Retailer Websites Should Do More for Consumers

January 19, 2010

Retailer Websites Should Do More for Consumers

Supermarkets that put themselves in shoppers’ slippers (or sneakers), and use their websites to foster closer communities, could make their physical stores and online sites more frequent destinations. Retailers that succeed with Web communities that sync with customer lifestyles could keep their stores top of mind more days of the week—when people are at home on their computers, or on the go with their PDAs. 

Retailers could help families get more out of each store trip rather than simply promote commerce. Information about nutrition, foods for certain health conditions, least crowded times of the week to shop, rotating specials, prepared foods of the day, and recipes are some topical ideas that should resonate.  Promotional tie-ins with non-competing local merchants (movie theatres, fitness centers, dry cleaners) could also make the supermarket a ‘hub’ of online searches to save in many ways.

Host discussion boards around topics of shared interest like these, and build buzz. People that share tips under the retail online banner will feel more connected to each other and to the retailer. Such tools on a retail site could powerfully mirror the role of the physical store as social hub—where neighbors and PTA members, religious congregants and soccer moms all go and converse in the aisles.

The approach we’re advocating at could make people more strategic shoppers—by helping them plan trips better, scrutinize labels more knowledgeably at the shelf, and save money. We contend that the stores that people feel are on their side now will likely be remembered and rewarded once the economy turns more favorable.

Let’s call this a second layer of sociability that reaches customers when they’re receptive, comfortable and seeking knowledge. It is one that helps cast the retailer as partner rather than adversary.  Here’s an analogy, a nightmare that supermarkets could well avoid:  People resolve to get fitter every January, sign up for gyms, and often drop out quickly without ever trying a personal trainer or hearing good advice that would keep them on course with a program. Two big losers here: the gyms that don’t reach out enough and the customers who fail to benefit.

Along come virtual health clubs as alternatives, online destinations that promise to help people diet and exercise wisely to improve their physical condition. This is done without the stench of the fitness room, the bad manners of customers who don’t wipe machines down after use, without lines or intimidation. Granted, some people use the gym environment as motivation and make friends at the gym. Others would just like to get fitter without embarrassment or discomfort.

To us, this sounds similar to conflicting feelings that people have about shopping. The earlier a retailer can set the stage for comfortable and successful store visits—through their websites—the more natural these relationships will be and the longer they will endure.