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Five Ways for Grocery to Serve its Evolving Customers

By Miller Zell
  • Retail
  • Five Ways for Grocery to Serve its Evolving Customers

The pandemic transformed the grocery store with an unprecedented urgency. By necessity, customer behavior and needs changed, and the fragility of supply chains and importance of capable, happy associates manifested like never before.

Present times are still fraught but in different ways.

Still, the most important market truth endures. Grocers that best anticipate and react to evolving customer wants and needs will outshine their competition, increase their market share and build brand loyalty.

Here are five areas of focus that will help you do just that.

Optimize every inch of store space, inside, outside and online

The rise of BOPIS and grocery delivery during the pandemic showed that parking lots are no longer design and planning afterthoughts. Wayfinding is now nearly as critical outside the store as inside. Ensure your customers immediately understand how to get where they want to go as soon as they enter your space, including when they start online and don’t plan to exit their automobiles.

That said, grocery store interiors are again ready for their close-ups, so the focus is supporting a diversity of shopper journeys and providing the best possible experience, whichever is chosen. That starts with a clean, neat, appealing environment that establishes that you prioritize sanitary and well-maintained stores. Then move on to strategic layout, easy wayfinding and fast checkout, thereby serving your convenience customers, who are looking to find products and return home quickly.

Highlight food areas that align with shoppers’ evolving wants/needs, such as meal prep simplicity, spices and specialty products while spotlighting freshness at every turn. Identify opportunities to celebrate private label brands and products which are local or produced by minority- and women-owned businesses. 

Every element is in play. Miller Zell’s VP of Retail Accounts Harry Newton believes retailers have a great opportunity now to reassess the store space and what's needed.  

“Both new and existing retail and grocery space needs to be assessed and adapted to new behaviors,” Newton said. “From size, product mix, adjacencies and checkout, whether that’s about self-scan or BOPIS or delivery. Plus, store associates now use selling space to handle online order fulfillment.”

These are basics that have evolved since 2019. Satisfy those, then focus on innovative customer experiences that distinguish you from your competition.

Prioritize seamless omni-channel integration

The disconnect between online/app shopping and the in-store experience frustrates shoppers, both the digitally capable and curious newcomers. The first expects advanced functionality while the latter wishes for intuitive ease from initial use. Both want to be met wherever they are in their preferred and variable paths to purchase.

“Both new and existing retail and grocery space needs to be assessed and adapted to new behaviors,” Miller Zell’s VP of Retail Accounts Harry Newton said. “From size, product mix, adjacencies and checkout, whether that’s about self-scan or BOPIS or delivery. Plus, store associates now use selling space to handle online order fulfillment.”


Buying behaviors changed during the pandemic, accelerating the adoptions of delivery and BOPIS by previously reluctant customers. While many are returning to stores, shopper behavior won’t duplicate what it was pre-pandemic.

“I've seen a lot in my work and travels and with the changing shopping habits of both me and my own grown adult children,” Newton said. “They've embraced shopping online for food, home essentials and most everything they consume. They might go to the store to see products but then end up ordering online or through the app.”

The first step is knowing your customers and how they want to shop, which requires both research and data mining. Innovative digital experiences in grocery aren’t about “wow” factors. It’s about making grocery shopping frictionless for customers, such as providing an easy integration of recipes and product location via your app. This makes them more likely to explore new experiences and try new products and become loyal to your brand.

Key point: This integration includes associates, who should be armed with their own app that eases customer assistance and inventory maintenance. Further, training associates to help customers with their in-store app use will spur loyalty increase basket size and inspire good reviews on social media.

Emphasize health and wellness

Customers want to know what’s in the products they buy and where they come from. They also are interested in preventative health benefits and nutrition, as well as potential mental health and well-being benefits.

Meeting your customers where they are means being ahead of market trends and researching their changing wants and priorities. This touches on both store design and digital strategy.

For example, a customer suffering momentary choice overload in your vitamin and supplement section could use a QR code provided on your shelf to get product information or even take a quick quiz on what they are looking for that leads to product recommendations.

Refocus on sensory merchandising as in-store deli and food service return

Great grocery stores tap all five senses, triggering positive responses that elevate mood. And inspire more dwell time and purchases.

The visual starts with color and then advances to appreciating neat and clean looks that convey a sense of freshness. What music greets your customers? And how are store announcements handled? Do they startle and annoy or are they pleasant, informative and even rewarding?

Many product areas can be bolstered by aromas, from soap to food service. Live plants and strategically placed botanicals will positively influence your shoppers. Free food samples engage with touch and taste and often convince customers to purchase a product with which they weren’t previously familiar.

A positive engagement of all five senses particularly fosters the sort of customer who pauses longer at the food service area, where compelling and diverse options will inspire unplanned meal purchases, whether for a to-go order or for a quick bite on-site.

Embrace your conscientious customers

Many of your customers value sustainability, localization, plant-based foods, green packaging and climate-friendly supply chains. They also care about diversity and inclusion, community support and how you take care of your associates.

So provide your customers information on your green initiatives, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility.

Edelman’s 2022 “Trust Barometer” is titled, “Societal leadership is now a core function of business.” It found that 58 percent of respondents, “will buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values,” while 80 percent “will invest based on their beliefs and values.”

The conscientious consumer is real, and businesses that emphasize values and corporate responsibility will build customer loyalty. Doing the right thing is good for businesses and, by the way, also good for the bottom line.

Want to learn more or discuss Miller Zell's end-to-end services with Harry? Click here.

Harry Newton is an energetic retail business development and marketing executive with 25-plus years of experience helping some of the most prominent retail brands improve their business through research & strategy and end-to-end design and rollout services.

End-to-end branded environment services under one roof to craft the optimal customer experience wherever people gather, shop or learn.