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How & Why Covid-19 is Transforming Supermarket Shopping

Before Covid-19, 60% of grocery purchases were Grab & Go, 40% of shoppers actively considered alternative products at shelf, and Impulse purchasing accounted for as much as 35% of all purchases

Supermarket shopping has changed, and that has significant implications for retailers and brands going forwards.

Before Covid-19, there were 3 statistics that were consistent across much of grocery shopping:

  • 60% of grocery purchases were Grab & Go (System 1)
  • 40% of the footfall would actively consider between different items at shelf (System 2)
  • Impulse purchasing accounted for as much as 35% of all purchases

Pre Covid-19, the majority of grocery shopping was handled by System 1 in our brains. System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

For reference, the other mental process is known as System 2. It allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including calculating added value from special offers in-store. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of choice and reasoning.

What is System 1 shopping?

The Definition of a System 1, Grab & Go shopper is of a person that isn’t so much shopping, more they are simply replenishing. They select products out of habit and by using sub-conscious prompts and triggers. Once a product is a habit-locked purchase, you need serious disruption to change behaviour: Out of stock is the perfect interruption!

So much more to shopping nowadays

The current changes in-store, including social distancing measures and a much more controlled route through the aisles have actually reduced shopper interruptions. A trip to the supermarket is no longer any form of relaxing experience, it has become a stressful and anger/fear inducing mission that must be completed with military precision.

As a result, there is more pre-planning, more of us using shopping lists and we adhere more to what is written on our list. New research indicates that shoppers are now actually rewriting lists bearing in mind the locations of items in-store so that they don’t miss any of the items they require: Something that would require them to retrace their steps or go back and start again. Activities that would be frowned on by other shoppers, so breaking any hard-wired sense of social conformity.

With the pressure to be a more efficient shopper, to ‘keep moving along’ and to be more aware of not alienating other shoppers, we are making the shopping trip a lot more stressful and cognitively taxing. We are expending much more mental energy doing the big weekly shop (back in favour as reported by Tesco’s Dave Lewis). We are concentrating more in-store and as a result have become more System 2 reliant shoppers, but…

The result of this change in shopping behaviour has rendered many traditional in-store activities and interventions much less effective. Gondola end displays that encouraged us to stop and consider a previously unplanned purchase are ignored for fear of holding up other shoppers.

Gondola end appeal is changing

Impulse displays that tempt us with impulsive add-ons are ignored as we remain deeply focused on our big shop mission. Those special offers that would stop us in our tracks as we tried to calculate the added value, are less effective because we feel less inclined to stop and do some maths.

Even the well-respected category layout based on good, better, best, shouldn’t be overlooked. What used to be all about giving certain brands and sub-categories optimal visibility on shelf and perhaps making some less favourable products a bit less visible at the same time, has changed.

I think it is time to consider the ramifications of this new form of shopping. Because if we don’t, and just reopen stores with social distancing, some categories are going to be in the wrong places. And some may serve little or no purpose at all: Food to go for example, as so many more of us are working from home. And Well done to Morrisons who are already addressing this specific issue with their ‘speedy shopper’ system for food-to-go customers.

Morrisons is already addressing changing shopper needs

Having studied shoppers and shopping for more than 20 years, I am seeing a disconnect at present. Grocery retail has responded amazingly to the Covid-19 crisis, demonstrating just how superb the supply chain is. They have kept the nation fed and watered and have shown an astonishing ability to adapt and change.

Shoppers on the other hand are human beings, hard-wired with lots of evolutionary baggage. As a species we are creatures of habit and like familiarity. Most of us were proficient at doing the grocery shop with a minimal of mental effort. Our System 1 brain processes helped us buy our provisions, and perhaps a few treats too, as easily as riding a bike.

But the implications of Covid-19 have meant that the supermarkets have taken away our bikes and given us all Unicycles: Vaguely similar machines, but totally alien for our brains to use. We’re all having to train our brains for the new shopping normal. For the foreseeable future, bicycles aren’t going to be allowed, and frankly unicycles are ruddy hard to learn. So, what we need are some grocery shopping stabilisers. Initiatives to help us shop more easily.

Switching from bicycle to unicycle isn't easy

Until we learn to easily shop supermarkets for our new needs, or online shopping dramatically increases capacity, I am pretty certain about one thing:

"Giving us the same bicycle friendly supermarkets we had before Covid-19 in a time when bicycles are no longer allowed isn’t the best way forward."
The supermarket of the future

In summary, shopping has changed. It has become more efficient and needs based, traditional ways of engaging with us and tempting us to buy more stuff need to be re-thought. We used to shop for groceries mainly using our System 1 mental processes, but now it is much, much more System 2 oriented; Much more effortful. With that in mind:

  • What does the new customer journey look like for big shop shoppers and those on top up missions?
  • How well does the store help us buy our new purchasing repertoires as a result of Covid-19?
  • How does the typical supermarket layout, optimised for System 1 shopping, meet the needs of System 2 shopping?

During the lock-down, we have been working on ‘Supermarket of the Future’. Based on how that lock-down has and will continue to change behaviour. Each day, we identify more, psychology related design insights as to how the store of the future should be designed, for example:

Queuing: Managing queues in retail is both necessary and potentially advantageous. Understanding the psychology of a queue allows you to a) Communicate with shoppers much more effectively, and b) Significantly reduce their perceived queuing time by preoccupying them with communication.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has provided us with new queues (inside and outside of the store. How do we optimise this for shoppers, the retailers and the brands they sell?

Physical contact: Shoppers no longer want to come into contact with potentially germ laden aspects in-store. With that in mind, what is the role of and how best do we merchandise unpacked fresh produce, unpackaged bakery items and even the pick ‘n’ mix?

From a shopper needs perspective, we hypothesize that shoppers need a packaged alternative right next to the unpacked product in every case, so they can choose. Unpacked sprouts right next to packaged sprouts, loose bread tolls directly next to packaged rolls and bagged sweets in the same place as pick ‘n’ mix

Checkouts: Back in the days of Piggly Wiggly, one of the supermarket pioneers of the 1930s, the aisles between checkouts were deliberately narrow, so that staff could more easily see it customers were stealing from them. But today, these same narrow walkways force shoppers to be uncomfortably close to checkout staff.

When you start to look at a new supermarket design with 2-metre social distancing in mind, quite a bit could be improved.

Let’s talk

We are looking to have conversations with store designers and developers, category managers and anyone with an active interest in shopper psychology. Our aim is to simply compare notes and share insights. So, if you’d like to discuss supermarkets and C-store design, that incorporates how shoppers have changed, behaviourally and psychologically, then please reach out.

Interested in talking about shoppers and shopping? DM me, email me. I'd love to talk 🙏

About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out www.adcocksolutions.com, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

If you think there is value in this article then please, please share it, thank you.

Phillip Adcock
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

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