As the world emerges, haltingly from COVID-19, new challenges emerge. In this feature, New Hope Network provides an ongoing update on those challenges and the opportunities they hold. Look for the Industry Health Monitor every other Friday to learn the major news that is affecting the natural products market immediately and the less obvious insights that could dictate where the market may struggle or thrive in the months to come.
To say the world has changed in the now nearly two years since COVID-19 marched through the headlines and into almost every aspect of our lives is not to risk understatement but to commit understatement in the most blatant way imaginable.
Ironically, however, it’s also possible not to overstate that change but to miss the parts that didn’t change, or changed in ways that don’t fit as neatly into the “it’s all COVID, all the time” storyline.
We see that in the results of a survey from New Hope’s NEXT Data and Insights team that asked consumers about their grocery shopping experience and expectations. While the questions were framed in a before/after COVID-19 framework, the things that mattered more now compared to 2019 don’t appear nearly as actionable or relevant to retailers as the stark difference between responses from natural and non-natural shoppers.
Yes, the world has changed, and significantly so, but the primary takeaway up and down the questions in this survey is that natural shoppers have higher expectations of their shopping experience, and not just higher but much higher. To be clear, consumers self-identifying as natural-channel shoppers represent just 25% of the sample size, but the percentage of such respondents who called the different aspects of the grocery store experience being more important across was three or more times what was seen with the non-natural channel shoppers in everything but quick checkout.
They put more value on COVID-19 safety measures but they are also profoundly more likely to want grab-and-go food, a staffed deli counter, curbside pickup, knowledgeable staff and even product sampling stations.
Much of this probably doesn’t come as a surprise, especially to natural retailers who are fully aware that their shoppers expect more, but the fact that consumers in the survey are calling these features and services more important now than in 2019 speaks to how even the most basic services and features can be tinted by a COVID-19 lens.
What retailers can do with this information is, of course, hampered by the labor situation. Across virtually every industry and corner of commerce, hiring and employee retention have become a challenge. That shoppers expect excellent service is a given. How to meet those expectations with limited staff is a question that needs to be asked and examined over and over again.
The only short answer is to get creative. Store owners need to think about where and how better signage can step in additional scaffolding. They can think about digital experiences that can happen in the store or via social media. They can play with variations on the self-sampling station that both fit with the cautions of the COVID-19 age but also inspire product discovery and add to the shopping experience. Prepared grab-and-go food is only one of many features or services in the survey that was called more important by a far greater percentage of natural shoppers, but the profit potential likely makes it a good place to deploy resources.
The upside of all of this is that these lessons and the answers and actions that come from them will have a life that far outlasts COVID-19. Clearly, natural channel shoppers have higher expectations for stores and figuring out how to meet them with a lean staff could build strategies that will continue to serve retailers when life returns to something that at least begins to resemble normal.
Of course, the world has changed in these last too-many months. When it changes back, natural retailers should be more ready than ever to meet the demands of a demanding consumer.
Note: The referenced survey was fielded the week of October 11 to 1,000 consumers directionally representative of the U.S. adult population and weighted for age, gender and region by New Hope Network NEXT Data and Insights team.