by Joe Johnston, Creative Director + Co-Studio Lead ATL

Today, when shoppers are likely to be skittish about being in stores—if they visit at all—those who adapt using technology strategically and design intuitively will be better positioned to survive. More than just ordering online, digital solutions will have to consider every aspect of the business: operating logistics, employee safety, the use of physical space. And, if social distance becomes the new norm, how can technology connect humans for the better? 

Contactless Shopping 

While stores are quickly rolling out contactless payments due to COVID-19, many still use self-service touch screens and pin pads for transactions and loyalty. Given new CDC guidelines, where people are being encouraged to avoid using touch screens and pin pads, in some cases, they may no longer be allowed to use them at all. Additionally, with supply chain challenges and keeping items in stock, customers have been left with limited choices on where and what they buy.

This has led companies to adapt to new technology solutions and speed up their digital transformation. Critically, they're working with customers in partnership toward creating a more safe environment for the benefit of both parties. Stores and customers alike have had to make huge adjustments in recent months. Relying on customers to use their own devices places greater ownership in their hands to help manage their own safety, as well as contribute to the safety of others, including store employees. With this new behavior, stores are discovering even more benefits to digital product strategy.

Mobile checkout can help save customers time, both in the aisles and at the register.

Utilizing personal devices reduces interactions with physical screens and pin pads, and enables real-time loyalty offers to be activated, as well as preemptive stock tracking. During COVID-19 when 52% of customers buy what's currently available, this creates an opportunity for stores to help shoppers shop more efficiently.


"Especially during this time of hygiene safety at the gas pumps, which option is better for the customer—wiping down every surface as they move through their day, or adjusting to a new and improved contactless experience?"


Going beyond in-store experiences, this same idea is being applied to companion services. Think grocery store gas pumps, for example. You know the drill—slide in the card, punch your loyalty and PIN number, push the fuel type and fill the car. Just like mobile shopping, mobile check out at fuel pumps can happen in a similar way. Especially during this time of hygiene safety at the gas pumps, which option is better for the customer—wiping down every surface as they move through their day, or adjusting to a new and improved contactless experience?

For companies that adapt to the latter, they are not only helping to curb the spread of germs, but discovering new ways to improve the customer experience. Shell has already shown how this shift can occur. The mobile experience can be as easy as sitting in your car, selecting the pump, adding your loyalty and paying digitally, reducing physical touch points as much as possible. This experience could extend after COVID-19 allowing customers to stay in the car and out of the elements.

Rearranging Space

 
For brick-and-mortar grocery locations, adding new mobile device and digital capabilities can also add a layer of complexity and challenges for grocery stores. A strong wifi network is needed to support customers checking out and scanning items. Also, monitoring accurate check out using a self-service mobile device increases risk of inventory loss in some cases.

Although, if customers are able to shop at home and simply pick up their groceries, it can reduce the burden on a central digital network and minimize the need for extra security considerations.

With other restrictions, like limited store capacity, using an app for customers to schedule shopping time could help. Stores like Walmart started limiting the number of shoppers and re-examining their entire shopping and checkout system. No more than five customers will be allowed in for every 1,000 square feet, which is roughly 20% of a store's capacity. If the app was mandatory before entering the store, things like virtual queuing and in-store monitoring could be managed more easily by the store. Think the Fast Pass at Disney, which allows pass holders to reserve ride times during scheduled windows and change as needed.

Another aspect of the contactless shopping experience we expect to see take on more prominence is the use of temperature scanning and contact tracing methods.

Currently Apple & Google are in partnership developing a contact tracing API that could help stores and customers understand when they are in range of a potentially infected person. This would require shoppers and employees alike to have the store app downloaded, assisting in additional safety and security measures.


As the uncertainty grows around traveling to grocery stores, let alone being in them, customers want to feel safe and showcasing hygiene transparently will act as a short-term customer experience differentiator for some businesses.


Hygiene theatre will play a crucial role for business because, well, customers have expectations of things being clean. The expectation is to see these things happening in front of them. From wiping down grocery carts in front of customers to seeing cleaning crews to communicating times the stores are closed each day for cleaning. Several grocery stores are installing physical plexiglas sneeze guards in checkout lanes to visually show the safety between employees and customers. This expectation will only grow.

As the uncertainty grows around traveling to grocery stores, let alone being in them, customers want to feel safe and showcasing hygiene transparently will act as a short-term customer experience differentiator for some businesses.

The Rise of the Grocery Consultant 


With more people ordering online than ever before, essential workers may find themselves shifting into more of a consultant-type role, learning customers specific dietary and budget needs, then packaging them up for pick-up or delivery.

Traditionally, professional personal grocery shopping has been seen as a luxury. But with apps such as Instacart opening this service up to more and more people, it has become a common activity. What’s missing from this experience, however, is specialized knowledge to help navigate the moments when a critical selection decision has to be made based on dietary or other shopping criteria.


