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What Consumers Want from Online Grocery Shopping

What Consumers Want from Online Grocery Shopping

Before more consumers adopt online grocery shopping, certain features need to improve.

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What Consumers Want from Online Grocery Shopping

This article originally appeared on WSJ's The Experts.

Two decades after online grocers rushed into IPOs during the dot-com boom, American consumers have yet to fully embrace online grocery shopping. We’re still cruising the store aisles, squeezing the melons and turning in coupons at checkout. A mere 3% of U.S. grocery spending occurs online today, according to Bain & Co.’s recent survey of more than 8,000 grocery shoppers across the country, whereas other retail categories have much deeper e-commerce penetration. Grocery is one of the rare exceptions where the U.S. lags behind, as online grocery penetration reaches 10% to 15% in countries such as the U.K. and South Korea.

While one-quarter of the people we surveyed said they used an online grocery service in the past year, only one-quarter of that group, or 6% of all consumers, have been placing online orders more than once a month. 

What’s preventing more people from persisting with, or even trying, online groceries? Our survey pinpoints exactly what consumers want from their e-supermarket. And—good news—the problems can be solved.

Convenience is the major issue. Consumers shopping for virtually anything online expect convenience, and here, grocery retailers fall short. Among people who shopped online for groceries just once in the past year, only 42% report that the experience saves them time. Traditional grocers have decades of experience arranging products on shelves to suit how shoppers think. They’ve trained people to quickly find the products they’re seeking, discover new products, and make price trade-offs in ways that are difficult for algorithms to replicate. Most shoppers easily spot discount tags, and they intuit that private-label goods next to name brands offer comparable products at lower prices.

By contrast, grocery websites and mobile apps have not yet found a way to replicate these intuitive cues. Browsing online still tends to produce irrelevant search results, unhelpful product recommendations and limited filtering options. 

Consumers also find it difficult to plan their online grocery shopping. Half of shoppers say they still use physical, handwritten lists to plan a grocery trip, but these are difficult to share with others in the household. While many shoppers use basic digital tools such as text messages and mobile phone notes, they’re looking for a more comprehensive, simple solution.

A third hurdle to broader adoption involves pricing. Many people don’t trust prices online, either because they believe prices are inflated, or because they don’t feel well-equipped to make price trade-offs in the moment. They assume that grocers do not offer the kinds of prices and deals available in stores. 

In fact, survey respondents who have not shopped for groceries online in the past year say that building a shopping list and comparing prices are the two features they would value most from an online retailer. List and price-comparison functions contrast with more advanced features, such as personalized recommendations and substitution algorithms, that some retailers are investing in but which matter less to consumers.

These inconveniences represent a major obstacle for most new adopters. It takes consumers at least a few attempts with online grocery to begin to perceive a real benefit. Some 63% of people who have shopped for groceries online three times report that it saved them time—a jump of 21 percentage points from first-time online shoppers. Clearly, retailers need to stimulate repeat trials. They should experiment with bounceback offers and multitrip discounts to help move consumers from trial to new-habit-forming adoption.

Some grocers are trying to close the convenience gap. At one U.S. chain, for instance, if shoppers like a recipe it has posted online, they can add all the ingredients to their shopping cart with just two clicks. In the U.K., another chain tells online shoppers how long their produce is likely to remain fresh, and if they want to buy a single banana, they can select by quantity instead of weight. Apps from a few chains now offer rudimentary list functions as well as coupons that can be browsed, shared, stored and redeemed. Voice assistants, though early in adoption, offer further potential for simplifying lists. Already, 66% of grocery shoppers who use voice assistants say they use the tool weekly or more frequently for grocery planning. 

While consumers appreciate useful digital innovations, they don’t yet want to venture far afield when it comes to choosing an online grocer. Some 85% of respondents who have not shopped online say they would select a grocery store they already visit. Among those who do shop online, 75% still use the first online grocer they tried. The home-store bias makes sense, since shoppers have already made well-informed decisions about which retailers they trust. Traditional retailers have another ace up their sleeve: click-and-collect services—in which shoppers order online and then pick up in person—are a powerful draw that online-only platforms struggle to replicate.  

First, though, grocers need to make the experience more convenient, where consumers can quickly get familiar with the browsing layout, easily reorder items from past purchases, build a list, compare prices and reap the benefit of saving time. That’s what it will take to convince people to make online shopping a habit.

James Allen is co-leader of the global strategy practice at Bain & Co. and co-author of The Founder’s Mentality.