As intrepid consumers have shopped for groceries in-store and online during this COVID-19 pandemic, they have not been shy about providing their feedback when given the opportunity. Between working with supermarkets throughout the U.S. and conducting our own national research, we have monitored thousands of grocery shopping experiences over the past eight weeks to glean insights on pandemic implications. We’ve heard about positive and negative experiences, of the joys and frustrations in the pursuit of putting food on a kitchen table that’s gotten way more use than ever before.

Here are two illustrative comments that capture the essence of the recent grocery shopping experience:

“My heart goes out to EVERY worker on the front lines during the corona virus….The staff was very nice! Store was well stocked and everyone was working their butts off keeping the store safe. Very impressive. The only thing I couldn’t get was Toilet paper…no big deal, I had some at home.”

“Thank you for having this delivery service, especially during this uncertain time. I am “high-risk” for this virus so I’m staying home. I was surprised how many items wound up being out of stock, but I do appreciate the employee calling me to go over substitution options. Also I’m not sure if the prices seemed higher than when I shop at the store, plus there’s the delivery fee.”

Essentially shoppers are saying to grocers, thanks for being there and working hard, for thinking of our safety. Your friendliness and compassion are noticed and appreciated. The experience wasn’t totally smooth, but that’s OK given the circumstances.

With this shift in shopper perspective, our research shows that overall supermarket satisfaction and advocacy (NPS) ratings have generally remained intact, or at least moved back toward pre-pandemic levels. And that’s good news. It’s a hard-earned and well-deserved headline for grocers and their employees who have largely been the backbone of our quarantined existence during this crisis, operating physical stores and digital storefronts, keeping warehouses running and ensuring that deliveries are made.

But we all know this period of reduced consumer expectations and a grateful and forgiving mindset will soon give way to higher standards and a more resolute desire for satisfying in-store and online experiences. In all the feedback we are reviewing, we are seeing some broad implications for grocery retailers as we move into a post COVID-19 environment.

The In-Store Experience: Food Shopping Redesigned

Two elements of grocery shopping have always played naturally to brick and mortar stores: the sensory aspect of shopping for food; and the potential for human interaction to elevate the experience. Retailers will need to re-think both of these.

From the feedback we have seen, It’s clear that grocery shoppers will want to continue minimizing physical contact for their own safety and to protect others. Supermarkets have accommodated this desire from the outset of their Coronavirus response by closing self-service stations, salad bars and hot food areas. Early results from our national study indicate that shoppers believe these measures are among the most highly effective in ensuring their safety. Discontinuing product demonstrations is another step that most shoppers perceive as effective.

But these kinds of actions, while increasing customer and employee safety, limit a grocer’s ability to make food come alive in its stores. For example RFG’s consumer research has suggested that availability of product for customers to taste is highly correlated with their perception of the retailer’s food expertise. And in turn, our data show that perceived food expertise leads to heightened customer loyalty to that store. Even more basic is the example I frequently use to contrast an in-store experience with buying food digitally: the wondrous odor of fresh citrus fruits. (Try smelling that from your screen when shopping online.) So stores will need to design new ways to make food the star of the show while also minimizing the safety risks of shoppers physically interacting with product.

The co-stars at the grocery store are its people. Indeed during this pandemic, we have heard countless customer stories about service that delightfully exceeds expectations and brightens an otherwise dark day. RFG’s research has consistently shown that having a pleasant interaction with employees is a significant differentiator between a good shopping experience and a great one. Will masks and plexiglass and physical distancing detract from the human warmth that shoppers crave?

New social norms and/or operating mandates will challenge retailers to find ways for employees to consistently demonstrate great service. Operationally, what are the new standards? Considering one example, the prevailing best practice when a customer asks where to find an item has been to accompany them to it. Going forward this may not be either welcomed or prudent. So will grocers go back to simply telling the shopper it’s in Aisle 9?

The Online Experience: Better Data; Alignment of Technology and People

For online grocery shopping, which already was growing at a much faster rate than the sector in general, our forthcoming research results confirm that the pandemic has been a true tipping point for consumers. The rising eCommerce tide has thus far helped lift all grocery boats equipped with online shopping capabilities. These days, if I see retailer X has orange juice and fresh broccoli and baking flour available online, I jump on it. However, as consumers shift back toward a more informed decision of which online grocery service to use, retailers will need to compete in this segment just as they have against the physical stores in their market.

One critical capability that needs to be refined is real-time inventory data. We have seen countless survey comments just like this one:

“I am complaining because I put an order online and paid for it already. This should guarantee my purchase of the products. But 3 items didn’t arrive, because other customers bought them in the meantime I guess.”

Instacart and other eCommerce platforms try to address the inventory syncing problem by having in-store shoppers pick the product and contact the customer with alternate options for out-of-stocks. But that’s a band-aid. It doesn’t address the root disconnect between items available online and actual product on the shelf or in the warehouse. And at the end of the day, it’s not effective. In our current online grocery experience study, almost half of the respondents still wound up needing something they had originally ordered, even if a substitute was provided. Compare that to 2019, where 92% received everything they ordered (including acceptable substitutions). That’s an astounding difference, and it’s certainly due to the supply chain challenges that all grocers have faced, and customers have mostly understood. But the patience will wear thin, and soon.

This leads into our last observation about online grocery and the customer experience. Perhaps terms like “online grocery” or “eCommerce” are misnomers because they overlook the importance of human beings at various points in the process. For example, a person (or team of humans) designs the user interface for an online ordering platform. From what I have seen in the past several weeks of trying new providers, some UIs are much more intuitive than others. This is corroborated by our latest survey results: nearly 20% of respondents reported difficulty navigating through the site/app to locate the items they wanted. My guess is that developers who actually go grocery shopping have a hand in building the better sites.

Or consider my recent order with Amazon Fresh. I’m a fan of their site functionality, their Prime benefits tie-in, and the integration of my Whole Foods in-store purchases with my online orders. And I was impressed when I received an email at 6:30 AM saying my order was out for delivery in my pre-selected 7-9AM window. Not to worry, Amazon said, because they wouldn’t disturb me, they’d just leave the order outside and be on their way. Great! But not even Amazon can use their artificial intelligence to control everything. When the delivery driver brought up my items from the Amazon Fresh truck, at 7:01 like clockwork, he promptly rang the doorbell. The kids woke up, the dog was barking, and my morning was not so great.

When there’s a human being involved anywhere in the process, their skills and actions have to be fully aligned with the technology. To my knowledge, there’s no such thing as artificial empathy.

Written by Doug Madenberg, Principal, The Feedback Group