If your Instacart or Shipt delivery driver is one of your best friends now, you’re part of the surge in online grocery buying that propelled retail digital transformation years ahead of expectations.

Today, as the next wave of the coronavirus pandemic rises around the world, retail experts predict that online ordering and home delivery or contactless curbside pickup will account for a significant share of grocery purchasing.

As shoppers get more comfortable letting someone else pick out their bananas, laundry detergent and breakfast cereal, they open up new markets for both established brick-and-mortar brands and ecommerce competitors to stake and hold on to their claims.

Email is a major success driver in the hypercompetitive online grocery marketplace

Consumers might start buying online by downloading an app or ordering from a website, but email is the vehicle that keeps shoppers coming back.

A supermarket email message can be a digital shopping list, coupon wallet and virtual sampling station all in one. But success depends on one key ingredient: capturing clean, safe email addresses at the beginning.


Why Online Shopping is Changing Grocery

Late in 2019, retail experts like eMarketer predicted online grocery sales would jump 18.9% in 2020. By March 19, after states began ordering shelter-in-place, downloads of shopping apps shot up by triple digits compared with 2019:

  • 218% for Instacart,
  • 160% for Walmart’s app, and
  • 124% for Target-owned Shipt.

Digital-native Millennials and Generation Z had accounted for much of the growth in online shopping and home delivery, but they aren’t the only ones clicking and collecting or watching for the delivery driver.

An eMarketer/Bizrate study tracks who’s grocery-shopping online and where they’re going:

From Which Digital Channels Do US Digital Buyers Purchase Food or Beverage Products? (% of respondents, by demographic, June 2020)

Image via eMarketer


The surge leveled off somewhat after the first wave of the pandemic subsided. Local governments lifted quarantines and more shoppers felt comfortable doing in-person shopping.

However, online ordering is still higher than it was in 2019, and retail experts now predict it has permanently altered consumer shopping habits and preferences.


How Email Can Increase Order Value, Customer Trust and Loyalty

As the eMarketer chart shows, customers have options, including:

  • Pure-play ecommerce like Amazon and Boxed, and
  • Hybrid services that use dedicated in-store or curbside pickup and same-day home delivery with products from local store shelves.

Email is the common denominator among all of these shopping options. It can help all providers, from ecommerce to local stores and delivery services, capitalize on their strengths and overcome the friction that keeps them from realizing the possibilities.

Here are four ways email can help retail grocery operations build strong customer relationships with new and long-term shoppers:


1. Personalization and cross-selling/upselling to fend off competition, encourage new-product discovery and increase order values.

One-grocery-bag-fits-all doesn’t cut it anymore, especially when competing head to head with Amazon’s highly personalized shopping reminders.

All too often, supermarket newsletters are just digital versions of coupon inserts and bag stuffers. They don’t reflect what individual customers are buying or entice them to try new products.

Stores can use purchase data generated from loyalty programs and repeat orders to find and feature the products their customers buy most often. C-selling and upselling new-product newsletter content can create a virtual version of in-store sampling. This helps build builds new markets and increases total order values and profitability.


2. Real-time location data keeps shoppers on top of last-minute changes.

Real-time location data is huge in grocery operations, from Amazon on down to the corner bodega because it reflects local tastes, buying habits and product availability.

Stores can collect location data on each customer and link it to the customer record for the highest relevance or use moment-of-open technology that detects location and automatically adjusts content to match it.

Here are four suggestions for using real-time location data to segment lists, target data and respond to local conditions:

      • Out of stocks/Restocks on high-demand items
      • New products by region
      • Update store hours by region
      • Store policies by region
      • Last-minute closings or openings
      • Order tracking that lets shoppers see when their orders are being picked and when they are ready


3. Email content builds trust to bring shoppers back into stores.

Consumers still hesitate to go back into mass shopping experiences like malls and shopping centers, according to surveys from Coresight Research and others. An Ipsos survey in June said 62% of consumers will not shop in stores that don’t meet health and safety requirements (masks, sanitizing, social distance requirements, checkout shields, etc.).

Although consumers are somewhat less resistant to in-store shopping:

  • 53% of shoppers are avoiding  large-scale shopping services, and
  • 39% are staying out of all stores.

Supermarkets can use email to explain how it is keeping shoppers and employees safe and communicate rule changes quickly.

In the next section, an email example from Asda, the UK supermarket chain, shows how to mix new products and editorial content with in-store safety information to set customer expectations.


4. Educational content takes the work and worry out of online shopping.

Worrying about staying safe in stores is just one of the objections many consumers have about grocery shopping online, especially if they are relatively new to online shopping in general.

Buying shelf-stable goods like cereal, toothpaste and detergent is one thing – trusting the store to meet quality expectations for perishables like produce, dairy, meat/meal alternatives and bakery is a major stumbling block.

  • Email can reinforce website assertions about safety, quality, convenience, price quality and concerns about returning items shoppers find sub-standard.
  • Each email can include reminders explaining how the store chooses products, manages payments and deliveries and handles returns.


The secret to email success starts with top-quality email addresses

Accurate, up-to-date and genuine email data, obtained by permission, is the most important asset of an email-marketing program. The best data comes right from customers when they use their email addresses to sign up for loyalty programs and agree to receive messages.

Having a list of email addresses isn’t enough. Stores must also check to make sure the addresses are correct and are connected to real people. Regular list hygiene can help stores refresh good data and keep bad data from creeping in. These two steps are essential:

1. Check all email addresses before sending. Flag potential problem email addresses, correct spelling errors (“gmial” for Gmail) and configuration mistakes (missing the “@” symbol or “.com”) and validate to look for problem areas.

2. Prevent phony, disposable or otherwise meaningless from getting into the database. This includes throwaway addresses that accept email but never get checked for messages, “role” accounts like “support@XYZ.com” that aren’t connected to individual humans, or potential blocklist triggers.


Inspirational Email Examples


1. Asda

Asda, the UK-based retailer, elevates the standard supermarket stuffer ad into a series of mini-stores. Instead of listing individual products on promotion, the copy groups them into a storyline (“Tonight’s tea,” or supper). It suggests new products to recreate a restaurant experience. This includes a recipe to encourage buying and experimentation and concludes with reminders about safe in-store shopping.

2. Bristol Farms

Magazine-quality photography, storytelling and imaginative ways to showcase new products help Bristol Farms entice shoppers to its Southern California stores.


3. Trucchi’s

Stores that don’t have access to creative agencies can still produce an email that drives purchases and engages customers. This email from Massachusetts-based Trucchi’s puts employees in the forefront and communicates the brand’s commitment to pandemic-oriented safety by showing them wearing masks.

Wrapping Up: Email Makes Online Grocery Shopping Better

Although online grocery shopping has leveled off somewhere in recent weeks, a resurgence is likely. As COVID infections rise in most parts of the world, any resulting government-ordered store and restaurant closings means another growth period is coming.

Although supermarkets are considered essential services, they are still competing with ecommerce providers and losing margin to third-party home delivery services. Email can help them connect with shoppers in the inbox with content and offers that are relevant and valuable, whether shoppers connect with them in the store or on the website.

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