A prolonged downturn could make multi-channel shopping more popular, SymphonyIRIs Street argues

A prolonged downturn could make multi-channel shopping more popular, SymphonyIRI's Street argues

The impact of multi-channel retailing has been evident in many non-food sectors for years and, while it is in early days in the grocery industry, online sales of food are forecast for rapid growth. In his latest Street talk column, SymphonyIRI vice president Rod Street outlines why consumers are turning to online - and why suppliers and retailers must be ready.

Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke recently said the increasing number of consumers buying non-food online and using multi-channel solutions such as click-and-collect could spell the end of the era of growth for the large out-of-town stores and lead to a new shift in grocery retailing.

After 50 years of growth, grocery retailers are taking stock of their channel strategies. It's about time. The emergence of multi-channel shopping and consumer demands for price transparency have already upturned the economics of retailing in many other areas – books, toys, computing and consumer electronics – and as Internet-influenced shopping continues to grow, it impacts ever more sectors as it spreads through clothing, leisurewear, used cars and other product markets.

It is still early days in food and most comments to date have been on the impact on non-food. But its impact even here could be significant. Maybe 2012 will be a year in which we start to see how multichannel might challenge the current supply economics of big box grocery stores. 

High footfall has enabled the traffic generating food stores to enter other retail sectors and undercut prices and margins. This dynamic has seemed almost unstoppable in recent years. However, the signs of a tidal shift are evident.

The growth of multi-channel food shopping continues apace. It offers shoppers convenience for the essential household big shop:

  • avoiding the cost of petrol and organising the family if home delivery is used
  • mitigating the tedium of the trip to the out-of-town store, if click-and-collect is preferred
  • allowing easy selection from the standard 2-300 SKUs that households actually buy in a year
  • providing an increasingly rigorous, technology-supported price comparison to optimise the basket for deals
  • enabling the pre-planning that most shoppers do to be integrated into the shop itself at home
  • avoiding the impulsive temptations of a walk around the store to add to the basket (something that we know shoppers in France use the click-and-collect service for)

Will it replace the grocery visit? No not at all. Smaller baskets, the desire to go out to shop, unplanned needs, more experiential trip types and one-person households will all ensure that food shopping remains a strongly outdoor pursuit.

But then it hasn't done this elsewhere either. The trend is about choice – using all and any channel to suit – not merely online. Nonetheless the economics of the large store can still be changed radically by the shift.

As drop densities grow for home delivery, it becomes possible for delivery charges to fall and profitability to increase; bigger families with hard-pressed diaries increasingly take out the big trips; and click-and-collect services spread with the growth of local drop off points. The culmination of these changes creates enough momentum to thin out the opportunity for profitable big box stores (both in terms of size and density). 

With the prospect of sustained recessionary pressures for several years to come these pressures will only increase. Frugal shopping trends evident across many Western economies fuel shoppers' desires for more control of their spend and assurance on the quality of the deal, which will help to make such demands a more routine pattern in their grocery shop (even software enabled!).

How long will this take? Not as long as people think. In the UK over Christmas, two million people used mysupermarket.co.uk to compare prices, shop and create lists across the major multiples. In the US, three-quarters of consumers already shop in five or more channels to meet their needs.  In France, two-thirds of shoppers who have used click-and-collect now spend over half their food budget this way. Smartphones, which already have a 50% penetration in many European markets, will accelerate this as they are increasingly used in shopping. 

These changes will present different opportunities and threats differently across categories, shopping trips, consumer segments and brands, but they will make a significant difference. It is therefore a good time for suppliers and retailers to look farther forward and set a strategy for a new multichannel world of food shopping. After all, it is always easier to manoeuvre before the tide comes over your boots.