How Grocery Stores Have Weakened Customer Loyalty by Putting Milk at the Back of the Store (And Why Online Grocery Isn’t Working, Yet)

It used to be that a person could run into a store, grab a gallon of milk and run home to finish whatever task was at hand when he or she noticed the empty jug. It was a simple experience with minimal time invested. Run in. Run out. Done.

Then retail marketing departments got hold of a new understanding of shopper behavior called “impulse buying.” In impulse buying, a customer is stimulated to make impromptu product selections based on attractive packaging, proximity and price (rather than necessity). This new insight suggested average ticket could be increased by spreading staple items strategically throughout the store, causing customers to walk a predesigned path, giving corporations greater control over customer exposure to key high-margin items. The goal: to give you a compulsive desire to buy more stuff. This is why flour is somewhere in the middle of the store, the bread section always seems so hard to find and milk is on the back 40. The layout is designed to make you travel.

At first, it probably worked. Average ticket probably jumped by double digit percentages, time in store must certainly have doubled (at least), VOC scores may have seen a mild decline but would have been negligible in the face of higher profits, and marketing departments were probably partying all over the world.

Based on my own personal experience, I wonder if trends are reversing. Average ticket is probably still up a little, but how is customer count looking? VOC? Are same-store sales trending up or down?

A plethora of loyalty statistics circulating online suggests that grocery stores are having a tough time right now. From a consumer’s point of view, I’ll tell you what I think has happened:

Grocery stores weakened consumer loyalty by sacrificing customer convenience.

Grocery stores are HUGE. A trip to a store like Safeway, Kroger or Walmart can require a significant investment in time. When I have a fridge full of groceries but run out of milk, my first thought is: “Where’s the quickest place to get that?” Then I make a mental list of the options available and choose the smallest, most convenient store I can find. Even if the price is higher.

I’ll tell you a little secret: this scenario happens quite often and each time I imagine the path your marketing department has me trekking through your gigantic store, I think, “Ugh!”

That’s right…I associate your brand with: “Ugh!”

What’s more, I always buy something extra when I’m at your competitor. The competitor you sent me to is getting those add-on dollars; and because they made it easy for me, they’re now a contender when I’m ready for the weekly “big” trip to the store.

By making my staple item harder to get, you’ve reduced the frequency of my visits to your store, opened the door to other retailers vying for my business and made me associate your name with exasperation.

This is why online grocery retailing is going to work. The only reason it’s struggled so far, I think, is because grocery pickers haven’t applied customer service practices to their picking habits. The one time I used this service, my order arrived in about a thousand tightly knotted plastic bags and my veggies looked like they had been scraped from the bottom of an old, hot barrel. I ended up spending as much time freeing my groceries from their plastic prisons as I would have spent slogging the store – and I ended up with inedible produce that I had to go back to the store to return anyway.

But I digress.

Amazon sees the problem and they’re addressing it in a big way. The new Dash Button is targeted directly at convenient staple shopping. Honestly, it’s brilliant. It has problems up front (it’s aesthetically displeasing, requires a $99 membership and is wasteful in the sense that each item ships individually), but eventually push button shopping, or something like it, is going to be the favored way to buy recurring items. Grocers need to find a way to compete with that and they can start by bringing milk back to the front of the store. Not on the ‘paid’ side of the registers where it puts shoppers at risk for forgetting to buy it at all until it’s too late, but on a front endcap or at the beginning of an aisle where shoppers can grab it and go.

I know I’d appreciate some respect for my time. And while you’re at it, please stop trying to manipulate me. Dragging customers across every square inch of your store in order to fill a list of basic needs is just rude. We don’t appreciate being treated like marionettes and can generally feel it when it’s happening, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. How long do you tolerate your friends treating you badly before you move on and find better friends?

How long should we tolerate our brands doing the same?

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