How is online shopping changing the consumer experience in essential retail?

15 July 2020
Author: Mark Fraser

Progress. Throughout the ages, its inevitable march has defined societies, reshaped economies, and transformed our understanding of how the world works. Through the lens of history, we are afforded incredible hindsight when it comes to viewing the entire summation of any societal change, whatever form, and however long that takes.

Are we living through such a major change now as we move into a post-pandemic world? Perhaps, but what is clear is that we do live in a time where change on a global scale has taken place over the course of mere months. One that has seen the coalescence of multiple smaller innovations suddenly come together as one. It’s staggering that one can sit here, in July 2020, look back to six months ago and see a world that is somewhat unrecognisable.

A Retail Revolution

For years, many food retailers have been slow to draw consumers into ecommerce and it’s easy to understand why many were reticent about this – it’s an expensive shift, it requires greater inventory availability, it needs fairly advanced infrastructure for delivery, and ecommerce focused brands such as Amazon have a huge head start.

This importance of ecommerce changed almost instantly. It has been forced upon retailers and brands by powerful existential circumstances, and it has happened in mere days, not years. Which is to say, that everyone had to pivot immediately, and those that were already advanced had to begin implementing change at a much larger scale than previously envisioned.

As a result, two things happened:

  1. Literally overnight, orders exploded for those large mults that had online shopping platforms. We all heard the stories about this: people were unable to get a delivery slot for weeks, supply chains all but collapsed under incredible demand, and stock levels plummeting within hours.
  2. Fulfilment struggled, and this vital piece of ecommerce infrastructure for mults was quickly overwhelmed. So much so that they had to hire additional drivers to meet orders.

When consumers are restricted from entering your store, one of the most important tools in your arsenal is removed – the customer experience. What differentiates a Tesco from an Asda isn’t just prices and products; after all, many of the same brands are available in both stores. The experience is what makes people loyal to these retailers. In an online world, that’s radically different.

What Consumers Want is Different from What Food Retailers Want

For the consumer and the retailer, every day is now like Black Friday. Although retail is returning to some semblance of normality, it won’t return in the same way. Now, what the consumer wants when shopping online is a seamless, stress free retail experience. They want to shop the same way as they did in-store; it must flow. Similarly, because they are used to going to a store and walking out with their shopping there and then, they also want fast delivery, demanding that they receive their items on the same day.

This experience is vital to returning custom. If retailers want to keep consumers coming back to buy more, then website performance is important. As too is availability of product. Multiples, for the most part, have these things on lock because they have invested in the infrastructure to facilitate this.

In convenience, the picture is slightly different. It has taken government mandated steps for people to stay indoors for them to finally embrace the digital technology that multiples have been using for years. Recent apps like Snappy Shopper, and with convenience retailers also available on bigger apps like Uber Eats and Deliveroo, as well as some embracing a website-based ecommerce approach, convenience is now catching up. The experience may not quite be as seamless as it is for the big 4, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Keeping the Experience Consistent

So if the consumer wants an online experience that is easy and quick, and retailers want to continue selling products, how can brands ensure that the products on a retailer’s website are correctly described, in stock, and well-reviewed in order to entice the shopper to buy?

The journey online is much the same as physical retail; it is not simply the case that a retailer just lists something online and hopes that the consumer comes across it. Offers and deals are a driver for consumer purchasing, so they must be consistent across store and online. They must also be placed prominently so that the user can take advantage, which means that the product descriptions and terms of the deal must be accurate.

Things like ratings and reviews are a huge influencer, so ensuring that your products are reviewed well is vital to enticing in new consumers.

Product descriptions need to be accurate because unlike physical retail, food is purchased sight unseen. There’s an added element of trust in the buying stage here because the consumer is trusting that the retailer is making good on the promise of providing an item that is what it says it is, and looks the same as it does on the website.

And of course, we can’t ignore the availability of the item either. In a physical store, if the item is not available then you don’t miss it because you simply don’t see it, and an alternative is mere centimetres away. In the days right after lockdown, consumers were floored to find such staples as toilet roll and pasta unavailable on a retailer website. How can this be? Many would ask themselves, surely the online stockists have more of this product readily available because they don’t need to be placed on a shelf? A big assumption on their part, and it’s a fair assumption to make because, as we’ve just discussed, the process of buying online has to mirror the physical process as much as possible.

So, having accurate stock levels and the capability to fulfil orders is vital to ensuring a brand’s products are purchased by the consumer.

Which begs the question, can brands make sure these requirements are met when a product is listed online?

Online Audits

Technology exists to capture data from retailer websites, but sometimes you need to mirror the consumer experience. Well, we have good news because we can help. Much like a physical audit, brands have asked us to audit online stores as well as physical ones. That way they need never worry that their products are easy to find and that they have enough stock to fulfil demand.

In the post-covid world, where everyone in retail is having to make big changes and adapt to a landscape that is liable to shift a moment’s notice, it’s important that wherever your brand is displayed, it’s done so accurately, correctly and is available regardless of the season or circumstance. An audit is a great way to do this, and can be turned around at pace, giving you accurate data about where interventions need to be made, as well as highlighting opportunities for retailers to add incremental sales.

Call it evolution. Or call it revolution. Either way, the consumer is leading the way right now, retailers must follow, and brands need to bridge the gap to ensure both parties are satisfied. If you’re a brand, you want to be confident your items are displayed in the best light online. Consumers need this reassurance too. Audits are a great way to achieve this.

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