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Grocery retailers can employ a countless number of tactics to compete in today's dynamic market. The issue is not the ability to do many different things at once, which retailers are often good at, but resources are finite. It's important to determine the right strategies to prioritize investments and which tactics they should stop entirely.

Many organizations, not just in retail, struggle to focus resources and attention on the areas that are most important to the health of the business. This often results in organizations chasing too many priorities, with few areas receiving the attention required to make meaningful improvements. Retailers that cannot markedly improve the business in areas that drive value perceptions and visits will find it difficult to navigate an increasingly fragmented and competitive market. The issue is further exacerbated by thin profit margins and scarce resources that require an even more thoughtful and strategic allocation of resources.

At the root of the problem is the inability to systematically assess and diagnose key issues across the business. Without the right data, systems, and processes, coupled with silos and day-to-day demands, diagnosing key macro issues is quite difficult. As a result, few organizations spend the resources or time needed to carefully align their strengths and weaknesses with the demands of Customers, competitors, and technology.



Artwork courtesy of Roger Penwill

The inability to confidently diagnose also leads to a largely internal focus and a planning process that centers on marginally adjusting next year's spend, hoping next year will be better.

Over time, this internal focus can result in a disconnect with Customers and too much influence from external organizations with conflicted priorities. This Customer disconnect causes a misalignment between the evolving Customer needs and the retailer's value proposition, which opens the door for competitors and new market entrants. This was the case with Walmart, Trader Joe's, and Costco who have all significantly expanded their market share over the last 20 years at the expense of traditional supermarkets. Ironically, this also happened with discounters in the U.K, who now control over 12% of the grocery market.

If a retailer can confidently diagnose key issues and identify opportunities, knowing that performance will improve, they would be more confident reallocating available resources. More importantly, they will have the knowledge and information to scale back in areas less important to the health of the business.

"The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." Michael Porter – What is Strategy, HBR 1996

However, reducing or reallocating resources is difficult for most organizations. Relationships, culture, and legacy are baked into many systems, processes, and activities that are simply disconnected from the Customer and the overall performance of the business.

For example, many inwardly-focused traditional grocers failed to recognize the shift in the consumer and the market in the post-recession period. Looking at gross margins in the post-recession period, industry-wide gross margin as a percent of sales fell from 28.9% in 2007 to 26.7% in 2014.

U.S. Grocery Margin as Percent of Sales

Yet, other traditional retailers continued to incrementally increase their gross margins as they did in the pre-recession period, which may have helped them hit their short-term financial goals but damaged their long-term value perception. By 2006, Costco, Walmart and Trader Joe's had expanded into many markets and leveraged their strong value proposition in the post-recession period to steal significant share from supermarkets.

If traditional grocers diligently monitored the external market, changing Customer needs and diagnosed key issues, they might have responded by aggressively cutting back on expenses and investments. Consequently, they might have better managed the price perception gap and share loss over the long-term, rather than having to close stores today.

For example, a major retailer had a 2-percentage point gap in gross margin during the pre-recession market period and today it is over 5-percentage points. The premium price gap begins to reach a point where some retailers are simply no longer price competitive. Our research has shown that this lack of price competitiveness erodes not only financials, but also the emotional connection which used to be a strength for many regional grocers. Once the emotional connection starts to fade, it becomes increasingly difficult to win Customers and their wallets back.

So, how can retailers improve the ability to consistently identify key issues and take advantage of opportunities? It starts with a combination of people, process and data analysis to build the evidence-backed business case that can be used to develop a consensus across departments and alignment throughout the company. Depending on internal resources, this can include enlisting a partner like dunnhumby to help connect all available data sources, like Customer information from transactional data, market research, and online sources. In our upcoming Strategy posts, we'll look at strategic frameworks and other requirements to isolate key business issues and identify new and important opportunities.


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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 David.Ciancio@dunnhumby.com].

Treating Customers differently based on their 'profitability' is counter-productive to building loyalty and toward creating a healthy retail Customer Experience.


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Memories of panic buying may be fading here in the UK but have resurfaced elsewhere1. The near constant threat of another wave of Covid-19 may yet prompt another round of hyper demand. Whilst there is little hard evidence to determine the underlying drivers of panic buying2, there are numerous theories that the retail industry may benefit from exploring.

Feroud Seeparsand, dunnhumby's Senior Consumer Psychologist, outlines some likely theories to explain the 'why' behind the 'panic buy' and some implications for retailers to prevent it reoccurring in future.

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In a series of posts published earlier this year, we covered the results of the dunnhumby Customer Pulse – a global study designed to explore changing consumer mindsets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over three waves, conducted between March and the end of May, we polled thousands of people from more than 20 countries on subjects including supermarkets' responses to the outbreak, the economic outlook, and how their shopping behaviour had changed due to COVID.

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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Are you looking to increase your contactable Customer base? How much money are you losing on incorrectly identified Customer communications? Throughout our 30 years of big data experience working with clients across industries around the globe, we have found that maintaining contact through relevant Customer engagement is a crucial component of putting the Customer First.

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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It's a well-worn phrase by now, but it's true that the COVID-19 crisis has drastically altered the global retail landscape. Here in the Asia-Pacific region, a majority of markets are now looking past the panic of the first wave and towards the future. In this series of articles, we'll explore how grocery retailers must adapt to a more omnichannel reality to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

The new wave of online grocery customers

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis we've seen the sharp rise and fall of many trends. As countries veered from one phase of the pandemic to the next, we've seen everything from panic-buying and stockpiling, to a booming demand for hygiene products. While some of these trends have stuck, the resumption of a more 'normal' life in many parts of the Asia-Pacific have seen others tail off.

One trend which is set to stay is in eCommerce, particularly within grocery. Lockdown drove a surge to online grocers the likes of which we have never seen – and it seems customers have been convinced by the online experience. According to multiple recent studies[1] China's grocery eCommerce market, already a booming sector with 29% growth last year, is now tipped to grow by 60% this year as the coronavirus has driven whole new segments of customers to the online grocery market. The trend is also sustaining; the main growth driver in JD.com's record-breaking '618' event this year was grocery, with sales almost doubling[2].

While general retail has been building momentum online for some years, grocery has been something of a laggard, rarely accounting for more than 15% of the overall grocery market. Historically the major barrier to entry to online grocery has been trust – over 50% of customers do not trust online grocery deliveries to pick the freshest and best items[3]. For years this has been a catch-22 scenario for retailers: customers don't trust the quality of online grocery because they haven't tried it, but they won't try online grocery because they don't trust the quality.

COVID-19 has caused a new wave of customers to finally take a leap of faith into digital grocery. Retailers can be happy that they've won new customers online, but now comes the hard work of retaining them.

The need for Customer Infrastructure

Much has been made of retailers' attempts to keep up with surging online demand during the early phases of the pandemic. Even in globally advanced eCommerce markets like the UK, the lead retailer has had to significantly expand delivery capacity to keep up with demand[4]. In order to meet the needs of new customers, retailers have rightly focused on having the right physical infrastructure in place.

However, if retailers want to keep meeting the needs of customers, they'll now need to focus on a different kind of infrastructure - the online customer experience.

The ease of shopping online is a double-edged sword for retailers. If customers can shop online with one retailer, they can shop online with any retailer. Your competitor store is no longer 1 kilometre away, it is one click away. Customers can literally browse competitor shop windows while they are in your store, and for countless retailers in the Asia-Pac region where online sales have historically been low, their digital stores may be looking rather outdated.

So while you may have won new customers, the fight to keep them is much more challenging.

Getting the digital experience right

The principles of great customer experience online are the same as instore. It's about helping customers easily find what they want. It's about helping customers feel they've got a good deal. It's about having a well-laid out store. Fundamentally, a great digital experience is about putting customers first and responding to their needs. Thankfully, the nature of eCommerce makes it possible to know these needs in detail through the wealth of data available to retailers. The data you're likely already collecting will tell you everything required to build a better overall and individual shopping experience for each customer who shops online.

Here are 3 ways retailers can act now to build a winning customer experience online:

  1. Bring the offline online
    Your customers may be new online, but many of them will be existing offline shoppers. Their loyalty card history enables you to show them items they already buy. Better still, predictive data science can detect which of those items are staple and regular purchases that each customer might need right now – helping them quickly and efficiently build a basket based on their own personal behaviour. This knowledge can also help act as an online virtual assistant, helping customers find substitutes for out of stock products and prompting them with items they may have forgotten to add at the checkout.
  2. Make it easy to find value
    In a world where customers can price compare at the flick of a tab, maintaining price perception is vital. This is easier said than done online, as customers won't spend time browsing the 500 products you have on special that week. Instead, use relevancy algorithms to curate your promotions list at the customer level using their previous behaviour, and show each customer the offers that actually matter to them.
  3. Optimise the navigation
    Newer online customers tend to use online search and taxonomy functions much more than experienced online shoppers. If your online category flow is unclear, difficult to interpret or poorly arranged, shoppers will have a harder and more frustrating experience. Equally, if their searches lead to incorrect or blank results, customers will quickly lose patience. Site analytics data in the hands of an expert is a goldmine for optimising the online navigation – from naming and arranging categories in a strong taxonomy to eliminating poor-performing searches.

Retailers in Asia have a limited window of time to win the continued business of new online customers. As these customers become more familiar with the experience, the greater will be their demands and their likelihood to look elsewhere when their experience is sub-optimal.

At dunnhumby, we've been advising grocery retailers on digital best practise for over 10 years, led by 30+ years of leading experience in data science and we have developed a range of products for retailers to deliver exactly these kinds of industry-leading customer experience online, powered by retail data.

In the next part of our series on the post-COVID landscape in Asia-Pacific, we'll explore the diverging needs of customers in the wake of the pandemic, and how omnichannel personalisation can help retailers meet those needs efficiently and effectively.

[1] E-commerce drives China's stay-at-home economy in coronavirus aftermath & China's online grocery sector set for explosive growth, says GlobalData

[2] Chinese shoppers are staying online. That's great news for JD.com

[3] Study cites barriers to online grocery shopping

[4] Tesco Delivers One Million Online Orders In A Week In The UK

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In my last post, I posed five questions to retailers to help them determine whether they're ready for a customer-first mindset. Now, I'd like to challenge the retail basics that seasoned retailers were trained on, and suggest instead a new customer data science approach.

"Retail is detail" is common industry wisdom, and it means that achieving success is subtle and difficult. Success in any field demands practice and experience, and so it is little wonder that many senior retail and brand leaders and managers have vast years of involvement, and that most have grown up through the business in progressive steps.

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