If you could look back at supermarket websites from the mid to late 1990s, you'd no doubt see lots of static images of in-store weekly circulars. Those presentations gradually became more interactive and loaded with features, enabling consumers to learn about nutrition, find coupons, search for recipes and lots more. The upshot is supermarkets are now doing a better job of using the Web to engage consumers and enhance the shopping experience.
But there's another side to the Web that supermarkets are only beginning to discover. That's the talk-back side, in which consumers are using the Internet to express their own opinions in blogs and other forums. Supermarkets have far less control over this side, but they need to be aware, because their operations and practices are fair game for discussion.
First, a look at what retailers are doing on their own sites: A feature story in this week's issue (see Page 14) highlights initiatives that are using more of the Web's latest capabilities. Safeway's online FoodFlex program analyzes consumers' shopping patterns based on their unique nutritional goals, and often suggests alternatives. Meijer's Mealbox initiative melds recipe searches with coupons, and in a nod to younger, Web-savvy shoppers, it enables users to place widgets for the site on MySpace, Facebook and in other locations. Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, is promoting its Western Family private label via YouTube “webisodes” about a family called “The Westerns,” in a campaign that also offers downloadable coupons.
These are innovative initiatives by retailers that are obviously leveraging the home-court advantage of their own websites. But retailers can't control the Web at large and the flood of consumer opinion it generates through blogs and other for-ums. These are increasingly visible and measurable.
As one example, J.D. Power & Associates just unveiled an analysis of 40 million blog posts over six months to gauge consumer sentiment about environmental sustainability. Brands in six major industries were ranked according to their number of blog mentions and the percentage of positive mentions. Whole Foods Market came out leading the pack of diversified brands, with a positive mention rate of 78%.
Brands are recognizing that they need to track this type of intelligence, particularly if they are prone to attracting negative consumer opinion
It's worth noting that some companies, including Whole Foods and Tesco's Fresh & Easy, post executive blogs on their own websites. These promote interaction with consumers by encouraging feedback. They help build communities by linking to other blogs and forums.
There's always a risk to such initiatives, because you can't predict consumer comments. However, sooner or later customers will voice their opinions, so it might as well be early in the game, in a forum the retailer leads. Otherwise, opinions may emerge in a more hostile place — or, worse, they may show up on spreadsheets in the form of reduced sales volume.