Do you have a grocery store and are thinking of building an ecommerce solution? Web design companies and agencies will most likely sell you existing ecommerce solutions. In the short run, it would give you an online presence and a few customers, but you are likely to lose many of them post Covid-19 lockdown. Let me explain why.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic we had major South African retailers like Pick ‘n Pay and Woolworths offering online groceries, but they weren’t doing well. They struggled with customer sign up and retention. There are few reasons for that, but they mostly relate to one misconception being made by ecommerce vendors. They all assume that grocery ecommerce is the same as regular tech, game, book and sport ecommerce. 

Here are a few reasons why groceries are different.

  1. Product
    1. Product Displayed vs. Product Received
      Companies tend to use perfectly photographed great looking images of food products, but when you are in the store, you are able to see how today’s batch looks like, where you can instantly base your decision on its freshness, size, colour, expiry date, etc. When you purchase online, you don’t have the luxury of making that, on the spot, informed decision.
    2. Product Life-Cycle
      Products have different shelf lives and different consumption rates. Toilet paper you might buy once a month, jam you might buy every two weeks, and milk weekly. In comparison, you don’t buy the same book or computer weekly, monthly or ever again. Buying products with a longer shelf life has steadily been increasing over the lockdown period.
  2. Shopper Habits
    1. Shopping Frequency
      People shop for groceries at least once a week for their families. Some do a monthly shop with weekly top-ups, others shop weekly with some exceptions (see “Product Life-Cycle). Food purchasing habits are also affected by public holidays, birthdays, distance to shops when driving to or from work, etc.
    2. Week vs. Weekend
      Weekend buying will be different to purchases done during the week. It depends on what people are doing that weekend; they might have friends coming over or just have a family event.
  3. Product Discoverability 
    1. Visual Layout
      People often automatically move around the store they frequently visit, in order to fetch their regular products. Just like you remember you ATM pin code through muscle memory and hardly thinking about the number itself, people walk to a 3D space in your store. They have learned over time where to find their favourite product and rely on recognition to pick it out from the other products. Online groceries stores remove that advantage.
    2. Product Label
      People don’t always know what label a retailer gives a product online. They only know what they call it or where to look for it (see “Visual Layout” above).
    3. Search is Sub-Optimal
      Your search won’t be as good as Google and when customers search and cannot find an item, they don’t know if it is because you don’t stock the product or if it is out of stock.
    4. Search Result Failure
      You are looking for a bag of peanuts, but the 80g is listed first, the 250kg is listed 15th and the 1kg is listed 34th, in a long list of products that “contains peanuts” or features the “character Peanut”. 
    5. Pogo-Sticking
      Pogo-sticking is when customers search or navigate to a product listing, tap/click on the product and go back and forth between the search result and products, because it isn’t the product they were looking for. They usually can’t determine from a small thumbnail if it is the correct product. The answer is not necessarily to have larger photos, because that would increase your result page’s size and make browsing your site as “fun” as walking through your real world store, with a magnifying pressed to your face.
  4. Product Delivery
    1. Product Freshness
      Your book or new computer doesn’t go “off”, because it hasn’t been put in a fridge. Fresh food on the other hand can go off or lose some of its shelf life while waiting or being transported.
    2. Immediacy
      Some shopping missions are urgent. When I go out to buy groceries I expect to have them the same day.. I’m not buying for tomorrow or the next day. I buy groceries when I’ve run out of my milk, bread, etc. Not wait for 2 – 3 days, which were the delivery times pre-Covid-19 for stores like Woolworths and Pick ‘n Pay.
    3. Delivery Time Uncertainty
      I need to be home for deliveries to be made, but often retailers can’t tell me exactly when the delivery will arrive and then I might be at work or away from home, when the deliveries arrive. People don’t like uncertainty. Regular products can be dropped off at a friend or the office, but certain groceries need to be stored as soon as it gets to your home.
    4. Delivery Fulfillment Uncertainty
      People would also like to know if their whole order would be waiting for them when they get home or if they need to get the missing pieces on the way back. Not getting your full order is frustrating.
  5. Convenience
    This one is critically important. If your ecommerce store experience isn’t more convenient than driving to a store, people will go back to shopping in store or go to an ecommerce solution that does. The human brain constantly optimises for convenience. That is why fast food industries exist.

South Africans are not familiar with ecommerce, but the pandemic is changing some of their behaviour. Every day we are in lockdown, the more entrenched new behaviours will become, the more people will try ecommerce in some form or another. There will be no returning to normal. A substantial proportion of your customers are going to want to use ecommerce and with new players popping up every day, you’ll face new competitors (Netflorist, who have quickly pivoted from selling flowers and gift baskets to sell essential groceries, may decide to continue selling groceries post-pandemic). The success of your online experience will be what keeps those customers.