Greg N. Simpson, licensed architect and CEO of Cuhaci & Peterson.
Grocers of all sizes have enjoyed large sales increases as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that growth has forced conversations about store design, logistics, supply chains and all points in between.
From independents to big-box brands, the success has come during a period when experiences didn’t matter and service expectations were low. As restrictions relax, shoppers’ attitudes are returning to more pre-pandemic thoughts. We need to do a few forward-thinking reality checks that guide the way, build loyalty and form a few considerations for a post-COVID store experience.
Foremost, we must realize that people still crave experiences with social interactions that have been denied, specifically those around food, like dining out and casual grocery shopping. That means we can’t talk about any future store practices without recognizing the impact of choice, speed and trust in the conversation. Experiences are everything, and inside these fundamentals are the keys to delivering integrated design, strategy, and innovation for customers. Choice means food options and competition will increase as the economy recovers.
The days of fighting over toilet tissue may be over, but the logistics pipeline still has disruptions that need to be addressed. There needs to be significantly more choice. Think endless aisle. Grocers must determine how they’ll maintain this increased market share through other mechanisms, rather than just being essential. Speed is mandatory in servicing the customer. The customer doesn’t have the time for anything less. Saving time delivers value to the customer while driving operational profitability. Lastly, trust, which I define as consistency of service, quality, and the confidence that the freshest vegetables and best cuts of meat will be available without my having to pick it out at the store.
Let’s look at four key considerations of the future store experience:
We must understand the need states of the customer and how technology can solve them. Whether physical or virtual, stores must become connected with an integral strategy that addresses accelerated change and customer expectation. That means looking at all the complex factors and bringing them together. Data is currency, and with technology in the background, employees are in the foreground. Grocers must look at information streams to help them deliver on their customer promise.
We must realize it’s about the people that provide the service and consume the products and services. Examine how employees are putting the emphasis on the customer, serving as a concierge to a great experience. They are your brand ambassadors. Automation enables cost savings, which leads to greater fulfillment accuracy, reducing human error.
We must think about the products and the end-to-end logistics, which enhances the choice and the experience. From meal kits that serve as a gateway to customers discovering a new world of cuisine to the knowledgeable in-store fishmonger, we’ve got to keep redefining the supply chain. Thanks to micro fulfillment, we now have effective ways of tracking and transporting food, so it creates an endless aisle where there’s maximum choice and freshness. The idea is to have an end-to-end handling that’s more like a personalized chain of title.
We must provide experience. Convenience is a behavior that has become sticky. While some customers will bounce back and return to stores, grocers need to accommodate the customer’s new need states and accept that one size doesn’t fit all. Grocers face a host of challenges post-COVID-19. As we move forward, they will need an actionable vision and innovative ways of operating to set them apart. It will be an ongoing transition that will pivot them toward a more resilient and meaningful future.