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  • Gary Hawkins

Opportunity Lost

I have spent many years of my life as a retailer so I hopefully have more empathy than most for what retailers are going through during the pandemic. But we are now over a month into the COVID crisis and too many retailers are failing to provide the experiences needed to retain customers as we come out the other side.

Case in point: I placed an order through Ralphs (Kroger) on April 7 and was told the first delivery window was Sunday, April 12, Easter. Finding this curious, I confirmed the store would be open and Instacart shoppers (Ralphs uses Instacart for delivery) would be working. All was fine until late Saturday night, April 11, I received the attached text from Instacart telling me my order was cancelled. That was it. No offer to reschedule. Nothing. And nothing from Ralphs. No message, no offer to reschedule. Just cancelled. Happy Easter! Better luck next time.

Another example: My daughter, who lives nearby, placed an order through Ralph’s, again using Instacart for delivery. The order was to be delivered Tuesday, April 14. Instead, my daughter found her groceries left outside the garage door, having been dropped there late the night of April 10th, days before they were supposed to arrive. No communication, no notice from Ralphs or Instacart. And, the order contained fresh meat and frozen foods. Surprise!

Now clearly both of these examples lay responsibility at the feet of Instacart. Instacart has quickly hired thousands of shoppers as it tries to staff up, and no surprise that training has suffered. But, ultimately it is the retailer that will bear the blame. In both cases, the order was placed through Ralph’s site (not via Instacart) so Ralph’s was the merchant, Instacart simply the delivery.

Now let’s turn to Meijer and ShopRite. An article from Path to Purchase Institute on April 7 explains that both retailers announced that online shoppers will have to wait ‘in line’ to shop online. Waiting in line at the physical store is not bad enough, now we have to wait our turn online. Shoppers at these retailers are directed to a ‘waiting room’ until it’s their turn, and then they have only 15 min to shop. Take a minute longer and you’re kicked out. That’s certainly friendly customer service.

Really retailers? In this world of cloud-based web services, and the ability to instantly scale online capabilities, you cannot scale your websites to handle the traffic and instead put your shoppers into a virtual waiting line? And then give them only 15 min to shop, when the user experience you provide leaves much to be desired, such as finding out at the end of your shopping experience there are no delivery slots available?

Amazon is not without its headaches as spiking demand outstrips supply. The company just announced that it too is starting an online grocery shopping waitlist. But there is a subtle and very significant difference: It is only new shoppers that will go on the wait list, shoppers granted access as Amazon continues to grow capacity. Existing Amazon customers, especially Prime members, are getting priority. I personally think this is smart, Amazon is rewarding loyalty. These will be the types of things remembered when we come out the other side of the current crisis. What has Ralphs done to help me during the crisis, even though I’ve been a loyal and very profitable customer for years? Nothing.

Do traditional retailers really understand what is happening? At a time when Ideoclick reports Amazon is picking up an incremental $3-4 billion a month in revenue AND transitioning an estimated $1 billion of that EACH MONTH to the company’s Subscribe & Save, Alexa Reorder, and personalized recommendations, the best traditional retailers can do is cancel orders at the last moment, leave perishable foods outside overnight without notice, and put shoppers in virtual waiting rooms online?

These experiences are going to quickly outweigh whatever loyalty shoppers may have had to these retailers prior to the crisis. Convenient location doesn’t matter when shopping online. Favorite brands are quickly forgotten when I can’t get basic service.

There are some bright spots. Hy-Vee was able to create and launch their Mealtime To Go program in less than two weeks, providing prepared meals for purchase online or delivered to the customer’s car. Now that’s innovation in realtime that’s focused on the customer.

Or Drizly, an online shopping service for alcoholic beverages. Similar to GrubHub, Drizly represents local merchants online to sell and deliver beer, wine, or liquor - often in a matter of hours. And what’s more impressive: Drizly is able to tell you in realtime the availability of any given product at any of the retailers they have in their network. Now that’s a good user experience. Can’t seem to get food when promised but thankfully we can get wine.

And here’s another kicker. Walmart, the retailer many have derided for destroying local communities, has put community front and center from early on in this crisis according to an article in Forbes and evidenced by the Walmart app being the number one shopping app to be downloaded for two weeks straight, topping even Amazon by 20%.

Supermarket retailers have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build true customer loyalty - loyalty based on service, not based on price and promotion - and it is being squandered.

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