Skip to main content

How Grocers Can Better Serve Seniors Online

How Grocers Can Better Serve Seniors Online
An inclusive perspective is the best way to design online grocery products that are more thoughtful and successful for older users and other underserved groups

These days, digital transactions are an essential part of any grocery store’s bottom line, but in early 2019, a Bain & Co. study revealed that only 3% of U.S. grocery shopping occurred online. My, how things have changed! Now, will the COVID-19 pandemic prove to be an even more profound catalyst for the digitalization of the grocery shopping experience? Early evidence says “yes,” as online grocery shopping has seen a dramatic rise since the coronavirus hit the United States just a few months ago.

In mid-March, Gordon Haskett Research Advisors released a study showing that 33% of shoppers purchased food online during the past week, and for 41% of those people,  it was their first time shopping for groceries online. Rakuten research found a 210% increase in BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) between March 12-15. While this is certainly big news, it may still be leaving out the customer group with the biggest need: senior citizens. 

Seniors represent a market that has a projected worth of $84 billion by 2030, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Their customer needs are very different, however. A 2018 study conducted by AARP and the International Food Information Council (IFIC) polled 1,000 older Americans about their attitudes and usage of online grocery ordering. They found that only 16% to 17% of respondents had ordered groceries for pickup or delivery, and only at an average of once a month or less. The study also showed that older adults were far more likely to use a computer to order groceries than mobile devices. Seventy-five percent ordered from their local traditional grocery store. 

The consultancy Brick Meets Click found that since the onset of COVID-19, more seniors have expressed an interest in online ordering, but that it usually took three or more orders before they felt comfortable doing so.

Ease of use is essential to making online ordering more attractive, and for that to happen, it has to be intuitive.

Barriers for Seniors

One of the main problems among older adults isn’t smartphone ownership, it’s being able to use the apps. Often this problem occurs because seniors aren’t involved in the design process. Seniors often feel that the content they encounter is written for another audience or is presented in a way that feels patronizing.

During the 17-year span of Nielsen Norman Group’s research on senior citizens, websites did seem to be improving for seniors. The most consistent issues across all three rounds of research were accessibility and readability. Too often, hyperlinks, buttons and dropdowns are difficult for older users to click or tap, and readability is particularly poor on mobile devices, due to small text.

Sjölinder, Höök and Nilsson found that tech-savvy seniors took twice as long to order online grocery items than younger adults, and had difficulty finding their way back to previously visited items. The researchers cited a lack of personal “sign posting” as largely to blame for these discrepancies.

Many other practical and psychological barriers keep seniors from online grocery ordering. The largest practical barrier for seniors, as identified by the AARP/IFIC study, is increased cost or fees. Another practical barrier for older adults is the inability to see nutrition labels. 

The most obvious psychological barrier, however, is what behavioral scientists call “choice overload,” where having too many options leads to dissatisfaction, decision fatigue and doing nothing (i.e., abandoning virtual carts). The data behind online grocery sites is robust, resulting in search results that can be too complex (searching for “lettuce” may bring up 60 choices). Weeding through item after item leads to fatigue and giving up. 

Probably the biggest psychological barrier to online grocery shopping is trust. People report concern that a designated shopper might not take care to select good-quality meat or produce, take the time to find distant expiration dates or cheaper options (favoring the store’s best interest), or store delivered items properly. Research supports this, as seniors feel more comfortable using online ordering for nonperishables than deli meat, produce and meat. These fears may be heightened amid the COVID outbreak, as seniors may worry about the shopper accidentally contaminating their groceries.  

Tips for Improving Seniors’ Experiences

  1. Provide guides for using online ordering systems on paper to seniors shopping in store, and via email/mailings to older customers at home. In apps and websites, overlay onboarding tutorials to guide new visitors along their journey of selecting and purchasing groceries. Provide a visible phone number for assistance from a “real” person. Encourage existing online shoppers to assist loved ones in learning to use applications to prevent unnecessary exposure. 
  2. Provide a personalized grocery shelf with likely options in categories that appeal to seniors, such as heart-healthy meals. Make product information (nutritional and allergy) easily accessible online. 
  3. Remove financial barriers, and inform seniors about these changes: Eliminate fees and added product costs, accept coupons in online platforms, allow customers to spot bargains and compare items easily, and suggest group deliveries to assisted-living communities to allow for tips to be pooled and faster delivery. Offer guarantees for substandard items, and make it easy to get a refund or new item. 
  4. When designing search, prioritize a conversational user interface with voice input. Keep keyboard input to a minimum, and always support predictive text with common responses. Don’t overwhelm people with results. If possible, use their own in-store and online purchase history to make recommendations. Otherwise, provide the most relevant five items, with the option to see more items, sorted by cost. 
  5. Be clear and specific when explaining the benefits of checking out as a guest, creating a new account or signing in as a customer. Remove fields that ask for unnecessary information, and focus on making required fields highly visible. If senior discounts are available, make sure that these offers are prominently displayed. If carts appear abandoned, have a grocery store staff member follow up with the customer by phone.
  6. Leverage existing trust in the store and its staff. During in-store “senior hours,” have staff recommend the online service with reassurances about product selection. Within the application, use photos of staff members who will be shopping and allow choice of staff member, when possible. Allow for constant communication between customer and shopper in an easy-to-use and personable manner, using names when possible. Lastly, due to fears about the coronavirus, be explicit about measures taken at the store to reduce contamination. 
  7. Add bundled meals as a simple option for shoppers to choose items on their lists. These bundles could also help online consumers eat healthfully by including more fruits and vegetables.
  8. Test new technologies such as digital shelves that connect online list planning to guided in-store experiences. These innovations can help link the preference for browsing physical aisles to digital tools, and improve convenience and personalization for existing customers. 

Despite the rapid technology adoption rates among seniors, many online grocery experiences are being designed with a narrow focus on a younger age demographic. These apps are frustrating for many seniors, resulting in a lack of confidence and motivation in the adoption of new technology. A shift away from design methodologies led by the preconceptions of experts is required. Teams must test use of their products by people with disabilities and varying ages to prioritize the needs of older adults. This inclusive perspective is the best way to design online grocery products that are more thoughtful and successful. The world’s 65-plus population is one of the largest underserved markets for technology. Creating online solutions for this growing and wealthy demographic is a valuable investment for the modern grocer.

About the Author

Chris Haire and Julie Miller

Chris Haire is CXO for Raleigh, N.C.-based BLDG-25 where he focuses on user experience in digital products. Julie Miller, PhD, is head of behavioral design for BLDG-25 where she applies her expertise in behavioral science to solve practical problems through behaviorally minded product design


This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds