Today, shopping is increasingly digital, the retailer and customer completely separated, and a customer’s value lies not in their friendly wave as they enter a store, but in the data displayed in their online behaviour.
Dr Kimberly Thomas-Francois, Thompson Rivers University, Canada, and Professor Simon Somogyi, University of Guelph, Canada, are scholars of consumer behaviour in the food business and are particularly interested in how technology shapes food retailing – a concept called ‘digital grocery shopping’.
Read the Research Features article: doi.org/10.26904/RF-147-4481154037
Read the original Research: doi/10.1108/BFJ-06-2022-0510
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Hello and welcome to Research Pod! Thank you for listening and joining us today.
In this episode, we look at the work of Dr Kimberly Thomas-Francois, Thompson Rivers University, Canada, and Professor Simon Somogyi, University of Guelph, Canada, who are scholars of consumer behaviour in the food business and are particularly interested in how technology shapes food retailing – a concept called ‘digital grocery shopping’. Understandably, what they’ve discovered is valuable for retailers planning the next levels in digital grocery shopping.
Before supermarkets, smart retail was embodied in the efficient, personal service of the typical neighbourhood grocery stores. Supermarkets squeezed out those stores and introduced the convenience of buying many different products in one location. Today, that location is increasingly digital, the retailer and customer completely separated, and a customer’s value lies not in their friendly wave as they enter a store, but in the data displayed in their online behaviour. Digitalising the shopping experience in this way may open the way for what retailers consider smart retail technology, but as two leading researchers in food retail have discovered, that technology is only as effective as the willingness of humans to use it.
Food is a crucial area of retail research because, unlike t-shirts and trainers, it is critical for human existence. Retail technology for items such as clothing may have evolved to the point where shoppers can step into a simulated shopping space, browse aisles, and drop products into a virtual cart for delivery to their door, but food retail is subject to different customer demands and expectations – you can’t test the texture of a block of virtual brie. Over the past few years, Thomas-Francois and Somogyi have focused their research to finding out why, when people buy food, they are willing to embrace certain forms of smart retail technology but not others – and what shapes their reasons for doing so.
Digital grocery shopping is a broad term that combines online and smart grocery methods. While online, or virtual, grocery shopping is familiar for anyone who has clicked on a bottle of wine online and had it delivered, smart grocery shopping is relatively new. It refers to purchasing grocery items at a particular store without interacting with store employees, only the multiple technology points throughout the store, such as the self-checkout technology.
The ultimate example is the ‘Amazon Go’ chain of cashierless convenience stores that employ sensors, smart cameras, and artificial intelligence so that customers can select what they want and walk out with it; the smart technology tracks what they take and charges their registered debit card when they exit. Thomas-Francois and Somogyi have discovered that the willingness of consumers to embrace such online or smart grocery shopping depends on their relationship with the technology behind it – how ready they are to use it – and the optimisation of their learning once they start using it.
Technological readiness refers to consumers’ perceived comfort and familiarity with technology. In a study of consumers using a virtual grocery platform in their native Canada, Thomas-Francois and Somogyi found that consumers who perceived themselves as technologically ready were more likely to have a positive attitude towards virtual grocery shopping and a higher intention to adopt it. However, once they interacted with virtual grocery shopping, the quality – or optimisation – of their learning experience dictated whether they would continue to do so.
The study uncovered that consumers who found a virtual grocery shopping platform that was intuitive and easy to use, provided adequate support and guidance, and offered personalised recommendations, helped them to develop a positive attitude towards virtual grocery shopping and a higher intention to adopt it. Of course, such adoption won’t happen if the willingness to use it is not there in the first place, and that’s where human nature can be a bit of a bother.
As humans, we can be either excited or apprehensive about new technology, and Thomas-Francois and Somogyi have discovered that culture helps determine that. Their research challenges the standard technology acceptance model that our intention to use technology is primarily determined by its perceived usefulness and ease of use. The researchers point to the rapid adoption of digital grocery shopping in countries like China, which have a culture of embracing technology. Trust in technology plays an integral part in developing such a culture.
That trust is difficult to create if socially influencing factors such as social media cast doubt upon it. Thomas-Francois and Somogyi have shown that developing the necessary social acceptance of any technological innovation, such as that in digital grocery shopping, is vital in integrating it into people’s lives. However, consumer learning in this regard is mainly informal, based on mimicking the behaviour of others who influence them, and that may not be the retailer hoping to attract their custom, especially those ‘potentials’ and ‘fence sitters’ who are undecided.
Thomas-Francois and Somogyi’s research suggests grocery retailers hoping to encourage the cultural acceptance of any digital technology – whether smart, virtual, or even simulated – need to make it trendy and appealing. They must also embrace social media and the use of influencers in marketing campaigns to get people excited about it. If the experience is fulfilling, they will be more willing to embrace it. Who knows, one day, we may all be reaching for our VR headsets to buy some brie and a nice bottle of Chianti.
ResearchPod was lucky enough to ask Thomas-Francois and Somogyi more about their work.
The resaerchers shared their insights into what the biggest biggest stumbling blocks are for the adoption of new digital grocery shopping technology. These include consumers’ unwillingness to give up the power of choosing. The personal connection with touching, smelling, sensing, and even tasting certain foods, especially fruits and vegetables before purchasing them. That search for fresh or look-fresh that you can’t guarantee that the shelf-picker will do on your behalf. It comes down to trust.
In addition, the complexity of the technology and fear of ‘doing something wrong’ are factors impacting adoption. Also, the impact of the people that we trust, particularly family and friends, to help us understand and use the technology is so important. Getting consumers out of their comfort zone and trying new ways of shopping is not without its difficulties.
We also explored the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the development of digital grocery shopping.
Thomas-Francois and Somogyi explained that due to the lockdown and the fear of the consequences of human contact, many shoppers including the traditionalist consisting mostly of older consumers began to use digital and virtual means of food shopping. It is important to note that certain products, fruits and vegetables still had special in-store demand even during COVID-19 while other packages of foods were purchased in-store.
Fear of contagion played a part in the adoption of some digital grocery shopping modes. For example, ‘click and collect’ became popular as you don’t have to go into a store but you also don’t have to pay for delivery. But this model is now becoming less popular.
Thomas-Francois and Somogyi also shared they hopes for further research in this area.
As the researchers point out, the area is evolving, and we expect over time as the GenZs begin to lead the world, adoption will be faster. As the world embraces the novel metaverse and begins to live in virtual spaces, it would be useful to see how this might be able to affect grocery shopping. There is a lot of unknown, therefore much more to study. Also, how much capital investments would retailers be willing to make to digitise grocery shopping would influence how far we can go.
Younger consumers are more amenable to using these technologies. Older consumers are less amenable, so future research projects should focus on what model – or even a hybrid traditional/digital shopping model – is needed that provides trust and convenience to older consumers. The advent of completely unstaffed grocery stores and how they impact consumer use is of interest, too.
That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening. Links to Thomas-Francois and Somogyi’s original research will be will be linked in the show notes below and, as always, stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science.
See you again soon.