Is ‘quality’ the biggest inhibitor of online grocery growth?

While the convenience of e-commerce has forever changed the brick-and-mortar retail industry, the convenience of online grocery has yet to make the same impact

At its best, online grocery does provide a more efficient way to shop, but concerns about quality have always been a pain point for consumers.

When ordering online, consumers can’t touch, smell and see the specific items they want to buy. They cannot make sure the apples they purchase have no bruises, the avocados are at an ideal stage of ripeness, or the milk hasn’t expired. Even if everything goes right in terms of receiving quality items, substitutions can be a headache. If a consumer receives notification after notification asking about substitutions, the order quickly loses its convenience factor and the customer might feel like they were better off going to the store themselves and choosing what’s in stock.

Manual pickers are prone to errors, as all humans are. So even though replicating the in-store shopping experience might seem to require more of a human touch, paradoxically, grocers need to turn more toward automation to get the quality that comes from choosing grocery items yourself in-person.

Accuracy Affects Quality

Even in the era of Covid, when more and more consumers are turning  to online grocery due to the outbreak — including one in five shoppers who have used online grocery for the first time during this period, according to our survey — quality remains the top sticking point for consumers.

What might have been overlooked in the early days of the pandemic, such as orders missing items or having replacements that don’t match buyers’ intended purchases, will not be tolerated long-term. The ease and convenience of online grocery lead the way for shoppers’ reasoning behind using online grocery, finds RBC Capital Markets. Yet quality issues like inaccurate orders can turn that convenience into a hassle.

Imagine ordering groceries to cook dinner only to find that your main ingredient is missing. It’s  quality issues like this that can cause consumers to either return to in-store purchasing or go to a competitor who offers more consistent online shopping quality.

The more that grocers rely on manual fulfillment, the more likely they are to face accuracy issues like pickers accidentally forgetting items, not noticing an expired product, or replacing an out-of-stock item with a subpar substitute.

Moreover, trying to manually update an online inventory system based on what’s available on store shelves is a recipe for frustrating experiences. That could easily lead to selling items online that end up being out of stock by the time a manual picker packs the order.

Turning to Automation

By automating the fulfillment of online orders, grocers not only can improve their unit economics, but they can also improve order accuracy and overall quality. That’s because an automated system, such as a micro-fulfillment solution that can handle loose, fresh, and weighted goods all in an automated fashion and can pack orders from a dedicated online inventory, rather than packing orders based on what’s on shelves. That translates into:

  • Nearly total alignment between what the consumer sees as available on the retailer’s website and what is actually available. That means no substitutions!
  • No errors; robots don’t get distracted and accidentally pack ravioli instead of tortellini.
  • Being able to use rotation management in the system in an automated fashion, which makes managing the quality of fresh produce and expiry dates easy.

Fabric’s micro-fulfillment solution can automate 90% of an ordinary grocery retailer’s assortment — more than any other automated micro-fulfillment solution. That level of automation can create a better customer experience by overcoming the quality issues that have always held back online grocery.

Now that the pandemic has accelerated online grocery adoption and looks to be here to stay long-term, grocers need to get this right, as consumers will be loyal to the players who provide the best possible experience. Retailers that can figure out how to fulfill online orders economically and accurately will provide even greater convenience to customers and therefore win more business.