Retailers can ease customer anxiety after the pandemic changed grocery shopping

There is nothing more essential than the food that sustains us. Even during the strictest lockdowns, grocery stores remained open for business.

But that does not mean the experience remained the same. Virtually overnight, a trip to the grocery store was altered beyond recognition. Cashiers masked up and customers socially distanced in checkouts lines that snaked well in to the frozen foods aisle. Sales spiked, and led to shortages of toilet paper, Lysol wipes, yeast, and hand sanitizer. The worst of the panic buying only lasted a few months, but many of the changes to the shopping experience have remained.

“For me, grocery shopping is actually a fun activity that I did with my family,” said Dr. Yu Ma in a virtual session at Grocery Innovations Canada, an annual conference held by the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

“But with added uncertainty and the potential of getting sick, it is not the same as it was before. Grocery shopping is higher effort now. Consumers have changed, and they are not the same people who were shopping before the pandemic.”

Consumers are doing more online shopping than ever before, and no longer have the same mindset when they do go to the grocery store. Before the pandemic, grocery shopping was part of the routine -- a low-effort excursion in a familiar environment. Now, it is none of those things.

“The lack of uniformity between stores is a major challenge, especially with the ever-changing rules regarding masks and social distancing,” says Ma, an Associate Professor of Marketing at McGill’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management.

“Long lines outside a store can make consumers question if they have made the right decision, and whether the store will actually have the items that they need in stock. All of this is in addition to health concerns about COVID-19. It is not surprising that grocery shoppers have had higher levels of anxiety since the pandemic began. This is the elephant in the room, and we have to deal with that.”

Even as grocery stores themselves face challenges like supply chain disruption, there are opportunities in mitigating the stressors that contribute to customer anxiety. Inflation is one of them. In the summer of 2021, Canada’s Consumer Price Index jumped by 3.7 per cent, year-over-year. While many expect this spike to be temporary, high prices can nevertheless heighten anxiety, especially for shoppers who have lower incomes. For some retailers, price differentiation could be an effective way to attract and retain customers.

But stores that are unable to undercut their competition’s prices might find success with other strategies. Analyzing social media sentiment data from Twitter or Facebook can help retailers understand what customers like – and what they don’t. Operational data about sales volumes and the number of transactions can yield valuable insight into how mitigation strategies are impacting customer attitudes and behaviours.

Retailers can go beyond basic requirements, and make it easier for people to shop. They can make it easier to navigate the aisles and locate curbside pickup locations. They can standardize new services across their locations to reduce variation, and make the shopping experience more predictable for consumers who might be feeling anxious,” says Ma.

“Service differentiators could also help shoppers feel more at ease. For example, a nice smell might lower the level of anxiety for many people. If a retailer has a bakery, they can use it to make their store smell nicer -- or they could even use artificial smells. Retailers can think about ways to enhance the shopping experience and make people's life a little bit easier. That will reduce anxiety and remind people of a familiar and comfortable environment -- like what a grocery store used to be before the pandemic.”

Yu MaYu Ma

Associate Professor, Marketing;
Academic Director, Master of Management in Retailing (MMR)

Article written by: Tyrone Burke




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