Grocery retailing: a new design challenge


Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s and most recently Tesco have recently reported losses – changing market dynamics are challenging the FMCG sector as more consumers turn to online grocery. Does future grocery success rely upon rethinking design strategies for the online channel?

Three of the UK’s ‘big four’ supermarkets – Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s and most recently Tesco – have reported losses over the past weeks. This is a sign that although the grocery sector has largely weathered the recession storm, it still faces challenging times. It’s changing market dynamics that are challenging the sector – primarily brought about by the rise of online, convenience and discounters.

A holistic understanding of both consumer/shopper needs and the role of design across touchpoints is essential to staying ahead of the game in FMCG. A recent internal research project, conducted by The Big Picture, that looks at online grocery retail helps bring this to life.

It’s no secret that the current online experience is very functional. The main driver for online grocery shopping is convenience, providing shoppers with a supermarket at their fingertips; it’s often used to make repeat and/or bulk purchases anytime, anywhere – to be delivered at a suitable time and place. This is in contrast to the more emotive and sensory experience shoppers have in store, where there’s the opportunity to physically interact with packaging, be more impulsive and perhaps discover new brands and products.

Unlike other retail sectors (such as fashion) that continue to be innovative in the way they use the digital channel to drive engagement and sales, there’s little evidence of such action from grocery retailers at present. Furthermore, there’s a real lack of differentiation between grocery retailers’ websites: the same restrictive filters, vast expanses of white and lack of dynamism all contribute to a rather disengaging and uninspiring experience across the board. Ocado is perhaps the exception: offering more for shoppers to engage with; injecting more colour and dynamism through an editorial/magazine-like style with frequent innovations and updates to the site and app including reviews and richer functionality such as social media links.

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We know that packaging design is a major touchpoint in the traditional bricks-and-mortar grocery environment. Our research highlighted that consumers are less inclined to engage with design, including pack design, when shopping online. Currently, FMCG packing is predominantly designed with the 3D store environment in mind, but these design principles cannot always be transferred to the 2D online world. For example, pack detail that’s easy to see in-hand gets lost on screen, while proportion – and therefore pack size – is harder to judge online. Another change affecting design is the way in which products are ‘merchandised’ on screen often lacks a rationale to shoppers; brands and products that would never be merchandised together in-store may be presented as neighbours, and brand blocks are broken entirely.

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It’s clear that a rethink is required. It’s not enough to simply employ bricks-and-mortar design strategies to the online channel. A new tactic is required that takes into consideration this new consumer interface and the different way in which design is presented. For grocery retailers this means taking a fresh look at the online channel in a bid to address the overly functional and low engagement nature of their sites. For brand and marketing managers it’s a case of an increased awareness of the context in which their products might end up being presented to consumers/shoppers, and the subsequent implications for design strategy in the 2D online world.

There’s a real opportunity for both FMCG brands and grocery retailers to use design in the digital channel to build a stronger point of difference and encourage greater loyalty. In a marketplace dominated so strongly by price, establishing a clear point of difference vs. competitors, and in doing so engendering greater loyalty, is essential to future success.

If you’d like to find out more about our thinkpiece on online grocery please get in touch!