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Winning Back the In-Store Shopper

Editorial Director Mike Troy discusses the unique opportunity food retailers have to regain lost shopper traffic
Winning Back the In-Store Shopper
Progressive Grocer Editorial Director Mike Troy

Self-inflicted wounds are the worst kind, especially in food retail. The industry is competitive enough without a lack of planning or poor operational decisions creating additional pressures. A recent store visit and an overheard conversation put this reality in focus.

Picture this: A young girl and her father are pushing a cart toward the checkout of a major national chain. This retailer, like many others in recent years, has added numerous self-checkout stations, so many that it can be hard to locate the one or two checklanes staffed by an actual person.

As the pair approaches the entrance to the corral of self-checkout stations and I pass in the opposite direction, the young girl lurches toward shoppers who are busy scanning items at colorful, brightly lit stations. Most are using handheld devices that resemble game controllers and emitting frequent beeps of approval. It’s easy to see how a young child would be drawn to these sights and sounds and the appearance of people having fun.

But then dad ruins the moment with a reminder that “we have to wait in line.”

I was beyond earshot to hear whether the young girl asked why, but that would be a typical reaction of a curious child, and the father may have even wondered the same thing. In fact, millions of shoppers standing in line to use self-checkouts are surely wondering, “Why, after trudging through a store to pick out my own products and then being denied the opportunity to check out in a familiar manner with a cashier, am I waiting in a line to scan my own purchases?”

Why, indeed. Especially since an alternative exists for shoppers to select items from a mobile device while resting on the couch, and have someone else trudge through the store to select the products so they can swing through the parking lot at a convenient time to take possession of their goods. Or they can have the purchases delivered within two hours after ordering. At no charge!

I can imagine a childhood taunt sounding like “My dad is smarter than your dad because Grocer X delivers our food and your dad waits in line at the store.”

To which the other child replies, “Oh yeah, well, Grocer X has heightened its strategic focus on store experience by rolling out the new XYZ1000 contactless payment terminals featuring expanded scan detection range and easy fresh-item lookup to accelerate checkstand throughput.”

Whose dad is smarter now?

Retailers will have an opportunity to show how smart they are in the back half of this year by taking advantage of a rebound in store traffic following a period of dramatic e-commerce growth that’s costly to execute. Throughout the pandemic, retailer after retailer reported that shoppers visited stores less frequently and made larger purchases per visit, with a large number of those visits occurring in the parking lot.

But things are changing. The weather is getting nicer in northern states. The rollout of the vaccine is accelerating, and within a few months, more than half of the U.S. population age 18 and older will be fully vaccinated. Americans are clamoring to get out and return to familiar patterns, one of which is grocery shopping in stores.

Don’t disappoint them by offering an unpleasant in store checkout experience that will have young children questioning their parents’ intellects.

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