Natural Foods Merchandiser
grocery delivery advice

Weigh In: Should I get in on the delivery game? OK, how?

Two retail consultants and one forward-thinking retail CEO offer their best advice.

From the nation's largest supermarket chains to longstanding mom-and-pop shops, brick and mortars big and small are rapidly embracing online order and delivery. Should you? Do you even have a choice if everyone else is doing it? What kind of program might benefit your customers, and your bottom line, the most? There are many factors to consider here and myriad options to explore, from partnering with a third-party delivery service like Instacart to setting up your own click-and-collect program. We asked two retail consultants and one forward-thinking retail CEO for their best advice.

Digital retail consultant: Bill Bishop,  cofounder and chief architect of Brick Meets Click based in Barrington, Illinois

Consider drop ship first. I think it's smart for independent retailers to offer some kind of online-ordering program if they can, given that so many customers now want to do at least some buying this way. It could be simply setting up a drop-ship arrangement, which is kind of like creating an endless aisle for your store without having to tackle the whole website, ordering and delivery deal on your own. Distributors like UNFI have well-developed drop-ship programs that small stores can use.

Vet potential partners carefully. There are maybe two dozen grocery-ordering platforms and delivery services out there. First, whittle down the list to those that have an appetite for working with small retailers. Second, determine whether the service a company provides would benefit your customers. Look at the offer in terms of what shoppers will have to do. And will it give them what you know they want? Learn what will be required of you labor- and cost-wise. Is it all worth it? Lastly, run sample orders to make sure this is the kind of business you want to work with.

At least embrace digital marketing. It may not be necessary or feasible for every independent natural retailer to offer online ordering and delivery, but you have got  to begin moving aggressively toward digital marketing. This is imperative. A good store website is always important, but your first step should be setting up a program to collect shoppers' emails. That way, you can market to your best customers one-on-one instead of to a mass audience. 

Retailer: Suzy Monford, CEO of Andronicos Community Markets, a five-store chain in Northern California

Don’t hesitate.  Given the really exciting growth that virtual has enabled, the question is not "Should I?" It is "Why haven't I yet?" You cannot survive being only brick and mortar no matter what industry you are in. Virtual shopping will never replace people wanting to go to actual stores and shop with all five senses. Food retail is still about showing up and running great stores, but customers also want the convenience of online, so you need to embrace both.

Get a delivery partner. We are small, so there was no need to invest in our own infrastructure, online ordering capabilities and transport when we could partner with Instacart.  They are first and best in class and have an easy-to-use online portal, so this was a natural fit. We launched our partnership in summer 2015, and a few months ago we became the first California retailer to work with Instacart to do pickup. Instacart is not in every market, but there are other companies you may want to look into. This could be the fastest way to leverage your current brick-and-mortar business and build sales.

Leave it to the geeks.  You need a state-of-the-art website and mobile app if you are going to do any volume in this business, and it has never been easier or more cost effective to have a very smart digital online presence. But remember: You want to be the best merchant, not the best tech company. Tech is the tool, not the reason we do this. So do not try to re-create the wheel tech-wise. There are so many companies that provide these tools and templates for you, and they do what they do really well.

Natural products industry consultant: Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights in Brattleboro, Vermont

Consider click-and-pick up. This model, in which customers shop online and pick up orders at the store, may be more realistic for smaller-scale retailers. Delivery, with all of its costs and infrastructure, is an entirely different animal. But you probably already have a decent website and enough staff to select products and stage orders to make a click-and-pick up program work. If you are struggling with stagnant traffic counts, this can be a great option to offer your customers while also helping you utilize your workforce more efficiently.

Move impulse buys online. Yes, online ordering and delivery precludes impulse buying in-store, and that is a downside. You lose the serendipity of customers bumping into an endcap and purchasing products on a whim. But there are many ways to promote impulse buying online, so losing these sales inside your store is not a good reason to resist trying this out. If you develop a successful online program, the net gain is customers will think of you when they do have discretionary time to go to a store.

Be strategic and organized. A click-and-pick up program may require less investment than delivery, but it certainly isn't zero investment. You still need to allocate staff and space, particularly refrigerated space, and be able to maintain quality so orders are picked up in premium condition. There are skills involved in implementing a pick-up service, and you need to be very organized in order to pull it off successfully. Even a great program will have growing pains from a facilities perspective, so just be prepared for that.

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