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How to Manage Impulse Grocery Purchases in an Online World

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How impulsive are grocery shoppers when they’re masked, focused into one-way aisles, socially distanced and grimly intentional, much less when they’ve retreated into the digital shopping realm? Not as much, it seems. But the itch is still there if brands can figure out how to scratch it.

The lingering effect of stay-at-home orders on brands that count on impulse shopping is significant. After all, if I’m not waiting in a checkout line, I’m not facing the invitation of a chocolate-enrobed, caramel-infused, nut-clustered treat. And if I’m not pushing a cart through the jungle of the center store, I won’t realize my need for the end-cap sale on double caffeinated cans of cold brew coffee. Or seasonal party goods, or interesting new condiments for backyard grilling, or any of the myriad things that wind up on my receipt during what used to be a routine trip to the store.

In March, for the first time ever, mobile grocery sales ascended to number one among all mobile sales categories, surpassing apparel with no looking back. “In Q1 2020, total mobile spending on the grocery subcategory increased an incredible 148% versus Q1 2019, to a total of $10.2 billion. Particularly in March, consumers leaned on mobile options to order groceries to a degree never seen before,” according to a study released by Comscore on May 6.

“Q1 2020 showed grocery spending, which also includes baby supplies and pet supplies, reaching 20% share of all mobile spending,” the study stated.  

More recent data shows that this general trend has staying power. According to a Brick Meets Click/Mercatus Grocery Shopping Survey for June, released on July 6:

• Online grocery sales grew over 9% to a record-setting $7.2 billion, compared to May’s $6.6 billion.

• This continued growth is driven by a 16% increase in the total number of orders in the past 30 days (85.0M vs. 73.5M in May) and relatively strong spending per order ($84 in June vs. $90 in May).

• Household penetration rose to 35%, as the total number of customers who ordered groceries online for delivery or pickup reached 45.6 million for June versus 43 million for May.

• Purchase frequency also climbed 9% versus the prior month as active households placed an average of 1.9 online grocery orders for either delivery or pickup up in June, up from the average of 1.7 in May.

So even with the economy opening up, the surge in online grocery shopping continues unabated. “Consumers are, first of all, going to the store less frequently. They are rushing through the shopping experience more quickly than normal. Browsing is not fashionable,” stated Bill Bishop, Brick Meets Click chief architect in a recent Wall Street Journal video interview.

Thus the challenge for brands is not simply to entice shoppers into unplanned purchases in cyberspace, but much broader. It’s about opening up product discovery and presenting deals on products that are necessities — opportunity purchases not on my current list.

“Consumers are more than 10% more likely to add an impulse item to their purchase when shopping in store versus shopping online,” according to research firm First Insight. That’s a big number for a low-margin business. Call it the “impulse gap.” In fact, grocery is historically the single largest category for traditional in-store impulse purchases.

“Americans Spend $324,000 on impulse buys during their lifetime, and on average, they impulsively buy three things a week,” according to a study by Slickdeals published in 2018. This number includes all impulse purchases, including food.

With that kind of incentive, brands are learning how to better appeal to the online impulse. First is understanding the buyer’s psychology — they’re at home, not in the store, which shapes their perspective and emotions. They have adapted their general online shopping habits to include grocery shopping, which means more interest in recreational product discovery. They pay more attention to deals that are tailored to their personalized preferences. And indulgence is important to compensate for a really stressful year.

In January, before the pandemic, the average American spent $155.03 each month on online impulse buys. In April, that number rose 18% to $182.98, according to data released May 8 by Slickdeals. And, “72% say that buying something impulsively during the pandemic has positively affected their mood.”

Most of the impulse growth is in food, reflecting the surge in online grocery shopping. And it will be accelerated by both brands and retailers that figure out how to better place impulse opportunities in front of online shoppers — and when they pick up their groceries. Targeting ads via cooking and recipe portals, offering deals on frequently purchased items, checkout pop-ups with relevant basket additions and even the “gamification” of product discovery — making it both relevant and fun to search for interesting grocery products online — will continue to drive the trend.

Impulse grocery purchases are not going away; they’re moving to the virtual aisles of cyberspace.

Pierce Hollingsworth is a senior vice president of content for Knighthouse Media and a columnist for Retail & Food Best Practices.

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