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3 Critical Ways Grocers are Adapting to the Experience Economy

Grocers are redefining the grocery shopping experience and consumers are loving the results.

Grocers have an uphill climb to succeed in today’s market.

While the average private company (regardless of market sector) achieves profit margins of roughly 7 percent, the grocery industry pulls in a meager 2.2 percent profit margin.

Competition is fierce, as evidenced by the annual Market Force information study of grocery stores. Wegmans, Publix, and Trader Joe’s ranked as the top 3 grocery stores in a composite loyalty index, each separated by a mere 1 percent.

In addition, grocery store chains operating on slim margins face a changing consumer profile. Millennials now make up the biggest generation-based population group in the U.S. More than three-quarters of millennials pick experiences over things when making purchase decisions.

Grocery averages a 2.2% profit margin

75% of millennials prefer experiences over items

Grocers are finding ways to adjust for changing consumer preferences in spite of — and likely because of — slim margins and cutthroat competition.

Many have transformed their business models such that they are barely recognizable when compared to grocery stores of the past.

Here are a few ways grocery store chains are making the shift to serve consumers in the experience economy:

01.Grocers Have Turned Their Single-Purpose Outlets into Multi-Purpose Destinations

Respondents in the Market Force study ranked six customer experience attributes as most important in their grocery experience. One of those six attributes is specialty department service — the grocer’s ability to differentiate their business based on unique in-store departments. This trend has taken flight in recent years, with coffee shops, cafes, hot bars, intricate bakeries, and custom-prepared food available in many high-ranking grocery stores.

A new multi-story Wegmans in Massachusetts’ Natick Mall includes The Burger Bar and Buzz Coffee Shop, while other Wegmans stores in Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania house full-service pubs. Select HEB locations feature a number of different dining options, including the fast-casual Cafe Mueller and Table 620 Dining and Drinks. Publix is known for its lavish bakeries brides frequently use for wedding cakes and highly-rated sub shops.

Beyond specialty department service, grocers are bringing customers in for all sorts of store events. Whole Foods locations in Austin, Texas offer a weekly Kids Club meetup, boot camps, yoga classes, live music, and even storewide sampling events. Publix offers the Aprons Cooking School, including classes on cooking techniques, special cuisines, wine pairings, and even celebrity chefs in its Sarasota, Florida location.

02.Grocers Have Made the In-Store Shopping Process as Seamless as Possible

The other five customer experience attributes in Market Force’s study relate to a customer’s experience while shopping. Item availability, finding wanted items, store cleanliness, cashier courtesy, and checkout speed are all critical factors in making or breaking the shopping experience.

Grocers are using these levers to their full advantage. Top-performing Publix and Wegmans stock an average of 40,000 and 42,000 products per store, respectively, making it less likely that shoppers will have to either (a) choose an alternate product if one is not available; (b) visit another grocery store; or, (c) refrain from making a purchase. And when shoppers have access to that wide variety of products, competitive grocers are making sure shoppers can find what they want with intuitive floor plans and displays.

The way employees treat customers also impacts their perception of the brand and the likelihood that they’ll come back. Employees at many high-performing grocery stores are notoriously friendly and helpful. Many grocery chains grant store staff a high level of autonomy, which empowers them to give customers a superior experience.

Wegmans employees are empowered to do whatever they feel necessary to make sure the customer leaves happy. Trader Joe's crew members can open any product a customer wishes to sample, and they’re free to be honest about their likes and dislikes when it comes to store products.

And last (but certainly not least) is the checkout line. The faster customers can get through it, the better. Trader Joe’s places first in this category, with Publix and recent entrant Aldi not far behind. Trader Joe’s attributes their checkout speed partially to selling produce by unit, rather than weight.

03.Grocers Have Transformed Shopping from a Chore to a Fun Activity

Grocers have made shopping easier and added a layer of fun. They’ve become an advisor of sorts around all things food-related. HEB’s higher-end Central Market grocery stores feature food festivals (like the August Hatch Chile festival) that get customers excited to visit stores.

Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer provides humorously-written descriptions of featured products. Central Market’s Weekly Savor showcases items based on a geographical theme, like September 2018’s “The British Are Coming: Central Market Presents Passport United Kingdom.” HEB’s Cooking Connection offers in-store cooking demonstrations that allow customers to sample new recipes and access all associated products in one location.

And today, shopping is fun for not-yet-customers: kids. Rather than dreading the trip to the grocery store with mom or dad, kids look forward to experiences tailored to them. Trader Joe’s keeps a limited number of child-sized grocery carts so kids can actively engage in the shopping process. HEB has even created a character called HEBuddy, with an associated HEBuddy machine placed after checkout for kids to enter HEBuddy Bucks and collect points for free prizes.

The experience economy has forever changed grocery stores.

These varied investments in customer experience drive shoppers into stores not just to shop and get out. Shoppers will come in and stay to grab a quick bite or take a cooking class. Those that are coming to shop are more likely to return because the grocer puts effort into making their shopping trip easy, pleasant, and even fun.

And the great news for grocers is this: their efforts provide additional income streams and more opportunities for shoppers to make a purchase. It’s a win-win for everyone.

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