New Normal: Grocery Shopping Anxiety with Dr. Yu Ma

Read transcript

Episode 3 of The ‘New Normal’ hosted by Dave Kaufman: Grocery Shopping Anxiety with Dr. Yu Ma
Dave Kaufman: If you walked into a grocery store in the spring of 2020, then one of the things you’ll remember is the anxiety. Maybe you wore rubber gloves. Maybe you put on a mask. You probably tried to stay as far away from your fellow shoppers as possible. You’d consult your shopping list, rush up and down the aisles and try to get in and out of the store as fast as you could. Once home, you’d wipe your new products down, resting some of the non-perishable items on your balcony or front step, often overnight. Over a matter of days the act of shopping, once viewed as carefree, became one of the few essential tasks Canadians were told they could leave the house to do. And was it ever stressful? Shopping had become, to put it mildly, unpleasant. Fast forward one year, and our shopping experiences are still stressful, but nothing like they were when the pandemic first arrived. Still, there is a yearning, like in so many facets of our lives, to return to the days before COVID-19 changed everything. But can we ever really go back?
Dave Kaufman: Welcome to The New Normal, the podcast exploring management research, brought to you by Delve, the official publication of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. I’m your host, Dave Kaufman. On this episode of The New Normal, we will discuss how COVID-19 has changed the physical shopping experience. Among the issues today’s episode will explore, how has grocery shopping changed since the start of the pandemic? What new technologies should stores embrace to make for a better experience for the customer? And will the carefree pre-pandemic shopping days ever return?
Dave Kaufman: Joining me for this episode is Professor Yu Ma. Dr. Ma is an Associate Professor of Marketing and the Bensadoun Faculty Scholar at McGill University. Ma studies how consumers react to various marketing incentives. He also examines broader marketing issues, such as the influence of macro environment on the retail sector, and the impact of food marketing on population health.
Dave Kaufman: Our conversation began when I asked Dr. Ma about some of the main differences he’s noticed while grocery shopping in the past year.
Dr. Yu Ma: I think that’s a very good question. We all shop for groceries almost every week. For me, I go to stores, I exam products. I pick them up. I just say how fresh they are before I put them into my basket. But I think COVID changed how I shop. Of course there are less people around me. It’s less crowded because of distancing measures. And also, at the same time, I’m a little bit concerned about picking up stuff again and again because of the possibility of getting infected through products. So, in general, I observe people using less touching in the shopping process, but touching is such a big part for us to have the best possible experience out of shopping. I think something is missing here. Just doesn’t feel as good as before.
Dave Kaufman: That tactile experience, that ability to see if the melon is fresh or to smell an object. That’s also pretty much gone because it’s hard to smell for freshness when you’re wearing a mask. Are these things that you think we’ll ever get back?
Dr. Yu Ma: I do hope we can go back to that because shopping is an experience. We have to be able to smell, we have to be able to touch to get the complete grocery shopping experience. It’s nice to shop online. I do a lot of shopping online nowadays. It’s convenient, I do it at home anytime I want. They deliver to my house. That’s good, but at the same time, looking at something on the screen is just different from actually pick up the products and experience that in my hand. I believe most people will feel the same way. To have a positive experience we need that type of interaction with products.
Dave Kaufman: As Dr. Ma explains, the last year has done more than disrupt our notions of how to shop for products. COVID-19 has also completely removed the social component of all types of shopping.
Dr. Yu Ma: Well, grocery shopping, or in general, shopping with your friends, fashion, food. Because if you think about, I go to the restaurant to enjoy my meal, but many times I go to the restaurant with my friends, with my family so we can talk about things on the table, right? So the meal is not the entire experience I want to get out of restaurant. It’s an important part. But the other important part is this companionship, this experience of talking to people, connecting with people. That’s the other important part of the experience.
Dr. Yu Ma: I think the same applies to shopping. So, I used to go shopping with my family together. We would pick different things, we’d look at different things, we’d talk about the new products and that’s a fun experience. But now I basically go shop by myself. My wife does her own shopping. That’s connection, you know, between family, between your friends, when you go social shopping, that is really missing. But I think that can be addressed with the existing technology in this online environment.
Dave Kaufman: So, would the idea be that there are certain apps that we could use so that when we’re physically alone shopping in a store, we won’t really be alone?
Dr. Yu Ma: I think it could come in multiple ways. You could always call your friends, show them, let’s say, a pair of shoes. “How does it look on me?” Right? You can always call them and send them a message and do that. That’s possible even with the existing phones and if you shop in stores. But I’m thinking that when we shop online, is there a way for me to connect to my family, my friends, so they can look at the same products or they can give me a suggestion? We can chat, we can talk. Is there a way to connect to them in that sense and have a more social shopping experience? For example, I know there’s two popular things for people to do, maybe for the younger demographics. One is called Netflix Party.
Dave Kaufman: Netflix Party, now rebranded as Teleparty, is an app that synchronizes video playback and adds a group chat to your streaming service, be it Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, or others. It currently has over 10 million subscribers and has gained in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic.
