbered aisle. They can also suggest alternative products if asked, or they might find a recipe for a shopper. A personable employee may even know a shopper’s name and ask about the family.

In the big supermarkets, customers are often left to wander a 50,000-sq.-ft. space in search of an item. And if they find a staff member to ask, he or she might not know where it is, either. The goods have been moved but the staff hasn’t been informed.

How a customer finishes their shopping is also crucial. “Research tells us the most important moments are the ending moments,” says LeBel. If the cashier isn’t friendly, doesn’t make eye contact or is busy talking with the bagger about her date the night before, it’s a turnoff for the customer. “Stores have to improve the beginning and ending of the experience.”

To be sure, retailers can accumulate megabytes of data via loyalty programs and smart phone apps. But talking to customers and finding new ways to attract them to the store shouldn’t be underestimated.

Smart retailers transform their stores into hubs, with a deli and café that has wifi. “They’re a place to socialize,” says Rebecca Chesney, director of IFTF Food Futures Lab at the Institue for the Future, in California. “When I travel and want lunch, I’ll stop at Whole Foods, sit down, have a salad and use the wifi.” Some grocery stores offer a place for children to play and large washrooms that are easily accessible. Stores that hide restroom facilities in the back or up a flight of stairs aren’t appreciated by older people or parents of young children.

Central Market, in Texas, is another grocery store doing it right, says Chesney. “It’s very much about food as adventure and discovery, with wines and produce from all around the world, not to mention a patio and a playground. On Friday nights a band plays, so you can bring the kids, grab a cold beer and go outside and listen to music.”

Chesney also points to some stores that have a doctor come in once a week to tour the aisles with customers and answer questions on food choices and health issues. A health professional or informed staff person can help a shopper make intelligent, personal choices without being overwhelmed with information gleaned from the internet.

Instead of trying to keep up with Goliaths like Amazon with its delivery drones and checkout lane–free stores, grocers should play to their strengths. Creating low-tech, low-cost, personal shopping experiences—more like the supermarkets of days past—may be the best way to breathe new life into a grocery store and its bottom line.

This article originally appeared in Canadian Grocer's April/May 2017 issue.

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