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Online: off kilter

The mainstream UK grocers have been tripping themselves up all year and everyone has been laying into them while they’re down.

Yet in the UK, online grocery is marked out as the rare success story. But we’ve been at this for a while. So why haven’t those out-of-town sheds gone the same way as the bookstores*?

Why are people still shopping there when you consider the traffic, parking, weather, other people, limitations on what you can fit in the car, and everything else you’d rather be doing?

Something must be wrong somewhere.

Why don’t I do my grocery shopping online? I must be target group 1. But they’ve never asked me why I don’t.

Watch Me Think have just finished sharing the final highlight films from a large study looking at hours and hours of self-filmed footage of the entire online (grocery) experience. The below are some observations based on what we saw.

Lost in the thumbnail

Tesco has posited that the British online shopper is a boring one. But the retailer (in this particular case now breaking new ground by “targeting” and showing “relevant content based on what people are searching for”) is the one that sets the agenda, and the one that bores the shopper. The retailer is also the one that wrings its hands at what it loses by shoppers not visiting the store, rather than looking to the opportunities presented by having so many people spending so much time and money on its website so often.

How does it respond? Thumbnails, carpet-bombing with promotions fit for all etc. In store, packaging sells the product; online, the thumbnail attempts to pitch the packaging, but it even fails at that. Shoppers are unaware of the most basic things, such as the size (how much rocket is 200gm; is that a “big” bottle?): they are aware only of how much they are spending, not how much they are buying. Shoppers are bored, not boring. You have to wonder, what hope for NPD? Unless there’s some imagination from somewhere, or absurd online-only discounting, precious little. The opportunities are enormous. It’s really not that hard.

Lost in the favourites

But it’s so convenient! At least it is at one end – and if your life is too full to wait in for a delivery at the other end, then online shopping just isn’t for you. With convenience comes a retailer loyalty unmatched in the offline world – obviously there is some promiscuity – but this generally comes with favourites and repeat orders, and favourites carry a cost. They cut the range, of course, they cut the time online, they cut the opportunity to spread the wings, and they increase the temptation to get in and out. If you select from what you’ve bought before, your basket will be … yes, fairly boring. Retailers have left an open goal with favourites: time-pressed shoppers have buried it.


You know I never buy pork and I always buy organic meat, so why do you think I’d be interested in bargain sausages? When you know so much about me, why do you throw this mess, this junk at me? Why is chilli sauce thrown in with the shampoo? You know what I’m interested in, why can’t you offer it to me? Why don’t you give me something back? Please use all that data I know you collect about my shopping and me.


So packaging is a problem, which makes it an opportunity (we spoke about this at PIRA’s packaging summit). It’s a problem if you expect a small image of a pack to sell a product. It’s a problem because online it plays no emotional part in the transaction: the shopper doesn’t touch or feel the quality, and is just annoyed with any excess when it arrives. The world of less branded refills (and the associated ‘green’ opportunities open up massively – someone else is bringing it to my door so firstly they can bring more of it (as they’re carrying it) and secondly it doesn’t have to be all over-branded. You’ve already sold it to me – just send me the product. I have the branded pack ready and willing to hold the refill. The interesting tipping point will be when the mainstream retailers realise their out of town warehouses are shopped at enough, make them distribution centres and offer manufacturers the chance to stock ‘online only’ packs. So much to talk about on packaging, so little space.

The brand ambassadors

Pah – those unsophisticated, shameless C2Ds wrapped in their flags. Yet delivery drivers represent retailers’ most positive consumer touchpoint of all – a great service, appreciated, respected, valued. While executives make fools of themselves in the boardroom, and store staff, where they can be found, rarely leave our respondents singing their praises, these lads shoulder the burden. People love getting their stuff delivered to them – simple as that. Now if only they could deliver things that weren’t available in store – bulk packages that they go to Costco for, for example, (relevant) product samples – and didn’t drop off so many useless plastic bags, short dated goods and utterly pointless, wasteful packaging, things would be just fine…

Come on online…you can do it, you just need to put a lot more effort it and stop trying to just copy Amazon (because they haven’t got it right yet either).

P.S. the game’s afoot. You just need a little imagination



  • Ed’s Note: Oct 2015 – it seems paper books are making a comeback with Waterstones announcing recently that it will stop selling Kindles. Beware the bandwagon here for “eBooks are dead”. It’s all about a rush of uptake for something new, and the markets then re-balancing as customers find the best uses for different things in different contexts.