Dr. Yu Ma: So basically there’s this tool you can install on your browser and then you can invite people to come and watch Netflix with you together. One person can control which movie to play and how fast to play the movie and where to start. And everyone can watch the same movie at the same time, because it’s synchronized by this tool. And then you could chat, you could laugh together, you could cry together. You know, that’s a very rare, unique experience. It’s like you are going to cinemas with your friends, but you are actually sitting in your couch and watching Netflix with your friends.
Dave Kaufman: Ma believes that the technology is there, and is just waiting for someone to see the benefits to augment our new reality and make shopping less of an isolating exercise.
Dr. Yu Ma: I think some company might be able to build a platform for all the other companies to use. It’s going to require some technological know-how. Different industries have done that quite well. So, the Netflix Parties, by example. Another example is people who play video game online. This has been done for many years by Microsoft, by Sony. So basically you can play the same video game, is multiplayer game. You can chat, you can work in teams and I guess you can even turn on your camera to look at your teammate’s video game. To me, that technology is already there, and those companies knows how to do that, but they haven’t made the connection from video game, let’s say, to other aspect of our life, to shopping and other context.
Dave Kaufman: I was recently looking back at photos from the start of the pandemic. There’s a picture that I saved on my phone that I took back in March of 2020, right after the WHO declared that COVID-19 was a global pandemic. I took it while standing in line at the grocery store. There are dozens of people packed in like sardines, all with full shopping carts, and not one person in the picture is wearing a mask. As strange and as foreign as that sounds, it was just one year ago. Let’s say, one day, hopefully not too far down the road, we don’t have to wear masks to the grocery store. I wonder if people will go back comfortably, enjoying the shopping experience, or if we will have all been a little too scarred, if you will, from what we’ve been through.
Dr. Yu Ma: I think the memory will last for a long time, and that it’s going to take some time for people to change their behavior, to go back with full confidence about their prior shopping experience and how they used to shop. And also, on a different note, I think in the last 10 months, the industry has transformed from being physical, being offline, to online. They have done more in the last 10 months than the previous 10 years. In some way, people are getting used to shop online. It’s convenient, it has its benefits and it’s going to stay here, right? E-commerce have seen double digit growth year over year, but not same for physical stores. So, that format will stay.
Dave Kaufman: Now is the time, Dr. Ma believes, for stores to embrace the technologies that are available and do everything in their power to make the online shopping experience as warm and welcoming as possible.
Dr. Yu Ma: It’s time for us to think about, if we are moving from offline to online, from physical to digital, maybe not a hundred percent, but still for those online experiences, how could you optimize your shopping experience for your customers so they feel as good as if they’re shopping offline, and as if they’re touching, smelling those produce, bakeries, in-store? And that will be a big thing for all the retailers to consider, to it become a competitive advantage. If you have some technology to do that, to deal with that premise, you will be very different. You will provide this unique shopping experience compared to others. That will give you some strong advantage in competition.
Dave Kaufman: Another thing that I think about in relation to grocery shopping and COVID-19, and that has happened to me personally, is that if you order something online and the produce does not arrive to your liking. Say, it’s not as fresh as you like, or perhaps doesn’t smell as good as you thought it would. Well, to me, I view this as a one chance opportunity for the grocery store to get this right, because if they show up with rotten bananas, you may not order from them again.
Dr. Yu Ma: I think there is a lot of pressure on retailers and workers to deliver the goods customers want. When ordering groceries online, right now, I kind of have a slight lower expectation because I know it’s not me who’s picking up my grocery. So the banana may not be the exact grade of yellow I want to have. I’m okay with that for now. But, over time, I think we need to think about solutions for those potential problems. If we have enough data about the customers, it’s possible to figure out what that customer’s preference based on your shopping history. And, let’s say, suppose we shop online. I buy bananas for next week. And if I have done this multiple times, if each time I get my grocery, there’s a way for me to provide feedback to the retailers.
Dave Kaufman: He also believes that detailed consumer feedback would be the key to improving the way that AI can pick produce that will be to the customer satisfaction.
Dr. Yu Ma: If there’s a way for me to provide that feedback to retailers, I think that could help them to figure out what I want in the long run and naturally deliver what I need even without me being there. So that is something I haven’t seen a company trying to tackle that. They are providing this shopping experience, and assume everything’s standardized, but for produce, I totally agree with you, produce, you cannot standardize them. Every person has a different preference for their produce, which one they want to pick. And that has to be learned over time over the interactions customer had with the retailer, and the only way do you figure out what that customer’s real preference is trying to get enough data to decide.
Dave Kaufman: Do you see any potential problems with customers giving up that kind of information?
Dr. Yu Ma: I think we have to be concerned about privacy, right? We have to be concerned about how much information we give about ourselves and whether that can be used in the way we want them to be used. I think it’s something that as a society we have to work out. What’s the right amount of privacy we can get on those types of data? Some people are willing to sacrifice some privacy to get better recommendations, and some, they just don’t. So it’s a personal choice.
