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For Grocers, Innovation Is Far More Than Dinner Theater

Make customers fall for you as they walk down the aisle

Shopping for food is still a highly sensory experience: consumers want to see, touch, and smell. That keeps them coming to the store, even as e-commerce chips away at brick-and-mortar across retail. Delivery meal kits and other online grocery services have quickly gained momentum, but they’re no replacement for in-store variety and inspiration.

Innovative supermarkets are winning by using technology to both dazzle customers and further humanize their shopping experience.        

Take Wegmans, first to launch wearable tech that assists the blind and low-vision community in navigating the store with the help of a remote guide. The more sure-on-their-feet customers feel in-store, the more visits they’re likely to make. 

In-Aisle Ambiance

There’s no question that a grocer’s assortment is a big point of differentiation. But the in-store experience has even more potential for brands to differentiate themselves while also driving home what Amazon can’t provide.

One of the challenges as a parent, of course, is how to keep the kids entertained on shopping trips when they’re tagging along. Stew Leonard’s six supermarkets have previously been known for their animatronic fruits and vegetable displays and barnyard-costumed staff. However, the new store in New Jersey is building on this interactivity with an augmented reality experience that engages kids throughout the store

Kroger’s Kitchen 1833 is a restaurant that helps inform retail, operating as a venue for the grocer to try out recipes that can be used either in meal kits or meal-to-go selections. Located in Kentucky in the heart of bourbon country, their gastropub experiment provides a large bourbon list as well as a menu that explores local comfort food and features happy hour specials.   

Signature prepared foods across deli, bakery, and produce can make your store a destination, driving visits that also lead to incremental sales. 

Stew Leonard’s sees the store as a stage in other ways as well. In a competition called Stew Tank, brands pitch their products and customers give their feedback as to which items the store’s buying team should give the green light.

Product testing, it seems, can give customers a front row seat AND bring them onto the team.

All The Store’s a Stage

Artificial Intelligence can help you identify the key moments and sources of appeal that drive customer trips to store, generating insights for new trip-drivers as well. How do stores fashion themselves as the hottest ticket in town?

Kroger’s smart shelves work in tandem with a mobile app that adapts tocustomer need and preference, digitally highlighting products fit for certain dietary restrictions, rapidly updating SKU pricing, or offering in-store promos. It has the appearance of wizardry while also speaking directly to customer purpose.   

Birdzi’s cloud-based AI platform syncs with their mobile app for a real-time view of each shopper’s visit, allowing retailers to serve up timely recommendations and offers linked to their shopping history. It functions like a roving omnichannel in which retailers can interact with customers across mobile, web, email, and text—before, during, and after the visit. 

While “Marty” the Stop & Shop “cobot”—or collaborative robot—may strike certain customers as a bit kitschy, the purpose is anything but: scanning shelves for inventory management and keeping an eye out for spills or other hazards that could render aisles unsafe. Cobots may end up playing a role in store entertainment, but their core function so far has been to assist human employees and customers.   

Now With Valet Service

Winning doesn’t have to mean that you win the “last mile” to their doorstep, which is a new battleground for grocery retailers. It’s about using technology to give the customer a better experience in-store and overall. But the closer the last mile is tied to their journey in-store or online, the better. 

Albertsons, in partnership with IBM, piloted curbside pickup with their Drive Up & Go program, which notifies customers when their order is ready and tracks their estimated arrival. Other grocers are going all-in on delivery, including not just groceries but fully prepared meals. 

Crowdsourcing the last mile, while potentially very efficient, asks the question: is it something grocers can sustainably outsource over time? 3rd party platforms don’t allow them to fully control the experience, so there’s a minor gamble in time-to-consumer and cart fulfillment.    

Ali Baba’s Hema, meanwhile, controls the entire ecosystem of the shopping trip. The Hema app, which is required for customers to shop in-store, gives them the power to scan products, get nutritional information, buy, and go without the assistance of a store associate. 

Most of the inventory is not housed in-store but online, picked when customers schedule at-home delivery (which Hema guarantees will happen within 30 minutes for local residents). Overall, the seamless experience encourages them to focus on store features like fresh food counters and eateries throughout the supermarket.   

If grocers can customize in-store and curbside pickup in a way that allows customers to plan ahead down to a highly specific window of time or even order en route to the store, they’re ahead of the game. 

Can your BOPIS program fast-track a customer’s deli, butcher, or fishmonger order while bundling it with non-perishables in a timely manner AND empowering store associates to plus up the store visit through promotional items or meal prep advice?

VIP Tickets For All

Being customer-centric is perhaps the leading focus in retail at the moment. For grocery, the aim should be to make each customer feel like a guest of honor. The smartest grocers are deploying technologies that turn supermarket visits into a feast for the senses—an experience that’s as nourishing in-store as it is back in one’s kitchen.     

Read how the curation and excitement of subscription services could actually be used in your physical storefronts here.  

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