Online grocery shopping: How product data attributes can lead to a brighter future

The online experience can be directly correlated to the quality of the product data in your key systems.

Grocery has lagged behind other sectors when it comes to creating excellent online experiences. Due in large part to the fact that, prior to COVID-19, most people preferred to shop in physical stores.

Times have changed.

Now, more grocers are feeling the pressure to deliver compelling online experiences. And, to do that they will need to start to deal with their product data. In this article we’ll talk about the ways that product data impact the online grocery shopping experience.

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The in-store experience

When you walk through a grocery store, you see aisle after aisle filled with product options. You can do a quick visual scan for the brand and size you usually buy, and can probably locate it pretty quickly. You can check for alternatives that are on sale, or spot new products the store has started to carry. If you want to see which can of baked beans has less sugar, you can compare the two side by side.

The in-person experience offers a rich set of information and an overall positive experience.

Online grocery shopping

In contrast, online shopping, while on the increase, does not match the quality of the in-store experience. Particularly with respect to locating the products of interest and finding acceptable substitutions, online grocery shopping has yet to reach its potential.

Online shopping has been generally trending upward, and COVID-19 accelerated this trend. However, according to Supermarket News, the percent of total grocery sales accounted for by online shopping is still only10%. The untapped market presents a big opportunity.

Grocery search challenges

Why are online sales still so low? And what can retailers do to gain some market share?

When COVID-19 first appeared, many grocery stores lacked the infrastructure to provide quick service, including both curbside pickup and home delivery.

Supply chain issues led to other problems—in one study reported in July 2020, customers reported that only about half the products they requested were available. Odd and sometimes amusing substitutions were made, such as flour when bread was not available. As supplies improved and retail grocers lined up more delivery options (such as Instacart), supply chain issues abated somewhat, but the substitution problem remains

On the Walmart website, a search for “healthy foods” brings up over 1,000 items on 20 pages, starting with snacks, but change the search to “healthy food” in the singular, and over 100 items drop off. There are three different kinds of pizza on the first page alone, so questions may arise about the definition of “healthy.” A search for “bread” on this site produces 700 hits, and by page 6 out of 10, we are looking at pickles.

Clearly, some improved taxonomies and navigation capabilities would expedite users’ searches.

Retailers have taken this issue seriously and are addressing it with sophisticated technology. A study by Target’s AI Sciences group, for example, is using data mining and machine earning to develop networks of substitutable products. Using this technique and an in-house optimization engine in an experiment at 120 stores being used as hubs for online orders, researchers found a unit sales lift of over 11%.

Even if product attributes are sufficiently detailed, they may be overly static. Seasonal variations in products of interest are shown for major holidays but do not always anticipate changing needs in a highly responsive way. In addition, consumers’ awareness and preferences change over time. COVID-19 has sparked an interest in all kinds of sanitizing products, and proactive grocers should have quickly added a COVID attribute to their product descriptions. Many have done so by now, but responses were slow.

Improvement in online product presentation and analytics

Some of the boutique grocers are catching on to better ways to display their products online. Thrive Market presents a choice for categories of interest right on the first page--gluten free, keto, etc., and emphasizes on its home page the company’s ethical and sustainable sourcing, carbon-free shipping, and recyclable or compostable packaging. Shoppers can build their own “seafood basket” and personalize the market by indicating who they usually shop for, what type of diet they are interested in, their favorite brands, and what values are important to them.

Collecting this data allows the company to know its customers, to make better recommendations, and anticipate a customer’s needs or interests in food. But this approach also requires a carefully designed product database with very specific product data attributes, the ability to collect and store customer data, and analytics that match up the two. The leading grocers do make recommendations, but the lack of detail in their product data and nominal customer input may limit their relevance.

Looking ahead

The good news for independent grocers is that there is still a big market out there for online shoppers, and the gaps manifested by market leaders may be an opportunity for independents to serve customers better. Services for seniors, represent a growing market. Some older shoppers have become more comfortable with ordering products online, but they may still be an underserved group.

Aligning with the customers’ values, whether that means sustainability or competitive pricing, is another way to gain loyalty. Providing accurate information on product ingredients  and tailoring suggestions effectively to customers’ preferences are among the other avenues worth exploring.

All of these opportunities are made possible by making the investment in enriching your product data beyond the basics.


Our team of product data experts are ready to help you use your product data to differentiate your business.  Give us a shout to see how we can get you started.

Meet the Author
Dave Skrobela