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Crowded grocery aisles are becoming a problem

online pickers
This H-E-B has nice, wide aisles, but here’s the thing: you can see more online pickers than actual customers. Will retailers need to adjust store formats to give everyone some breathing space?

I think I’ve identified my new shopping sweet spot: 8 p.m. on the night of a televised presidential debate. I stopped by H-E-B and had the place to myself – something that hasn’t happened in quite a while as aisles get more and more crowded.

Want to avoid the crowds? Go to the store at 8 p.m. during a televised presidential debate. Worked for me!

But it’s not everyday Jane shoppers in my way. It’s the huge carts heaved around by in-store online pickers that typically are blocking access.

I’ve long been convinced the model of in-store picking for online grocery isn’t sustainable in the long run, and the service’s rapid expansion during the pandemic is exposing pain points.

A recent article in Business Insider quoted half a dozen Whole Foods employees across the country complaining about Amazon Prime in-store shoppers, likening them to a swarm of locusts that pick a store clean even before it opens to the public.

They show up two hours before opening, rushing to pick online orders, buzzing around Whole Foods employees when they can’t find something because they need to scan a QR code to prove their case to their digital order overseers.

While Business Insider’s Whole Foods articles over the past few years since the Amazon acquisition have often been critical—and sensational—there’s a degree of accuracy in these complaints based on my own experiences. I’m sure everyone who’s shopping in-store has come across these pickers lately, especially as the pandemic has pushed more people to shop online.

But that very fact is something important to remember. These pickers represent someone—typically multiple someones—who aren’t currently blocking your way to the bananas. They’re out living their lives, or, more likely at home supervising virtual school while trying to work remotely.

Retailers have been working to improve the experience for everyone, by turning stores dark and right-sizing footprints to better accommodate BOPIS (buy online pick up in store) commerce. Albertsons, for example, partnered with Takeoff Technologies, and more recently, H-E-B partnered with Swisslog to build and retrofit stores to include mini fulfillment centers.

Retailers have to find a way to provide efficiency and convenience for online grocery without deteriorating the in-store experience, because it seems like the Whole Foods issue hit a nerve with many shoppers. I looked it up on the global complaint center (Twitter) and saw scores of consumers agreeing that the in-store pickers are a nuisance.

Even the Retailwire BrainTrust discussion about it was filled with anecdotes from experts about how Whole Foods is an annoying place to shop right now. I give these folks a little more credit than squeaky wheels on Twitter.

But it’s not just Whole Foods, and retailers should be paying attention.


Pamela Riemenschneider is the Retail Editor for Blue Book Services.