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“I’ve always described food as the last great frontier in e-commerce. There’s no other $800-billion-dollar industry that e-commerce hasn’t touched yet.”
— Chad Arnold, president and CEO, Door to Door Organics
Are You Experienced?
For decades, the supermarket reigned supreme as the preferred source for at-home food and beverages. Indeed, today’s national chains were once individual produce stands andstores that grew by adding other perishables, dry grocery and service counters. By the post-war 1950s, they had become a one-stop convenience destination. It’s a formula that still influences the way Americans shop today.
“You have an extremely emotional experience when you walk into a store,” said Zucker. “Walk into a Whole Foods, it’s a great experience. You want to shop. But you’re going to pay for it.”
Online retailers may not be able to re-create the physical qualities of shopping inside a store, so they’ve invented new touchpoints.
“They’re specializing and they’re building communities with their shoppers,” said Childs, the professor.
Visit the Abe’s website and there are plenty of compatriots to talk to, and all the information anyone could want about a product, no matter how obscure. The emphasis is on developing content around each product: Questions and answers, direct queries to the company, user reviews, and fun, yet informative, off-the-cuff videos.
“The average product package has a paragraph of information about it,” said Demb of Abe’s strategy. “We average something like 12 pages of data. The 360-degree picture we can paint for a product is so much deeper than you can find on the retail shelf.”
Door to Door Organics appeals to shoppers looking for local and artisan foods, and by taking advantage of the new sources of information that motivate consumers to adopt a natural/organic lifestyle.
“Inspiration is completely an open social experience now,” said Arnold, with new foods and recipes getting shared on Pinterest, Facebook or even Twitter. “It’s a whole new way of living and shopping.”
Online retail has also demonstrated a remarkable agility that allows it to meet America’s shifting shopping habits much quicker than brick-and-mortar stores. Consumers discovering new lifestyles or changing their diets may not be able to find products that meet their needs at their local supermarket — or so the complaint goes — but a quick search online brings them to a Vitacost or a Door to Door Organics.
The search for solutions has motivated online retailers to reconfigure their websites and introduce new interfaces.
Abe’s reinvented the way its shoppers can search for products by creating Abe’s Qualities, a list of more than 220 lifestyle or product attributes that automatically culls only those products that meet those standards in any category. For example, a mom will be able to find an organic, handmade baby food packed in BPA-free containers by clicking on those three qualities under the Babies & Kids category.
“We’re matching the way they shop to the way they live today,” said Demb. “They say, ‘I’d love to buy more organic, more BPA-free, more hypoallergenic. Abe’s, make it easy for me, show me cool products that are relevant to me. Give me the story behind the product.’”
Stores can face limitations of space and get caught up in the amount of time it takes to cut in a new product. The setup tends to reinforce old shopping habits that are beginning to chafe consumers.
It’s not that supermarkets aren’t trying. Ahold’s Peapod has emerged as a leading home delivery service that’s pioneering the use of commuter bus stops and movie theaters as non-traditional shopping intercepts. But it remains the only large-scale online shopping division operated by a major retailer.
Applications for smartphones may be the easiest way for brick-and-mortar companies to compete for the online shopper. Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., just unveiled a comprehensive app that’s gotten rave reviews from customers and industry observers alike.
“With the Wegmans app, I can compare the prices of the items on my list with other stores (and come to appreciate Wegs even more!),” wrote one Twitter user, using the hashtag #wegapp.
“Had dinner and did groceries in one hour last night thanks to Wegmans and the new #wegapp,” gushed another.
The app, unveiled in January, includes functions that almost mimic an online shopping experience. Shopping lists can be organized by aisle according to a store’s layout to help avoid backtracking; loyalty card holders can access and view a history of past purchases, “perhaps helping with forgotten shopping list items”; and shoppers now have the ability to download products needed for a specific recipe from the Wegmans’ Menu magazine right onto their shopping list.
Functions such as those provided by the Wegmans app go way beyond the usual options that supermarket retailers currently provide, such as the store’s weekly circular, coupon access, meal planning and cooking tips, and a loyalty card point tracker. Those in the world of virtual food shopping say cogent apps are critical for physical retailers to transition into this new shopping universe.
“If retail doesn’t get in tune with what’s going on with the whole food experience, and how technology is enabling that experience, then they’re going to lose mindshare of the customer,” said Arnold.