The need for in-store employees to support customers who order online with meeting dietary needs, balancing healthy eating habits, or helping them to shop on a budget is a space ripe for exploration and optimization. 


As COVID-19 continues to increase online ordering and delivery activity by nearly 3.5X, the idea of people with specialized knowledge becomes a differentiator. Additionally, it creates a greater opportunity for essential workers to cultivate a growth path through UpSkill models,. This method can boost employee engagement and satisfaction that ultimately benefits everyone—employees, customers, and company managers alike. It’s one of the ways corporations can work toward greater operational goals that align with ESG(Environmental, Social, and Governance) practices.

One of the top reasons customers love to shop for groceries themselves is to be able to enjoy the range of items. In the current environment, with limited or inconsistent supplies, numbers suggest people are eating less produce (36%) and more processed foods (47%). Additionally, customers place more trust in an end-to-end experience, reducing the chance for errors or third party logistics that increase more points of contact.

The need for in-store employees to support customers who order online with meeting dietary needs, balancing healthy eating habits, or helping them to shop on a budget is a space ripe for exploration and optimization. 

Food Door-to-Door


Perhaps the largest shift in behavior during months of quarantine has been the move toward online food shopping. As restaurants were at first ordered to close their doors, many found a loophole to staying open and keeping a skeleton staff employed through pick-up or delivery only services. Those already with an online ordering system made the shift easily. Others who may have had a website, but not the capability to order, worked to expand their digital or mobile services. Newcomers found make-shift solutions to help them keep going.


Just last year, only 11% of consumers bought groceries online once a month. What was once a novelty experience for some, has turned into a practical solve for keeping the kitchen stocked, inspiring people everywhere to wonder why they haven’t shopped this way until now.


Grocery outlets and online food services, however, have seen the largest uptick in business. Just last year, only 11% of consumers bought groceries online once a month. What was once a novelty experience for some, has turned into a practical solve for keeping the kitchen stocked, inspiring people everywhere to wonder why they haven’t shopped this way until now.

Think about it—no more dragging screaming kids to the grocery store, no more wandering aisles aimlessly and hungry, the ability to manage spending and avoid impulse buys, perhaps putting those resources into buying higher quality food.

With some stores like Menards, creating no kids policies, this further focuses the opportunity for food delivery services.

Customers make 1.6 trips a week to the grocery store on average. This is trending down because of COVID-19 with nearly 73% of customers making fewer visits. Customers are also nervous and have high level of anxiety when shopping. 60% of customers report being fearful of grocery shopping and having a sense of panic. Controlling the full store-to-handoff experience as hygiene considerations increase will set some companies apart. For example, places like Chick-fil-A now allow you to select Chick-fil-A Team Member Delivery.

The Digital Employee Experience

Today, with everyone managing a new sense of normal, store employees have been among the most impacted. Having long-forgotten how they used to work, they have already adapted to new ways of interacting with daily tasks, as well as customers. Company leaders can further support their employees by adopting digital-first resources for education and learning.

Using mobile experiences to re-train employees will be key.


Topics around proper hygiene, how to stock shelves with customers nearby, or even training materials to help essential employees grow into greater service providers can all be supported by a contactless, online portal.


Communication is one of the best tools companies have in organizing a coordinated response to new ways of doing business. Creating learning modules that can be monitored for completion and designed for all types of learners is a valuable investment that will sustain a company well into the future. By using a digital platform, new policies and learning materials can be easily uploaded or updated. Topics around proper hygiene, how to stock shelves with customers nearby, or even training materials to help essential employees grow into greater service providers can all be supported by a contactless, online portal.

Loyalty doesn’t end with customers.

Incentivizing employee loyalty through a digital experience allows people to quickly learn and improve skills for new types of work. Companies like Walmart have a robust suite of associate apps that bring new skills opportunities to their employees.

If there’s one thing that has become vastly apparent during COVID-19, it’s that essential workers have given us all a life line. With grocery store employees and delivery personnel at the front lines, it’s a great time to bolster support and appreciation for their roles. 

Illustration by Kevin Tudball.

About the Author: Joe Johnston

Joe has over 18 years experience in the areas of experience design, service design, customer insight, and innovation for many notable brands including: Lowe's, Coca-Cola, UPS, Capital One, State Farm, Arby's, Bosch, Herman Miller, AT&T, TIAA, Freddie Mac, Meijer, Principal Financial & Sony Music. This includes experience and service design, future visioning and ideation across brand experience and strategy. He's also an accomplished author, speaker, and expert on user experience/customer experience and experience innovation. Formerly Joe was the Group UX Director at Huge in Atlanta leading a team on several top brand experiences and exploring new innovative technologies.