10th February 2015

Thinking outside the aisle: a better way to grocery shop online

Taxis, music, books, TV, phones, and even cars – Tech companies have proven that they can outperform incumbents in any industry. The latest? Supermarkets. The newest players in the game aren’t supermarkets at all, but companies like Amazon, Uber, Japan's Line Corp, and Instacart: the latest Silicon Valley darling.

The business models behind them are familiar and similar: either they buy their own warehouse and distribute to customers, a la Amazon, or hire people to shop and deliver from existing supermarkets, a la Instacart. Either way, just like offline supermarkets, profits are hard to come by.

Off the trolly

Beyond existing difficulties that beset the supermarket industry; it is very hard to replicate the experience of shopping for food – a cornucopia of manipulation – on a screen.  The psychology of shopping for food is well documented, and fascinating:

  • The milk is at the back of the store because it’s a common and frequent purchase. To get to the milk, you have to walk through aisles of products and promotions, which you end up buying most of the time (although this is disputed).
  • Candy/crisp aisles have different floor patterns, which encourage you to slow down, therefore increasing temptation time (and research shows this temptation ends in purchase)
  • Even music influences your behaviour. An experiment run by the University of Leicester found that as French music played, shoppers bought more French wine. While German music played, they bought more German wine. When asked why they chose the wine they did, they gave answers of human free will, instead of psychological manipulation.
  • Impulse buys are mostly concentrated at checkout areas, for what retail strategy folks call “dwell time.” While we wait, we stare at racks of goodies in front of us, and add them to our cart.

Supermarket tactics including aural, olfactory and tactile sensations, are difficult if not impossible to replicate online. That’s what’s so hard about innovation: it’s hard to rethink something so completely. But that’s what we should be doing. Just as the early internet was a recreation of a series of pages (and in many cases still is) we take a while to rethink an experience beyond replicating it.

But as supermarkets struggle year after year, and as mobile adoption increases, nailing the shopping experience becomes more essential. Crucial to nailing it is looking at the entire experience: don’t think only digital, think customer experience. You can design the best online checkout in the world, but if your delivery time is 1-2 weeks as it is Kogan’s Pantry is Australia (to which I say “WTF?”), then you need to shelve the whole thing.

Think outside the box

So, let's look at how we can improve the current online-shopping experience. To do this, I’ve built a prototype.

Talking about the state of the industry won’t change it: creating and testing possible solutions will.  I started by thinking of things that are unique to digital, instead of trying to make digital fit the offline shopping experience. I started with search. Searching in a store is in no way congruous to searching a database. In a store, products pay for their spots on shelves. But promotional spots online don’t work as well: we’re very used to ignoring banners and online advertising. While searching in a store means you’ll meander past product placement, searching online doesn’t. So I thought, all trips to the supermarket are prompted by a need for something. There’s always an item at the top of the list. So let’s start there.

Instead of generic browsing, the search brings the shopper into a more focused browsing. I’ve created an online-specific meandering experience by adding descriptions to search results that describe, while suggesting pairings or recipes. It’s similar to a person shopping with you who says “you know that would go great with that…”

Grocery shopping - rethought

The imagery used in the prototype is meant to evoke the sensory stimulation that happens in a real grocery store, but related to a need. Here, the shopper searches for lettuce, so the imagery shows the lettuce in use (rocket on a delicious pizza). The idea is to inspire the shopper to purchase other items using tantalising food imagery, something a store can do in real life, but not as specifically or as targeted.

Grocery shopping - rethought

Grocery shopping - rethought

Finally, I incorporated an online specific impulse purchase. Hershey, whose revenue model depends on impulse purchases, has identified three “human truths of impulse”: delight (chocolate), aspiration (fitness magazine) and satisfaction (2 for 1 lip balm). These concepts are easily added to a checkout flow, but with a little something extra. Because no one is waiting around when they make a purchase online, the idea is to add the impulse purchases to the confirmation message. A shopper must select an item, like Hershey’s chocolate, but in three minutes or less, playing on urgency, rather than boredom or visual stimuli.

Grocery shopping - rethought

Implementing this has endless implications: a payment system that can update post-confirmation purchases, a content matrix that matches descriptions to search items, a delivery system that can fulfill the 30 minutes or less promise. But that’s just the implementation phase. We need to start with a vision. We need to start innovating.