For grocery retailers competing in the Amazon age, it’s a game of follow the leader.
After years of pushing for e-commerce overhauls — bringing inventory online, figuring out how to deliver grocery orders to customers and re-routing fulfillment processes — grocery chains’ stores are again at the focus of competitive strategies and new technologies. Tools like scan-and-go and cashierless checkout, real-time customer data collection, digital shelves and automated inventory fulfillment and merchandising are in early experimentation modes for grocery retailers including Kroger, Fairway and Safeway.
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The big motivator? Amazon.
“These retailers have swung so far in the direction of e-commerce, thinking the future was online. And now here’s Amazon with a brick-and-mortar strategy,” said Sylvain Perrier, CEO of grocery e-commerce platform Mercatus. “So now the pendulum’s swung back to looking at the in-store experience and what that needs to be today. Technology in stores and store updates can make or break a business now.”
First, Amazon shook the industry into thinking the future was online-only. Then, it bought Whole Foods and began opening its cashierless Amazon Go stores, turning to the same turf that retailers had been simply maintaining, rather than innovating, in the name of building and growing e-commerce.
In response, grocery stores with much bigger store networks are adopting new in-store technologies to compete.
“The death of offline grocery was greatly exaggerated,” said Andy Ellwood, the co-founder and president of grocery comparison service Basket. “The hybrid of online and offline requires offline. And as much as can be put into the logistics of the last mile, it still requires that physical presence.”
It’s not that online business is shrinking or going away — Kroger nearly doubled its online revenue from $5 billion to $9 billion last year. But grocery doesn’t as easily translate to an e-commerce-only experience, like books or CDs. So it’s becoming more evident that grocery’s winning strategy is to become as relevant and as effortless for customers to shop, which involves an equally up to date in-store experience as online. Now, with online strategies in place and stores getting digital makeovers, these retailers are all competing for customer loyalty, where Amazon also happens to excel, with a loyalty program of more than 100 million through Prime.
“You can thank Amazon Go. Grocery stores are finding today, they need to be a brand. The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from Amazon and from competitors is to get loyalty from your customers. You can’t bribe them with discounts or win them over with proximity,” said Will Hogben, CEO of FutureProof Retail, a technology company that equips retailers with cashierless checkout tools.
To keep stores from stagnating, retailers are outsourcing. Roche Bros., a grocery chain based in New England, announced on Wednesday that it had hired Toshiba to modernize its checkout systems. It’s not cashierless technology, but it’s meant to speed up the checkout process. Fairway, in November, launched a self-checkout app that also serves up recommended recipes and product recommendations based on past purchases, partnering with FutureProof Retail for the technology. And Instacart, which partners with hundreds of grocery stores to serve as their e-commerce delivery partner, launched curbside pickup in November to link online orders to store convenience. Customer data is also fed back to retailers to help them keep inventory up to date with customer preferences.
“Grocery is so much more of an intimate retail category, so customers want to have deep trust. It’s not a commodity like you might think. With their stores, grocers developed a relationship in their regions,” said Nilam Ganenthiran, chief business officer at Instacart. “Grocery has a huge cost advantage to anyone who comes in the space, including Amazon because of these stores, so our broader strategy is helping them connect the stores to an online business.”
So far, no grocery chain’s tech overhaul has been as extensive as Kroger’s. Through Kroger’s “Restock Kroger” initiative to update its business model and location, the company has partnered with several technology companies to address different customer behaviors, including partnerships with Ocado Robotics, to automate order and inventory fulfillment, and Nuro, a self-driving car delivery service. Most recently, it announced a deal with Microsoft to build “connected experience” stores that will include technologies such as digital price tags and advertisements, to be updated in real time in response to customer data, and an improved version of its Scan, Bag, Go guided shopping and self-checkout app.
“The three key points of our digital strategy are being available, being accessible to all of our customers, and being more relevant in our experiences. As customers want more choice, they also want to spend less time choosing, which is kind of an interesting dilemma, if you think about it,” said Yael Cosset, Kroger’s chief digital officer, during the company’s October Investors’ Day.
Right now, 80 percent of Kroger’s customers have shopped online or through the mobile app, and the company expects that in the next three to five years, it will be channel agnostic, meaning it won’t make a difference whether customers shop in store or online to the company’s bottom line. That means that the cost to improve both online and in-store purchases has to pay off.
For grocery’s new table stakes, Amazon has the upper hand in terms of technology — Amazon Go has implemented automatic cashierless checkout, whereas other retailers are still working with self-scanning technology. It’s also a data machine. Plus, retrofitting existing stores with technology is a lot more difficult than opening new ones built off it. Through partnerships, and a series of incentives to bring different areas of business up to speed — from data collection to checkout — retailers are keeping up.
“There’s a lot of pressure to do better, which isn’t new,” said Will Glaser, the CEO of cashierless checkout system Grabango. “These brands have always wanted to improve the relationship with their shoppers and technology. The only difference now is that the fire is lit.”