A 2020 consumer survey conducted by Date Check Pro asked consumers what type of bad experiences might cause them to stop shopping at a particular store; the top answers were Poor Customer Service (#1), Poor Quality/Expired Food (#2), and Cleanliness/Sanitation Issues (#3). What does this mean going forward in post-pandemic grocery? This past year has been a tumultuous learning experience for the grocery frontline; here, we take stock of what experiences reflect most poorly on a retailer, and how grocers can actively prevent loss of customer loyalty due to any of these experiences.
Some things in retail never change. Despite an unprecedented surge in online shopping during the pandemic, consumers continue to want their in-person shopping trip enhanced by excellent customer service. Positive customer and employee interaction makes the experience easier, more enjoyable, and, ultimately, the most satisfactory. The challenge to engage the customer and make their shopping trip as efficient and effortless as possible is a balancing act: Too little and it may leave a bad impression; too much and it might do just the same.
Consider Trader Joe’s, a grocer that always ranks high among companies with exceptional customer service. The delightful store atmosphere, paired with the famously friendly energy exuded by its employees, makes for a consumer that leaves the store smiling; were they grocery shopping in there, or treasure hunting? Not all grocers have the benefit of the local neighborhood grocer feeling of a Trader Joe’s. But retailers who pay attention to how their stores are organized will find that creating opportunity for positive customer service is often a matter of placement—Trader Joe’s might situate employees re-stocking in places that will encourage them to interact with customers who need help.
Similarly, retailers who care about their employees find that the employees then care more about customers, and their interactions with them. Educating and training employees on the value of positive front-facing customer service should be a priority; but so should the fair treatment of employees. Afterall, employee satisfaction will, in most cases, directly correlate to customer satisfaction.
The recent rise in automated assistance during an in-person experience—self-checkout, remote order pickup, robotic salad and smoothie-making kiosks—may lower the chances of a positive or even present customer service experience. Increasing automated technology in the retail setting to decrease the chance of contact remains a necessity during pandemic-specific concerns, and will even cater to heightened awareness of sanitation and cleanliness post-pandemic. However, consumers will appreciate integration of automation to make their shopping experience easier and faster, as intended, while still being offered supplementary and high-quality customer service.
Good customer service encapsulates the entire omnichannel experience: Whether the customer is shopping in-store, online, or picking up curbside. But despite the increase in online shopping channels, the in-store shopping experience remains critical. IBM conducted a consumer behavior survey in 2020 and found that “for consumers who desire experiential and/or communal shopping, stores have become showcases for them to have hands-on engagement with products and brands.” And while one negative experience with customer service might not always mean the customer will never return to a certain store, it may mean they rethink their motivation to shop at that store, or that particular location—and, in the future, just might result in the decision to take their business entirely elsewhere.
Poor Quality/Expired Foods
Just like consumers prioritize customer service when choosing where to shop, they will continue to hold quality and freshness of food as a main priority. In our 2020 survey, we found that 62.1% of consumers said they would discontinue their relationship with that retailer after finding expired food in-store multiple times—an even higher 69% said they would do so after finding expired food in an online order. Though both data points show decreasing consumer forgiveness after multiple events of finding expired food, the online statistic illuminates that consumers are not often checking expiration dates when shopping online—but are, in fact, more reactive when expired items are found in their orders. Online shoppers place certain trust in the retailer to check the date for them when packing their order, and when the product turns up expired, that consumer will be less likely to forgive—and, eventually, to shop at that particular retailer.
Given the overwhelming popularity of online ordering, stores may find themselves without the bandwidth to check every single date on every single online order, and run a higher risk of consumers finding expired food in their order. A critical hand in food waste prevention can also be selling products at a discount before they expire. An in-store expiration date management solution could help grocers prevent products staying on the shelf past their expiration date in the first place.
Attention to product expiration may also lead to retailers being smarter about sustainability efforts—and consumers care about sustainability. Preventing and reducing food waste is a clear, tangible practice that can show customers how serious a grocer is about both reducing the chances of an expired product being found or purchased, and preventing food from going to waste. Remaining vigilant in food waste prevention is not only good practice for the grocer’s community and the environment, but might decrease the amount of customer loss over finding or purchasing expired products.
Aesthetic presentation and visual merchandising also plays an important role in what consumers find appealing. Food that looks fresh and is well-displayed will look high-quality; a poorly organized display that contains poor-quality products will discourage a customer feeling comfortable in the shopping space, and may prevent them from returning. Detailed attention to the physical appearance of the store will put freshness in the forefront of a consumer’s mind right from the start, and is a manageable way to assure a clean and aesthetically pleasing in-store experience.
Cleanliness & Sanitation
The crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has cultivated a consumer that is hyper-aware of sanitation—and this consumer will not go away, even when the intense effects of COVID-19 abate. Lack of care and attention to cleanliness and sanitation will certainly dissuade a customer from enjoying their shopping trip. It may also—just like poor customer service or expired products—ultimately cause that same customer to discontinue shopping at a retailer altogether.
Retailers can anticipate high post-pandemic standards for cleanliness and sanitation as consumers acquire heightened awareness of sanitation and germs in a grocery store. Post-pandemic shoppers will 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 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.
Increasing customer satisfaction in regards to cleanliness can be as simple as being transparent about cleaning protocol and frequency. Many mandatory pandemic practices—social distancing, in-store hand sanitizing stations, increased number of self-checkout kiosks—will remain in place and work to continuously reassure elevated anxieties about potential exposure to germs. Clear, engaging signage can help a retailer in being up-front about initiatives that ensure a safe and clean shopping experience.
Conclusion: What Do Consumers Care About the Most?
It comes as no surprise that excellent customer service, fresh and high-quality food, and a clean in-store environment are the three things consumers care about the most. When asked what aspects of grocery shopping were more or much more important post-pandemic, answers slot in comfortably with those top three reasons:
- Store Cleanliness – 77.5%
- Products in Stock – 64.5%
- Expiration Dates/Freshness – 47.5%
- Customer Service – 44.5%
- Store Sustainability Efforts – 43.2%
Grocers already increased effort to maintain customer satisfaction throughout the pandemic by streamlining sanitation protocols, assuring customers of their safety, and stocking fresh products. Looking forward, a focus on outfitting retail spaces with environmentally-conscious solutions emerges: In product sourcing, store maintenance, and management of food expiry. As a growing percentage of consumers decide to spend money with retailers that help reduce negative impact to the environment, grocers should also work to maintain consumer loyalty through sustainability efforts. Linking such efforts with top-notch customer service, fresh foods, and clean, sanitized spaces will make for a grocery store experience that will leave the customer satisfied and pleased to return.
To learn more about consumer trends in 2020 and beyond, download Taking Stock of 2020: What Grocery Retailers Need to Know About Post-Pandemic Consumer Trends, our e-book report on a 2020 Consumer Survey. In this e-book, you will learn about:
- Changes in Consumer Behavior: COVID-19
- Embracing the Future of Omnichannel Shopping
- Sustainability: What Consumers Expect & How Retailers Can Meet Expectations
- In-Store Shopping vs. Online Shopping: How the Management of Expired Foods Impacts the Consumer Experience