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Variations on a Theme by Hawking

It is critical for stores to understand what time means to shoppers, and how different needs impact the way people use their shopping time.

Editor’s Intro: I love all types of cheese – it is one of my two basic food groups, along with wine. There’s a store near my house that has a great cheese selection, and I can linger more than 15 minutes making my selections. I’ll then race through the rest of the store for the rest of my list. Other shoppers may just want cheddar, and because the store always keeps cheddar in the same place, they can just grab it without thinking while maybe spending a lot of time deciding on other categories.

Steve Needel’s article made me think about my cheese shopping trips and how my shopping differs from other peoples’. Understanding the many different types of shopping needs, how these impact shoppers’ use “time” and then determining what they mean for store layout and product assortment is critical for store profitability. Steve describes some of the challenges stores faced and different solutions that are being attempted. He also highlights some fundamental issues about consumer motivations that stores still need to grapple with. This article is well worth reading and pondering.

The great part about schizophrenia is that you don’t have to worry about being consistent. When it comes to the concept of a shopper’ time, we researchers fully embrace our inconsistency. We all know that MAGA really stands for Make Ambiguity Great Again. On the one hand, we paint a picture of shoppers as a frazzled, time-starved, horde that will do anything to save a minute here or a minute there. On the other hand, we extol the virtues of the new foodie culture, bombarding them with kale, meal kits, and stores that defy System 1 shopping.

A recent discussion (9/20/18) on Retailwire highlights this contradiction, focusing on Amazon’s AmazonGo experiments. For those of you unfamiliar with this, the concept is simple. Think a small store, like a convenience store, with lots of prepared foods packaged to go, as well as a small grocery assortment. What makes this different is that there are no cashiers or, for that matter, customer service people. You walk in, scan the app on your phone, and cameras and sensors track what you pick up and buy. When you’re done, just walk out – your account is billed automatically. In theory, the reduction in labor cost makes up for the ridiculously expensive hardware the store requires. Its appeal to shoppers is speed and convenience – no lines, simple assortments, [supposedly] fresh food that also tastes good, as well as the coolness aspect. Amazon has been testing this in Seattle and just announced plans to expand the test to San Francisco and Chicago. Why expand the test? There are two reasons – first, because it doesn’t really work yet and second, what East Coast researcher is ever going to believe results coming from Seattle alone.

Grocery retailers have unbelievably thin margins (usually just a few percentage points) and have, for years, been looking at ways to reduce labor costs. Thus was born the self-checkout lane, now showing at a store near you. This helps solve the labor problem – you need one supervisor for 4-6 checkout terminals – and fixes the common shopper complaint of long lines. These lanes typically let the shopper get out of the store faster (right up until they need an attendant for a malfunction, operator error, or a prescribed purchase). And on the horizon are technologies like self-scanning as you put items in the cart and carts that scan the contents themselves, eliminating the need for any line. The new technologies don’t quite work perfectly yet, but they are getting there, and retailers are willing to forego contact with their customers and increased shrinkage in order to speed shoppers on their way.

Counterbalancing the speed/convenience movement are two hot areas of grocery retailing – meal kits and non-linear stores. Meal kits – pre-measured ingredients packaged together with [usually] clear and simple instructions on how to prepare the meal – would seem to defy the “I don’t have time to cook” suppositions. Ads for these products invariably feature happy children helping happy Mom and Dad cook the meal. Aside from the fact that nobody’s kitchen is ever that clean while making a full-scale meal, these kits would seem to be the perfect compromise between “I don’t have time to shop and cook” and “We can’t have McDonald’s for dinner again”. The recipes are interesting, easy to follow, and there’s lots of variety (if perhaps a bit too much kale for my liking). Of course, you pay a price for this convenience – $8-$12 per serving given my brief survey of various sites. For comparison, we roasted a chicken and had potatoes, corn on the cob, and a salad the other night and spent less than $10 for a family of three (and two dogs). While the economics of meal kits will probably kill the category in its current form, there is still consumer demand for cooking at home that is not going away any time soon, let alone which may be expanding.

The quest to heighten customer experience is also antithetical to the notion of the time-constrained shopper. Most CX solutions in grocery retailing involve keeping the shopper in the store longer. Whether it’s a shift from orderly aisles (so 1950s) to meandering store layouts, mini-sections (cheese, wine, etc.) inviting detailed (and time-consuming) browsing, or more interesting and varied assortments on the shelves, the goal is to keep the shopper shopping. It’s also, as is often discussed, at odds with the BOPIS or home delivery models some retailers are trying to institute. Grocery retailers are nothing if not trying to be all things to all people.

So are consumers time-hoarders willing to do anything to save a minute here or there or are they becoming more interested in curating their grocery purchases and upscaling meals they cook themselves? Both are probably the case. What we don’t seem to know is whether this behavior represents different segments of shoppers, not defined by traditional demographics, or are they the same shoppers behaving differently at times? Perhaps we need a different conception of time? Perhaps time shopping for and cooking an interesting meal is different from time spent simply refueling. Cooking together as entertainment and/or quality family time may be time well spent in these shoppers’ view.  If we are going to do a better job of marketing, we need to understand what time means to shoppers.


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