Service With A Smile…No, “Mask”

(Click on Yumpu link above to see article as seen in Global Retail Brands Magazine, July 2020)

How The Coronavirus Has Shoppers Missing The Sensory Experience And The Effect On Private Brands

I miss the grocery store, I mean I really miss it. 

But, there are many who don’t. For shoppers who already saw it as a mind-numbing, robotic and repetitive chore that just had to be done, then you might not be missing a thing, embracing the digital or curbside experience in all its passionless glory during the coronavirus pandemic. It is this group, the newer digital/curbside shoppers, who private brand marketers should worry about.

Yet I miss it, and I especially miss the sights, sounds and everything sensory as it applies to my local supermarket. The smell of the bakery, the color-breaks  and display pyramiding of a good produce section, product sampling munchies, chickens turning on the rotisserie and even the smiles and conversation from customer service. My local store succeeds in everything sensory.

But today COVID-19 does not have us valuing anything sensory. Rather it has us valuing the functional experience, premised on safety and efficiency. For the foreseeable future, it more like service with a mask, not service with a smile.

A Sensory Gut-Check.

Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – our five basic senses. Two of them have basically been taken away. No product samples and in-store cafes, so really no “taste”. You can only count “touch” if that includes touching something with rubber gloves. “Sight” is also a little impaired, as most shoppers just have their heads down, walking with the forced aisle flow, and just trying to go as fast as they can.  We also can’t see any people’s expressions in the store, as they are covered by masks.

That leaves “smell” and “sound”. As for “smell”, it is tough to smell anything except the overpowering scent of hand sanitizer these days, and the “sounds” of the store have also been muted. 

For retailers and CPGs, taking a sensory gut-check is really important as you move post-COVID. How do you powerfully start to bring these sensory elements back into the shoppers’ psyche, how do manufacturers think differently about the point-of-sale merchandising in the future (since shoppers aren’t stopping to read anything these days), and how do we think about getting those digital shoppers back. Bottom line, if your sensory experience is not powerful, then you may lose post-COVID shoppers forever.

Good for private brands, but don’t be complacent.

All the statistics and syndicated sales information show that coronavirus has been good for Private Brands, and the thinking is that shoppers have been [forced to be] more experimental during this time because lack of availability. The working theory is that consumers who have tried Private Brands and appreciate the quality may become loyal. I am not so sure.

I had two sub-par experiences with Private Brands during the crisis, and one was with Bath Tissue at Costco, their #1 selling sku in the entire warehouse, Kirkland Signature 2 ply, which our family didn’t care for. The other was in Paper Towels and, which have a sheet count of only 112 sheets. Now I am not picking on either of these beloved retailers, where I buy a lot of Kirkland Signature and Prince & Spring products, but in these two instances, they did not “convert” me. It actually had me yearning for the brands I could not find.

My message here is do not be complacent. Not every new Private Brand experiment is going to amount to a conversion. Some will, yes, but some will just reaffirm some shoppers’ prior loyalties to brands they enjoyed, and just couldn’t find. I also think there is another important dynamic at play to watch out for, and that is the CPG claw-back. Do you think Procter & Gamble is just going to be content having lost share in some household categories? Absolutely not. They will invest heavily in marketing promotions post-COVID all designed to claw back share that they lost. Again, just don’t be complacent, we still have many marketing and private brand stories to reinforce.

Not that the two topics are entirely unrelated, one, COVID-19 and, two, a significant Recession (which coronavirus was the catalyst to), but I believe it is the recession that will produce more “sticky” Private Brand behaviors than the coronavirus. The desire for more value and limited budgets, will make certain channels (Limited assortment and Dollar) even more attractive and will further shoppers’ desire for Private Brands. 

Promotional cadence that is changed.

The coronavirus will have lasting effects on the way we shop. We have learned to shop less during the virus, plan better with lists, and buy more extensively and deeply when we are in the store once a week or once-every-other-week. These visits are certainly more “functional”, with a lot fewer impulse buying decisions happening, as shoppers really have their blinders on.

So if shopping cadence changes from 1.6 trips per week (prior to the pandemic), to once a week or twice a month, then this also changes the way manufacturers should promote. Promotions that are less frequent, promotions that might be deeper, and promotions that consider the digital-social vehicles a little more seriously than prior to COVID-19 in terms of their balance-of-spend.

Your private brands and SEO

We know one of the shopper behaviors that will be forever accelerated and swayed is the amount of digital and curbside that consumers have already adopted. Household penetration for E-Grocery hit 33% in May according to Brick Meets Click. 

Now these increases may not be shockers. But what I think is shocking is how Private Brands have not invested in any Search Engine Optimization (SEO) on the very retail sites and platforms on which they sell. Just one example we conducted by entering “diapers” into multiple retailer websites, showed some interesting variations. Wegmans and HEB with their strong Private Brand programs, also show many of their diaper products on the first page of the search. However, retailers like Amazon, Rite-Aid and [surprisingly] Kroger didn’t fare so well. None of their own brands appeared.

If consumers are moving to more grocery buying, then Private Brands and the retailers that own them have to invest in better SEO thinking in a post-COVID world.

Categories, rationalization and new space allocation

Retailers in a post-COVID world also have to think carefully not just about amplifying their sensory experience in-store, but also think about their range of categories and their space allocation differently. Do you think about slightly bigger paper sections in the future, or how about enhanced frozen opportunities, or do you just leave them the way they are? How about end display applications and which categories get this prime real estate? I also believe that certain categories might be prone for assortment editing and rationalization for efficiency, as some consumers may lean towards bigger sizes and stock-up behaviors that could be long-lasting in the future.

As much as COVID-talk is in itself exhausting, the consumer, shopper, retailer and brand behaviors really have to be thought through and re-evaluated for the future if you are a retailer or supplier. I shudder to think of a contact-less shopper experience in the future, but one devoid of smile, expression and humanity is even more daunting. 

As always, if this has provoked any thinking on your part, then just reach out to me freely. In the meantime, stay safe and well.

Leave a Reply

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close