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Online to in-store mix: still far from clear

It is by now obvious that the future of retail grocery will contain some mix of online and in-store shopping. But no one knows how this mix will break down.

Current findings vary. On the one hand, there’s a survey from Rosie, an “ecommerce solution for independent retailers and wholesalers,” which was released this week. Having interviewed 5,000 current online shoppers, Rosie tells us that 80 percent of them plan to continue to purchase at current or higher levels over the next year.

“The most popular reason customers shop online is to save themselves a trip to the grocery store and/or avoid lines (50 percent), with COVID/safety concerns at only 18 percent,” the Rosie press release said.

One anomalous fact: this study says that 77 percent of respondents pick up their orders rather than having them delivered. If 50 percent of the people surveyed use online to avoid trips to the store, why do over three quarters still make a trip to the store?

Probably by “trips to the store,” many of them are thinking of checkout lines. If you were to ask the typical American today to name two sources of frustration right off the bat, they would probably be traffic jams and supermarket checkout lines.

There is nothing innately painful about standing in a checkout line, but many Americans (including me) often find it inexplicably infuriating.

Especially the delays: There’s the customer who wants to pay with a check; the customer whose debit card won’t clear (this type of shopper always claims to be baffled by the occurrence); the underage clerk who has to find an older one to check out the wine; the item of disputed value that sends someone back to the canned goods department to check the price.

Online ordering doesn’t necessarily save you a trip to the store, but it does spare you from the checkout line. In-store pickup, on the other hand, spares you the delivery fees (not to mention the 15-20 percent tip you’re expected to give the delivery person).

Rosie’s bright outlook for the online future is not supported by all the data. A recent Brick Meets Click/Mercatus Grocery Shopping Survey fielded, showed $6.8 billion in online sales for June, a 23 percent drop from the previous year’s $8.8 billion and 3 percent down for May, when sales were $7 billion.

The Brick Meets Click data is more substantial than Rosie’s because it reflects real activity rather than intentions, which may have nothing to do with future actions.

These facts all indicate that although in-store and online shopping are going to coexist, the degree of the future mix is far from clear.

For the produce industry, online grocery shopping seems likely to favor packaged over bulk products.

A shopper may trust herself to buy three Honeycrisp apples, put them in a thin plastic bag, and get them home intact. If someone else is doing the packing, she might feel more comfortable if those apples are in a clamshell.

In any case, online ordering and in-store pickup puts a new premium on retailers’ parking lots.

“It used to be that you could go to the grocery store and know the traffic pattern,” notes Bill Yankek, CEO of facilities management trade organization ConnexFM, based in Irving, TX, quoted in Progressive Grocer.

“But it’s changed. You have a line of cars at curbside pickup and hundreds of people walking across the lot. If the parking lot isn’t functional and signage isn’t clear, you can have a mess.”

The situation does open up opportunities for stores to provide parking lot services, such as charging stations for electric cars. Many customers using these can be expected to shop in the store while waiting for their vehicles to charge.

Retailers who want to increase or maintain in-store shopping may take the tack of enhancing their interior space. One Mariano’s (a Kroger subsidiary) operating in Wheaton, IL, a few miles from Blue Book headquarters, has a cocktail pianist playing near the entrance on weekend afternoons.

Who knows? A classy touch might help.

Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.