How a second wave will impact shopper behaviour

TracyLocke's Jason Dubroy gives an update on how trends from the last eight months will continue into the future.
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At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, strategy turned to Jason Dubroy, VP and managing director of TracyLocke, for his thoughts on how shopper marketing and point-of-sale activities would be affected by unprecedented upheaval at the retail level.

Now, eight months into the pandemic, we circled back with Dubroy to talk about the in-store experience and the path to recovery and what’s changed since then.

Do you think brands are finally content to have shopper programs in the market now?

Brands are in the planning process now for 2021 to ensure they are being rooted in “connected commerce” – maximizing moments of shopper conversion across physical, digital and social, as well as optimizing paid, owned and earned channels together. That could include shopper programs. But this pandemic is far from over, even with potential vaccines on the horizon. So, as awareness, experience and e-commerce converge, it’s essential for brands to find whatever integrated solutions work in an environment that changes every day to compete, especially as Canadian retailers are themselves becoming very powerful media outlets.

Michael Medline says Sobeys is going to double the SKUs available on Voila, meaning shoppers will be able to access more product online than in-store for the first time in grocery. What will be the impact on shopper marketing?

There will be very little impact short term. Many people don’t realize it, but foot traffic to grocery stores has gone back to pre-pandemic levels, even with record daily infection rates, and studies show shoppers consistently rate grocery stores as the safest physical environment to return to, some even higher than public parks. In grocery, the allure of online has less pull.

You need to give a nod to the anthropology of retail: many people have a need to be near and see other people, and grocery shopping is one of the few things that roots people with perceptions of routine, normalcy and physical tangibility. The impact will be felt in the months ahead, shoppers will be hit with the double-whammy of increased COVID cases and sub-zero temperatures. Should stores return to making people line up to go inside, that’s when you will see the ecommerce adoption rates begin to soar.

For Sobeys specifically, they are doubling down on choice. Kantar and Catalyst reports show shoppers are increasing their ecommerce scroll time, so shoppers are “shopping” beyond the initial cart-starter, and this is a good thing for Sobeys. Where they could ramp up is in their retail media enterprise. Loblaws, and to a lesser extent Walmart, have converted a much larger portion of shopper marketing dollars into brand campaigns driven by loyalty data, using tools like discovery ads through an ecosystem to promote conversion. As long as the Voila customer experience promotes a positive shopping experience that is contextually relevant to each shopper, they will see an uptick in conversion, but they need to catch up to the national media offers of their competitors already in market.

Metro, Loblaw and Sobeys are putting a lot of investment into their private label brands in a time when demand has spiked. What can the competition do to entice consumers away from what is typically a cheaper product?

Switching behaviour at grocery is almost 100% driven by price and availability. As supply chains have righted themselves, there is still economic stress being experienced by a significant part of the population, and private label has now shingled into many households, either out of necessity or habit. Having said that, a great way brands can insulate themselves from private label advances is by manufacturing consideration pre-shop and have that decision made before they’re at the shelf. They have loyalty and CRM data to target personalized display campaigns, offline CRM executions and conversion tools on flyer aggregation websites. And there’s always the tried and true coupon at shelf. You sometimes can’t beat the classics.

Are there going to be lasting impacts of scuttled sampling programs? Consumers have been trying out a lot of new things, but if brands that have tried DTC sampling programs and liked them, will there ever be a return to normal sampling?

Right now, most studies are saying switching behaviour has never been higher – the consensus is roughly 60% of shoppers are trying new items each and every month, with the majority of reasons being lumped into three categories: cost, convenience or curiosity.

I think it will be quite some time before sampling makes it back in the traditional sense, but in the meantime, companies like Freeosk are offering contactless sampling at store level right now, where you use your cellphone at a kiosk to dispense a sample and get information about the product in one QR scan. Instacart and other ecommerce players are offering free sample promotions, Costco is now doing brand education in-aisle, and many experiential companies are now sampling out-of-store again with very strict COVID-19 protocols. Then there’s all the DTC models. Getting a product in-hand or in mouth is still the number one conversion tool by far – and brands are having to get innovative to get their messages out there.

Will we see a heightened premiumization of grocery stores, as more “functional” staples and non-perishables are increasingly purchased online?

You have to be very careful of what you consider “premium.” Certainly, groceries in Canada are going to be getting more expensive due to a combination of COVID-19 supply chain effects, global warming related events and food inflation. Whether those increased prices translate into a premium experience is much debated right now. We are starting to see some interesting category reinvention taking place at the local level, especially in the beverage, meal-occasion and HMR spaces, but the real innovation is really taking place now in the ecommerce sector.

The next big thing, though, especially when the weather gets colder or if another major lockdown happens, will be livestreamed commerce. It’s already huge in Asia and gaining traction in Europe and is being led by the premium retailers to capture both kinds of share: market and audience. Retailers and content creators here in Canada that aren’t looking at that right now are really missing the boat.

Non-perishables are still a hot item right now due to the pandemic. Mintel released a study showing almost half of Canadians at the beginning of summer were buying more non-perishables, and that includes frozen, canned and boxed food. As the health and wellness trends continue, some of the biggest share growth has been coming from functional foods, and this trend isn’t showing any signs of stopping.