The customer experience makes or breaks a brick-and-mortar retail experience — and this is especially true for grocery retailers. Grocery store operations teams, with their intricate understanding of customer needs throughout their stores, are best poised to deliver elevated customer experiences that exceed expectations and surpass the competition. With cutting-edge machine learning tools and artificial intelligence at their disposal, operations staff have never been better equipped to support food shopper’s demands.
Food shoppers have high-touch needs. They want to smell, taste, and feel, as much as see. As an increasing number of online retailers enter the grocery space, the customer experience can differentiate a food retailer.
For example, clicking an online photo of an eggplant isn’t the same as feeling its purple heft in a store, turning to a demo station a few feet away to learn a roasting technique, and then walking past a bakery section, catching a whiff of fresh bread, and realizing that would be the perfect accompaniment for dinner. This type of immersive sensory experience has become vital to consumers, notes the experience design firm Shikatani Lacroix.
In any retail environment, the customer experience truly works when it’s top down. For food retailers, focusing so much on customer experience can mean pivoting away from more traditional emphasis on food and trade costs, as well as empowering and supporting the ops teams. While those issues remain important, ultimately the doors won’t stay open if no one walks through them.
“Customers tell us they would pay more and remain much more loyal in exchange for a great customer experience,” reports Retail Customer Experience.
But customer service goes beyond just a happy face at the cash register and well-stocked Cheerios. Consumers want what they want — coupons that target what they buy, deals that speak to their needs, demonstrations that engage their imagination.
By examining the operational issues grocers face, and reviewing some customer experiences, technology’s role in enhancing this consumer-facing shift becomes clearer — and demonstrates how vital this technology and consumer match becomes.
Many retail ops teams share similar challenges when it comes to optimizing staffing versus payroll, managing the flow of stock and storage, and balancing overhead versus sales. Working with food adds additional logistical layers at every point for grocery operations teams.
Staff doesn’t just have to know where items are, but must be ready to field questions about how to use produce or a cooking tool. Meanwhile, grocery customers may ask the difference between three kinds of peppers, and even a cashier needs to understand how to differentiate among five types of apples for stock and cost purposes. Some would argue that a grocery store associate’s product knowledge needs to surpass that of a stylist in a women’s clothing boutique.
“Shoppers will increasingly look to store employees as shopping advisers, whether for additional product information, new recipe tips or purchase recommendations, as they will want increased service and assistance with decision making,” reports NACS.
On the floor, stock can move fast, and an empty shelf is a shelf not moving product — or worse, looking like there’s a run on a vital ingredient. Most retailers don’t carry the sheer number of items that a grocery store does, from the smallest spice packet to the largest bulk paper goods. And if point-of-sale systems don’t accurately track inventory, that can slow the flow of goods to the shelves, delay the process of reordering, and create challenges around planning warehouse space.
There’s also the issue of ease-of-movement, lines, and crowding. Consumers want to see goods, have room to maneuver their carts, and not have to navigate around a scrum of fellow shoppers to leave the store.
How Do Customers Feel?
In our social media age, store owners and managers don’t have to rely on experts to tell them what’s wrong. Many customers turn to Facebook or Yelp, and their reviews offer telling insight into customer-service pain points — especially if several people call out the same issue.
For example, take Key Food, a New York City based grocery chain. Yelp reviews repeatedly call out the slow self-checkout process that may use outdated software, and instead of saving time, makes the process longer. Others note the preponderance of produce that is far less than fresh. While numerous factors, including cost, play a part in sourcing and delivering produce, the responses suggest that Key Food leadership might be well served assessing the processes for culling expired food from stock.
At C-Town, another city outpost, common Yelp complaints focus on staff at the deli counter and cash registers. According to the reviews, deli counter associates don’t seem focused on their food-oriented tasks, either slicing paper along with the turkey, or not changing gloves when they switch from cleaning equipment to handling food. Cashiers don’t appear concerned about the customer and often make mistakes while ringing up items. More staff training, and perhaps some extra guidance courtesy of an attentive manager, could go a long way.
Technology for Grocery Store Operations Teams
The good news is that advances in technology, especially artificial intelligence for business, can support and streamline much of what consumers want from their grocer. The following systems helps grocery store operations teams perform better, work more agilely, and ultimately, give consumers more of what they need in order to fall in love with a food shopping experience.
A few examples:
- Robots and cameras: Shelfie employs mounted cameras and robots that prowl the aisles after-hours to track which shelves need stocking, and can alert staff to where those needs are, Microsoft notes. The robot can even note if goods aren’t front-facing, and therefore aren’t optimizing their impact on consumers.
- Mobile tracking and payment for customers: Imagine scanning goods as you go with the phone already in your pocket, and hitting a button to pay. The Skip mobile checkout app frees up vital time and energy for the consumer, as well as staff hours and potential pain points like long lines at a checkout counter, as Microsoft outlines.
- Heat-mapping: Using video cameras placed throughout the store, this technology tracks customer and staff movements through a store, examining where they linger over an item, where it takes longer than it should to stock a shelf, and where in-store traffic becomes a bottleneck. By understanding the problem, managers can create better solutions.
- Self-learning artificial intelligence systems: Smart inventory systems can track store data and processes to better inform everything from purchasing to schedules. For example, by tracking how long it takes employees to unload goods in a warehouse, a self-learning system can identify inefficiencies, allowing grocery store operations teams to reassess everything from optimal stockroom storage layouts to staffing options.
“Most retailers don’t have a systematic way to account for store-specific factors that affect how long activities take—such as the distance that an employee must walk to transport a pallet from a delivery truck to the storeroom or how many elevators employees can use for bringing products to the sales floor,” found a report by the consulting group, McKinsey. “The same activity can be much more time consuming at one store than at another, even if the two stores have equal revenues.”
Grocery store operations have inspired some of the most creative potential solutions as developers look to the future. Solutions may not come easy, especially when they call for investing money and time, both of which can be scarce and cut into immediate profits. But the payoff is customers who embrace all the benefits of a retail food shopping experience.
Take a look at our solutions page to learn how grocery store operations teams utilize CB4’s machine learning software to improve operational efficiency and increase net new sales.