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The Price of Emotional Connection for Grocery Stores


The traditional, regional U.S. grocery store—it's the institution that has fed communities for decades and families for generations. It offers that connection to a simpler time, a time when the guy behind the meat counter would know Customers by name, a time when a dad pushed his child around in a shopping cart while they "helped" him shop and a time before mobile phones invaded our lives and sped up the pace of life…

That place—the traditional grocery store—has history. Customers and the people who work there are part of a family. That kind of emotional connection is priceless.

If this is true, then why does Aldi—which borrows a quarter per shopping cart and operates with a small crew that arranges shelves while taking care of customers—have a stronger emotional connection with shoppers than 90% of its competitors?

Yes, that's right. Aldi, known for its cost cutting and low prices, has– an emotional connection that is stronger than nine out of 10 traditional grocery stores.

Traditional grocers may take for granted that they have an advantage over non-traditional channels in the strength of their emotional connection with shoppers, but that doesn't appear to be the case at all. So just how bad is it for traditional grocers?

The inconvenient truth is that the average traditional grocery store has a lower emotional connection with its shopper than the average store in any other major channel where groceries are sold. While traditional grocers have been focused on selling groceries to the same towns for decades, non-traditional grocers have been able to move into those towns and secure a stronger emotional connection in far less time.

How? Well, it appears that emotional connection does have a price, after all. In fact, price perception is slightly more associated with emotional connection than perception of the quality of products and store experience:

And, whereas traditional grocers have managed to hold their own on quality perceptions, they lose on price perception.

So, where does the traditional grocer start if they want to win back the hearts of their local constituents? After all, there are many levers they can pull within pricing, assortment, and store experience to move perceptions. A close look at data from our 2019 Retailer Preference Index: Grocery Channel Edition offers some hints. Stores who have the strongest emotional connection separate themselves from the pack with the following:

  • Private brands that customers love
  • Leading prices on natural and organic items
  • Fast checkout
  • Staff who show they value shoppers

Translated into language customers might use, that means:

  • Have products I can't get anywhere else, at competitive prices
  • Make healthy food affordable
  • Don't waste my time
  • Treat me like a person

Of the 56 retailers ranked by emotional connection, 24 of the bottom 25 are traditional retailers. And while Aldi, ranked 17th for emotional connection, has been used as a stark example to illustrate traditional grocers' emotional connection issue, many other non-traditional stores have a stronger emotional connection with their shoppers than Aldi does with theirs.

However, 3 traditional grocery stores buck the trend and join non-traditional retailers in the top 10: Market Basket (4th), H-E-B (5th) and Publix (6th). They each check more than one of the boxes on the core ingredients of emotional connection.

These retailers, more than any other traditional, regional grocer, have established with their emotional connection an insurance policy for an uncertain grocery industry future. And the prevalence of non-traditional grocers with superior emotional connection proves the point that this insurance policy is more a product of "what have you done for me lately" than a product of consumer nostalgia. Non-traditional grocers are buying emotional connection with better prices while delivering on some combination of a superior private label, offering the best natural and organic prices and having staff who show they value customers.

white and blue magnetic card

Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash

Most companies attempting to drive customer loyalty fail miserably—and few so-called customer-centric companies generate sustainable customer loyalty that drives measurable business results. Why? Because they get three key principles completely wrong, right from the start:

  1. Loyalty is about the company acting loyally to its customers, not vice versa.
  2. It is about a loyalty approach, not a loyalty program.
  3. Loyalty is about the store, not only about the CRM.
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[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at].

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At the beginning of September – three months on from the previous wave and with supply chains stable and the changing nature of lockdowns – we wanted to revisit the Customer Pulse to see what, if anything, had changed. Below are some of the standout findings from this fourth tranche of research.

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In the decade since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness was published, nudge theory has enjoyed unprecedented success.

Predicated on the idea that individuals respond better to indirect suggestion than outright commands, nudge theory is commonly used as a way of subtly influencing our behaviour towards positive choices. The idea has gained such traction, in fact, that many governments around the world have created "nudge units" in a bid to tackle thorny issues like obesity and the climate emergency.

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Essential to preserving contact data is ensuring that you have the most up-to-date information from your Customers; not an easy task. On average, people in the United States will move an average of 12 times in their lifetime. United States Postal Service data indicates 14% of the population change addresses annually. As email contact has grown, it's important to note that, on average, 30% of people change their email addresses each year. This is driven by ISP or job changes, or just to stop being spammed. As people move away from home phones to primarily mobile devices, phone numbers are stabilizing as consumers maintain the same numbers through physical moves.

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Retail leaders must objectively understand how their business currently considers Customers before trying to set a more Customer-centric direction and focus. There are some formal assessment methodologies, like dunnhumby's Retail Preference Index (RPI) and Customer Centricity Assessment (CCA), which offer detailed evaluations of a business' capabilities, strengths and weaknesses based on Customer perceptions (RPI) or global best practices (CCA).

The approach outlined below is not intended to replace these formal tools; rather, these observations are intended as a kind of 'toe in the water' to help retail leaders form early hypotheses and points of views. These are rules of thumb, heuristics culled from global experience. Later, leaders might use these observations to informally check progress from time to time as a way of assessing whether the "program in the stores matches the program in our heads".

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In the first episode of Customer First Radio, Dave Clements, Global Head of Retail for dunnhumbyand David Ciancio, Global Head of Grocery for dunnhumby kick off the series by discussing what it means to be a truly Customer First business, share which retailers and brands today embody a Customer First mindset, and examine how Customer First materialized during the pandemic with retailers.