Dr. Yu Ma: And in fact, I think my colleagues is working on some project trying to balance the privacy versus the customization based on customer data and trying to achieve a balance somewhere in the middle. So I don’t think that’s an easy task to do, but given how much data every company collects about their customers, given the privacy policies, GDPR and so on, it’s something that every single retailer should think seriously about, how you can take advantage of data and how we can also ensure privacy of customers in that process.
Dave Kaufman: Another very interesting possibility that Ma raises is the ability for these new technologies to help us make better and healthier food choices.
Dr. Yu Ma: What I haven’t seen much used from that data is to help a customer to become a better shopper or to buy healthy stuff. So, one project I’m working on kind of in the middle is, we are trying to figure out how we can use customer’s shopping history and then make recommendations based on what you are buying now and also your overall health condition. What are good substitutes products to the existing one in your shopping basket?
Dave Kaufman: Could you give me an example of what you mean?
Dr. Yu Ma: So suppose you go shopping, you put a bunch of things in your basket, or if you shop online, it’s actually easier to explain in that context. You have multiple items in your basket, chocolate cookies, you could have white bread. And then, if I know something about your preference, if I know something about your health condition, we have enough data actually, to figure out and actually make a recommendation, in real time to the customer. Well, you know what you should buy, let’s say whole wheat bread in place of the white bread, it’s better for your health. It’s might also be cheaper at some promotion. And then based on what you buy, based on your existing basket in this app, I would also recommend this and that.
Dave Kaufman: I do wonder, is this a feature that people will want? More importantly, is this something that people will be able to trust? After all, how can we know if the app is telling us to buy a product because it’s healthier versus because they need to sell off stock and make room for another item on their shelves? Ma believes that it’s in the interest of the grocery store to create technologies that put the customer and their needs first.
Dr. Yu Ma: I think data can be used in that way to really provide assistance to customers, so they become better shoppers. They can leave better, but right now I don’t think those potential has been realized. Most of them are used for the benefit of retailers and manufacturers, not for the benefit of consumers.
Dave Kaufman: Earlier in the episode, we discussed ways in which Dr. Ma believes that stores need to pivot to make online purchasing a more user-friendly experience, in order to compensate for what has changed and what we’ve lost since March of 2020. As we conclude today’s episode, I’m left wondering just how much we can expect things to go back to the way they once were, be it at a store or hopefully one day inside a restaurant.
Dr. Yu Ma: Suppose we are able to go back to normal later this year with enough vaccinations and so on. Will people go back to how they shopped before? That’s an open question. There are two ways to think about that. One, people are going to go experience your life much, much more than before because of being so much in need of that experience. They have been deprived of that experience for almost a year. They really want to go back to that. So they’re going to spend more, they’re going to do dining out a lot more often than before, because they need that relaxation from the pandemic. That’s one way.
Dr. Yu Ma: Another way people would say you know what? Well, once I know how to cook at home, actually, it’s pretty nice to cook my own meal. It’s healthy, it’s convenient, it’s interesting to do that. I’m going to stick more with at home cooking, right? So they could actually keep the habit from doing COVID and continue doing that for their future.
Dave Kaufman: I have to say, as much as my cooking has vastly improved since the beginning of the pandemic, I hope that some semblance of what we lived before March of 2020 returns, and that once it does, we can go back to eating indoors with friends without feeling nervous about it, or go to the mall to buy clothes without feeling anxious.
Dr. Yu Ma: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s something I missed a lot. I hope to go back to that experience soon, but online will stay. Once we get used to the convenience it will stay for sure. I think that the only challenge is, after the pandemic, how will physical store continue competing against the online competitors? It’s something they have to figure out, given all the companies that are doing the transformation to move, not entirely online, but have a good presence online. It’s something really important for all the retailers to figure out. And also for many smaller retailers, I think they may not have the luxury to move online yet. It’s pressing for them to do that because this is just one pandemic, it’s really changing how business is done because of the restrictions and so on.
Dave Kaufman: While the predictions that COVID-19 would mark the end of physical shopping as we know it may have been premature, Ma believes that now is the perfect time to perfect a store’s online experience, especially if they’ve avoided doing so up to this point.
Dr. Yu Ma: This is also an opportunity for you to really think about, the future will be a hybrid of offline and online, and it’s time to move on to provide that component to your customers. So, I’m a firm believer of retail will be a mixture of physical and online, and maybe virtual is around. I don’t think online will completely replace physical, because of the experience. We just cannot replicate that experience yet online. Both format will exist for a long time and the company, if they want to survive, they have to be prepared to provide both formats to their shoppers. I notice a lot of smaller business, during COVID, they don’t have an efficient channel to reach your customers. And that is something, if they haven’t done that, if they are still surviving, they definitely should do it now.
Dave Kaufman: Will the carefree days of shopping until you drop, or fun-filled trips to the grocery store with your partner ever come back? Or will stores find a way to harness new technologies to replace that in-store feel-good factor with apps that allow us to shop physically alone, but with friends from across the globe along with us digitally? And will we learn to trust these technologies to help us make better, and perhaps healthier shopping choices?
Dave Kaufman: Join us as we navigate this new normal, together.