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Canadian grocery shoppers want more tech but still crave the human touch, study says

VANCOUVER—While the unstoppable march of automation exempts no industry, including Canada’s grocery stores, there’s a dichotomy between the increasing use of technology and customers’ desire for a human touch, a new study finds.

Grocery stores are becoming the next “community centres,” according to researchers, where people choose to shop in person not only because they want the freshest produce but also to fulfil the need for human connection.

“There’s clearly a paradox between the use of technology and how grocers should be humanizing their service to their customers,” said Sylvain Charlebois, principal investigator and food policy professor at Dalhousie University.

“There seems to be traction with self checkouts and online buying, but at the same time, 81.7 per cent of respondents want assistance when they’re in the store.”

The findings follow this year’s expansion of Amazon Go stores, which offer a novel no-cashier technology that means customers never have to interact with anyone.

Roughly 66 per cent of Canadians use self checkouts, the research found, and a third of Canadians are thinking of buying food online. That could be one reason grocers are deploying “aggressive” e-commerce strategy of late and feeling the pressure to make it seamless, Charlebois explained.

But self checkouts aren’t “overly efficient,” he added, though people continue to use them. He suggested the industry dissect the shopping experience from start to finish, arguing the exit piece is likely the most mismanaged.

Shopping preferences vary drastically depending on where Canadians live: urban dwellers prefer to know a grocery store owner far more than their rural counterparts.

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“While urban centres are embracing the localization of food, in rural communities price seems to be more of a determining factor for consumers,” Charlebois explained.

That’s because many rural grocers are managing stores in markets facing economic decline, he added. And that affects how people consume food.

Urban dwellers will visit the same grocery store sometimes more than once a day, but in rural communities that number drops to roughly once a week.

The study — which surveyed 1,053 people in October in both English and French — aimed to better understand Canadians’ grocery shopping habits and pinpoint how grocers can make a go of it in today’s food economy.

Charlebois said the “phenomena” of groceries being a community meeting place is “very real,” after hearing from store owners across the country.

More and more groceries are setting up areas where people can eat food and meet people, he explained. Some have even set up park benches in the aisles, while others have created a patio.

That’s why independently owned stores will likely have an edge over corporate grocers, he said. “They can customize their offerings to local communities much quicker, faster and more efficiently than corporate. That is not to say corporates don’t have a future, but I think results point to the fact that independent grocers have that potential.”

According to Statistics Canada , retail food sales dropped this year but convenience and specialty stores bucked that trend. Food sales from convenience and specialty stores spiked six per cent and 10 per cent, respectively.

In other words, Charlebois noted, major chains are seeing customers flee as food demand becomes more fragmented. The average Canadian shopper visits 2.3 grocery stores regularly, about 1.29 times a week and spends roughly 32 minutes shopping.

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While he expected Canadians to spend more time shopping than their American counterparts, that was not the case. U.S. shoppers spend 43 minutes on average, he noted.

“It appears Canadians are shopping more in stores, visiting the same stores less frequently and spending less time per visit,” he said. “But even though people are really looking for convenience, that human touch actually seems to be recognized as being very important.”

The Grocery Experience National Survey Report had an estimated margin of error of 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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