12+ months after Covid fuelled panic buying

More than a year after Covid fuelled stockpiling of necessities and grocery staples, we still see empty supermarket shelves.

Many assume this is because of an increased focus on online sales by the large grocers, especially in the US, as evidenced by this article in Insight Grocery Business in March 2021. We’ve also seen similar instances in the UK, but in the UK, we’ve blamed these stock-outs on Brexit. There have been recent articles on similar instances in the Middle East & in several EU countries too.

An increased focus on online shouldn’t lead to empty shelves in store. Especially as those who pick stock for online orders through external providers pick products off the shelf currently. This is especially so if orders are placed on Instacart (US), Uber eats or Deliveroo (UK). And Brexit shouldn’t cause stock outs of brands made in the UK using materials sourced in the UK.

So what is really going on?

As we mentioned in our previous article on the 2021 Easter egg shortage in the UK, supermarkets, and brands that sell into supermarkets, typically use last year’s sales volumes as baseline for current year orders.

Buyers have exercised some judgement this year by not ordering sanitisers, cleaning products, kitchen cupboard products (pasta, rice, flour, canned vegetables etc), cleaning products & toilet paper in line with last year’s sales, when consumers were stockpiling in anticipation of supermarkets running out of these staples due to lockdowns. However, they did not exercise the same judgement when they ordered other brands/products (confectionery, small format beverages etc). Even less so when it came to the beer, wine & spirits inventory in store.

Despite increased sales across confectionery and beverages during the later stages of the pandemic, supermarket orders were placed for similar sales volumes as last year during the same time.

So now you see stock-outs across categories and markets.

The only thing in common across categories and markets is the impact of covid on consumer behaviour and choices.

As supermarkets still order on the basis of previous year volumes, they’ve had to exercise their judgement when placing these orders. This is difficult when everything the buyer knows about consumption habits has changed, after more than a year of living under pandemic conditions/lockdowns.

A google search on habits and how long it takes to form a habit runs the gamut from 14 days to 54 days, with the most cited number being 21 days. A study by the University College of London found that it takes 66 days for a habit to form. If the new behaviours were easy, it took 20 days (the example they cite is drinking a glass of water after breakfast every day) and, based on how disruptive the new habits were, ranged to 254 days.

Many of us have lived in lockdowns/pandemic conditions for more than 254 days. Depending on where we live, this has ranged between 75 days and 270 days. Enough time for new habits to form.

Add in significant variations in weather due to climate change, and (almost permanent) changes to how and where we work and/or study. No wonder retailers/FMCG companies are struggling!

If you’d like to understand how best to leverage data to arrive at optimal order volumes for your supermarkets/brands, email me on veena@salesbeat.co

So what does the future look like?

So what is the future of retail as it pertains to groceries?

We believe that brick & mortar stores, whether they are supermarkets, convenience stores or even open air markets, are here to stay. Online grocery stores will take more share from brick & mortar stores. However, they will co-exist. 

Total grocery revenues will be almost evenly split between online and brick & mortar stores. Customers will use grocery stores to explore and discover new brands, and buy fresh groceries and meat. 

Companies will use brick and mortar presence to signal brand credibility to customers and to encourage trial. Just like D2C brands are now building their brand identity selling directly to consumers, there will come a time, when brand identity is built at brick & mortar retailers and consumers will look to establish brand credibility at stores.

Deliveries are becoming less of a pain point as an increasing number of stores offer delivery service to customers once they buy their groceries at stores. There will be fewer brick and mortar grocery stores in the future as their revenues will not justify the rent on the space. 

Additionally, there will be fewer stores in prime locations, further lowering the rent paid annually by these retailers. The reason they currently have stores in prime locations is for convenience (of their customers). But online shopping is likely to be the more convenient choice of the future, whether it gets delivered or whether it is picked up from a convenient location. This would leave a higher margin for retailers than they currently have.

The winners in this space will be:

  • the ones who can get delivery of fresh produce right. The greatest concern/barrier for customers buying online is fresh produce. Online grocery stores and brick & mortar stores that have an online presence should build a reputation for delivering high quality produce consistently to encourage repeat purchases and new customer sign ups
  • the stores that can offer a ‘pick-up at store’ option for those who shopped online or the online stores (like Amazon fresh) that offer deliveries within an hour
  • the brick & mortar stores that can offer busy households a painless shopping experience without queues, like Amazon Go. This combines the convenience of buying online with the experience of buying at stores
  • the ones who have an online presence combined with brick & mortar stores

Watch out for this space next week to understand what led us to these conclusions!