woman shopping online for groceries

Is the shift to a digital path-to-purchase permanent?

It is no surprise that the transition to a more digital path-to-purchase has been accelerated as a result of the ongoing pandemic. But, as this transition has been accelerated over the recent months, the key question has become around how much of this shift is permanent.

To understand this, let us look at what has happened.

What are shoppers doing?

Historically, shoppers have been much slower to shift purchases online for groceries, compared to categories like apparel and technology. As a percent of total US grocery spending, e-comm represented only 5.5% of sales in 2018, and 6.3% in 2019.

However, the pandemic spurred a rapid adoption of online grocery shopping, with Instacart growing 450% ($700 million worth of groceries per week in the first two weeks of April), Walmart growing 300% (increase in pickup and delivery orders – most of which include some groceries), and Kroger growing 92% (digital sales growth).

In fact, 40-50% of consumers have sifted stores, websites, or brands during the crisis, and 20% have shifted their primary store or brand(s).

This all leads to the final stat, that over 50% say they plan to stick with the new store or brand they have switched to. Sounds kind of permanent.

So, what should we do?

I think it is safe to say that some behavior will shift back to traditional channels, as restrictions are lifted, and the world reaches a new equilibrium. However, this emergence of digital channels was always permanent, and now it is just more pronounced. But, a lot of our collective industry research practices have yet to move with this shift.

With this in mind, and now that it is top-of-mind, we must incorporate these considerations into almost all our research initiatives. For instance, what was a pack study on a traditional shelf in the past should now include some digital e-comm testing component.  This can take the form of an additional digital shopping exercise within the interview, focused on breakthrough and conversion within the e-comm context.

What was traditional shelf planogram testing should now incorporate some consideration of decision trees, organization, and placement in a digital context. What was signage and display testing should now incorporate testing of appropriate nudges in an e-commerce situation. And what was a path-to-purchase study must now provide more digital path data than basic stated and top-of-mind digital touchpoints.

More than anything, this is a challenge for all of us in the research industry to work together, identifying creative ways to apply traditional and reliable research practices to a new digital domain. No one has fully figured it all out (despite what they may tell you), but that’s what makes it kind of exciting . . . Exploring the new path to better digital research.

Mike Moussallem is a partner at Explorer Research. He has more than 15 years of experience in quantitative and qualitative research, shopper marketing, and category management. He has held positions at TNS, Kraft, PepsiCo, and Nielsen. Prior to joining Explorer, he led the Retail and Shopper Insights practice and team for TNS in Canada. Before TNS, Moussallem also led the Shopper Insights team for Kraft Canada, spanning across all sectors and customers.

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