Consumer expectations shifted dramatically at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grocery retailers scrambled to keep up with new and urgent considerations of health and safety that needed quick, effective solutions. This sometimes meant overhauling the idea of what it means to be a grocery store: Implementing immediate structural change for a fast and safe shopping experience, managing rising anxieties surrounding exposure, and adjusting to escalated demand for basic necessities like paper products, bottled water, hand sanitizer, and non-perishables. Rapid, too, was the growing necessity of online purchasing options and efficient processes for both grocery delivery and curbside-pickup services.
The response was unprecedented, and has changed the way we grocery shop—perhaps forever. As the country begins to emerge from the depths of the pandemic, consumer concerns of cleanliness and safety will remain. Here’s how retailers can expect to continue adjusting to those expectations.
Cleanliness & Sanitation
During the pandemic, shoppers have taken certain categories of in-store expectations more seriously than others. Retailers can anticipate such COVID-era expectations of cleanliness and sanitation to persist post-pandemic. For example, heightened awareness of sanitation and germs in a grocery store will make post-pandemic shoppers choose where they shop based on cleanliness. “Consumers aren’t going to shop your store unless they see aggressive and obvious evidence of enhanced sanitation,” writes Gina Acosta for Progresive Grocer. “Employees will have to be trained on the correct protocols, including how to follow the instructions on EPA-approved cleaning product labels.”
Though there is no universal “correct cleaning procedure,” and needs and logistics will certainly vary from grocer to grocer given context and expectation, individual retailers can still establish clear operating standards. Providing comprehensive store-wide training and procedures to be sure the retail space is cleaned well and consistently will continue to be a baseline expectation.
The post-pandemic consumer will have an elevated awareness of grocers who care about product freshness, about who is selling the product, and about the space in which the product is sold—all factors that can tie right back to quality of cleanliness. Grocers should continue exerting COVID19-level attention and effort to store cleanliness, even post-pandemic. Consumers will thank them for it.
Physical Store Design
While some consumers will stick with the convenience and time-saving nature of online or pickup shopping, physical stores will remain key models for driving consumer loyalty. IBM conducted a consumer behavior survey in 2020 and found that “for shoppers who crave convenience and immediacy, stores have become critical nodes in the omnichannel supply and fulfillment ecosystem…[especially] for consumers who desire experiential and/or communal shopping, stores have become showcases for them to have hands-on engagement with products and brands.” Grocery store interiors must reconfigure to support consumer demand for hygienic, safe experiences.
The grocery store will continue seeing changes to the physical design of the interior, some of which include decreasing the amount of touchpoints in a store (i.e., self-serve soup or salad bars, etc), equipping checkout stations with contactless payment, and improving and expanding self-checkout services. Beyond this, “the next phase of post-pandemic food retail is going to require a lot more than spraying door handles and offering Apple Pay,” says Gina Acosta. “It’s going to require a fundamental shift in the way that food retailers think about their stores.”
This includes remaining proactive and transparent when it comes to ventilation system cleaning practices and maintaining COVID-safe levels of sanitation. Having a store interior equipped with challenges like social distancing in mind will also make smoother transitions into future scenarios of resurgent cases or the threat of another airborne pandemic. Jeff Wells points out in Grocery Dive that “even after the pandemic lifts, shoppers likely won’t rush back to a department where they handle common utensils and stand shoulder-to-shoulder serving themselves.” Reducing the need for consumer contact is an expectation that retailers should have in mind for future innovation in the grocery store.
Rise of Automation
During the pandemic and beyond, automation in the grocery setting is becoming more and more prevalent. Some grocers have expanded “how they use robots to keep employees safer, increase social distancing and reduce the number of staff that have to physically come to work,” particularly when it comes to regulated, consistent store-cleaning practices. Many stores have found that automated cleaning allows them to “set and meet compliance standards in regard to daily cleaning routine.”
In an effort to address the sanitary challenges presented by self-service stations, some stores have begun investing in automated serving stations. Heinen’s rolled out Sally, a salad-making robot, during the pandemic to test out whether the technology could replace the concept of self-serve salad bar—which was a questionably sanitary practice, even pre-pandemic. One Walmart store in California introduced a station called Blendid, which can receive mobile orders from an app and select and blend ingredients for a smoothie in about three minutes.
This type of technology will continue to flourish in a market calling for high levels of innovation and reduced levels of unnecessary contact. Kiosks like Sally and Blendid are expensive, but as the expectation for reduced contact remains high post-pandemic, consumers may find robotic serving stations a welcome—if not cutting edge—alternative to self-serve.
No two modern consumers are the same; lifestyles differ drastically, and call for different shopping habits. Grocer retailers need to model their omnichannel experience to this fact. Grocery Dive indicates that “the long-forecast online grocery boom happened all at once in 2020…now it’s time for grocers to improve their platforms and [make] online order fulfillment more efficient.” Many shoppers benefit greatly from the ease of use and variety involved with online order fulfillment, and will continue to expect high quality online shopping experiences even post-pandemic.
Though the demand for time slots and high customer service present certain roadblocks for grocery pickup services, grocers will continue to innovate and grow with such challenges. Issues might range from labor shortages, to maintaining correct temperatures for both hot and cold items, to the best inventory management to properly manage both in-store and online orders. Many retailers have begun exploring options like lockers and kiosks in an effort to keep up the immense popularity of curbside pickup services. As automation technology in these spaces evolves, retailers might find that isolating pickup spaces—such as pickup-only parking spots and remote locker systems—can eliminate time and hassle from an online shopper’s pickup experience.
Retailers may also begin innovating within the online format. In an article on pickup services, Catherine Douglas Moran points out that a curated online shopping experience can entice a consumer, even without the advantage of the in-store, five-senses experience: “Retailers wondering how they can curate experiences online when they don’t have the smells of fresh products and free samples and demonstrations at the stores can start by changing up their online content regularly.” This type of online customization can work to increase the appeal of pickup orders, while making the experience of shopping online just as enjoyable as in-store shopping.
Regardless of which systems a grocer adopts for the different channels, a seamless experience between in-store and online shopping requires new and special attention. Increasing efficiency and quality of e-commerce shopping without sacrificing the importance of the in-store experience has already become—and will continue to be—a must for retailers in 2021 and beyond.
The pandemic necessitated quick and impactful changes in grocery shopping. Grocers will want to look forward into a non-pandemic future, but shouldn’t lose sight of the shifts in consumer behavior that will remain permanent. Consistency in cleaning and sanitation, smarter store design, rising automation, and more seamless omnichannel shopping will allow retailers to keep up with consumer expectations and create a shopping experience that can anticipate and adjust to an often unexpected future.