Add to cart: Selling groceries in a digital age

By Marissa B. Wiley

The global pandemic has changed much about our lives, including how we shop for food. One of the biggest changes, and one that is likely here to stay, is the sharp increase in online grocery shopping. In fact, the number of shoppers who buy groceries online at least occasionally has nearly doubled since February 2020—from 34% to 62%.

People who may not have previously considered ordering their groceries online found themselves forced to get familiar with the process during lockdowns. As a result, online shopping increased across all age groups, with millennials leading the charge; 88% of millennials, 78% of Gen Z, 36% of boomers, and 34% of mature shoppers at least occasionally trade their physical grocery cart for a digital one. Now that people of all ages know how easy and convenient it is to shop for their groceries online, we expect many will continue to take advantage of the option.

How are food brands dealing with this change in consumer behavior? How are food marketers reaching their audiences in this era of e-commerce? Digging deeper into the ample data that e-commerce affords, brands are evolving their marketing strategies along with their audiences.

For example, the days of luring new customers via appetizing in-store samples are gone. Instead, companies are creating sample packs for online customers that bundle several complimentary products. For instance, if you order a brand’s lobster ravioli, you may find yourself with a free sample of their tomato sauce or garlic bread.

In addition, marketers are finding ways to simulate the experience of perusing the store shelves by building digital shelves. Much in the way that in-store shoppers would stumble upon a new and interesting product, websites and apps show customers new products that data suggests they will find intriguing.

Food brands are also partnering with popular e-commerce meal kits. Brands are including samples and coupons in shipments, which allow them to increase exposure to customers who have already demonstrated an openness to the specific cuisine. While partnerships can be mutually beneficial, there are legal considerations to keep in mind. For example, the meal kit company and food brand will need partnership agreements and structures in place to enable the equitable allocation of risks and rewards.

Of course, marketing budgets have also shifted to digital markets. Dollars are being reallocated to increase digital, social, and media marketing outreach, particularly to targeted audiences. Brands are honing their social listening to better understand consumers and adjust their marketing messages and social media investments, including through the engagement of social influencers. Similarly, the relationship between a brand and its influencers requires proper legal memorialization in order to protect both parties.

As shoppers continue to navigate apps instead of aisles, food brands will have to lean into innovative ways to publicize their products. Focusing on strategies that attract both in-person and virtual shoppers will require creativity, but those who adapt, listen, and react to their audiences will be well rewarded.

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Marissa B. Wiley


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