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Food futures: retail is about the journey and the destination

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Food Matters Live conference 2017

This November we attended the annual Food Matters Live conference in the Excel in London to hear about the latest insights and successful case studies at the forefront of the food futures movement.

We have gathered some of those insights to explore how retail brands can successfully move with the times and engage with consumers of today, ensuring that they are focusing not only on the eventual destination, but how to get there.

Here are some of our findings...

Make it easy

Millennials. Love the term or hate it, ‘how to engage with millennials’ was a predictably hot topic on the agenda for Food Matters Live 2017. Unsurprising, as this slice of the UK population was reported to be 13.8 million people strong back in 2016. But among the slating stereotypical qualities most commonly thrown at the millennial generation (lazy and self-entitled, to name a couple), some poignant facts emerged from research carried out by the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry.

According to a study conducted by IGD for the UK’s number one neighbourhood retailer, McColl’s, millennials are increasingly moving away from the traditional retail ritual of the ‘weekly shop’. Instead they shop little and often and typically on-the-go. This is linked to the perception (although not necessarily the reality) of being extremely time poor and constantly ‘busy’. As a result, they do not prioritise long periods of time to the planning, travelling and organisation of bigger food shops. Instead, many of these people focus their efforts into meal/purpose-specific ‘missions’ when they buy food products.

Amazon Go’s cashless shopping concept is now a year old, but still paints what’s perceived to be a highly futuristic view of a seamless bricks-and-mortar retail experience. In the digital sphere, brands and retailers have access to a previously unimaginable trough of data which can be used to not only make their retail experience feel personalised but incredibly easy too.

But why would you invest time or money into a time-saving shopping experience for consumers? How much of an impact can it make to the brands themselves? According to Mike Davis, head of product at Sainsbury’s, the trick for brands retailing online and offline is to understand that “we think much less than we think we think”. Retailers should keep customers moving through the shopping process in their subconscious state (not having to think much at all) through the implementation of data-driven UX design and mission-based layouts in-store. By removing each small ‘request’ we make of consumers, the purchasing journey becomes easier – increasing frequency and volume of purchase. Simply put, the less stages there are and the easier it is will result in less attrition from the purchase consideration phase through to actual purchase.

In a test Mike ran with his team, customers were segmented based on affinity. When given £2 off of new products, customers felt as though they had to ‘work’ to use it, as it asked them to actively step outside of their shopping ritual. Instead, when presented with a smaller discount coupon against the specific product that the customers purchased week after week (raisins, in this case), it was redeemed more frequently – despite being worth less to the customer.

Retailers should use buying data to empower consumers to make good choices. When it’s about conscious versus unconscious or ‘ask’ versus ‘ease’ – simplifying the journey wins, hands down.

Inspiration is queen

‘Mission-based’ shopping is carried out in the most convenient and time-saving ways possible. As a result, these customers are purpose-driven but aren’t particularly ‘narrow’ in their method because they’ve skipped the planning part. As a result, consumers are much more vulnerable to (and actively seek) external sources of inspiration – this was another prevalent theme that emerged from brand marketing research. Brands have the opportunity to connect with and influence consumers before, during and after the purchase exchange, and should be engaging with them throughout for maximum impact.

As we’ve discussed, millennial shoppers are progressively placing value on two things above all else – their time and your quality. They will either pay to make the process quicker and easier or they will pay for an experience that gives them a sense of delight . In black and white terms it’s essentially 'make it worth my while or get out of my way'. Ruthless, in other words.

Creating an inspirational experience is a great way to add brand value for customers and it can (and should) begin well before your customers actually start shopping. Never before has such a culture of sharing existed – just take the explosion of food photography on Instagram as an example. A huge population of people are now accustomed to taking pictures of their food on a daily basis and in the process, they’re sharing their buying and consumption patterns. It’s the customer data that dreams are made of.

In CBD’s recent social mine of more than 10m social posts about food, drink and supplements in the US, the evidence showed that food no longer represented sustenance. Instead, at least in the public domain, we use food as emotional symbols to capture and express significant moments in our lives. If handled with care, it is an incredible opportunity for brands to engage with consumers in a highly personal and meaningful way.

Power to the people

But let’s come back to the word ‘inspiration’. With momentum building around our understanding of the importance of health (in its many forms), consumers are looking to the friends, retailers, the media and the brands that they perceive to be knowledgeable to help them make better choices – and they will use the plethora of channels at their fingertips to look for such inspiration.

An obvious consideration here is the role of social media and ‘influencers’ in that journey. Despite being independent, vloggers, bloggers, Instagrammers and others are having a growing power on consumers because they are inspiration led. As trusted authorities, they are leading conversations and many established brands are struggling to play catch-up. Because of this, they play a significant role in influencing customer perceptions by providing highly visual, personal and relevant content for their audience in the right places at just the right times.

The growing popularity of free-from and vegan food has been largely attributed to consumers driving the trend from the bottom-up online. According to Viva's associate director, Tony Wardle, “People aren’t relying on traditional forms of communication anymore. They can research anything they want to from the device in their pocket – and they are.”

According to Jamie Murray, head of retail at Google, consumers ‘love’ researching for inspiration. “Best product for…” searches are up 18% on last year and the introduction of voice-activated devices at home have demonstrated consumers thirst for knowledge, with usage predominantly around search functionality and in particular – recipes.

Smells like success

Controversially, neuroscience researcher Baroness Susan Greenfield, argued that the time we spend in this way opens up other avenues to improve brand creativity: “The connections that we make between our brain cells adapt to our contextual learnings and technology is changing us. Search engines are replacing learned knowledge with ‘pub-quiz facts’ and social media is replacing our practise of interpersonal communication with small, sparse exchanges – resulting in a weaker sense of identity.”

With screens acting as our primary sensory substitution, brands (food brands in particular) should consider how taste (which cannot be fulfilled) and our perception of taste (which can) will be influenced by vision. Similarly, smell can also be influenced by hearing – the second sensory stimulant in the online retailer’s armoury. At the other end of the scale, touch and taste are becoming increasingly novel experiences for consumers, which means bricks and mortar is an arena to implement multi-sensory marketing, connect more deeply with consumers and make a more meaningful impact.

More insights from this year's Food Matters Live coming soon when we'll be talking about how personalisation is transforming the face of the food and drink industry.

Fleurie Forbes-Martin is marketing and communications manager at Salad Creative.