The world at the shelf-edge

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Giving customers choice is about giving them help to find the right product or group of products.  Peter Ward, UK County Manager at Pricer, explains how to help customers but at the same time grow basket sizes and value.

Choice is a double-edged sword.  Give customers too much and they will often complain that it is too hard to make decisions.  Give them too little and they say that what they are really looking for is not available.  Getting the balance right is tough and any retail buyer has to look beyond the margin, the promotions, the trade funds and the pressure from big brands in order to get their assortment right.

Labelling and signposting have for many years been almost entirely about navigation with space allocated for only the essential information on price, pack size and deal.  Only in the age of electronic shelf labels (ESLs) are we in a place where customers can be given greater help with choosing product based not solely on price, but ingredients, health advice, recipes and other decision-impacting factors.

The change is reflective of how consumers now shop and use products.  Choice at the shelf-edge is simply a huge mural of the behaviours and preferences of consumers where national cuisines have retreated in the face of food from all over the world, even to the extent of replacing traditional dishes.

Consumers are seeing the recipes for these dishes in the media and on social media, promoted by brands, media owners and influencers, a trend that supermarkets have exploited for some years now by matching recipes to in-store shopping lists.  However, customers want more and the technology is now available that can not only display recipes and accompanying signage to group ingredients or indicate there they are located, a development they are now expecting as they look for exciting new things to eat but at the same time keeping a watchful eye on the price.

In this way, ESLs almost become a product’s ‘passport’, enabling it to adapt to each occasion, moving from focus on price and promotion to a star turn in a recipe that has suddenly become popular.  This may be to do with it being featured on a popular reality programme, promoted on social media by a health influencer, or the subject of Nutriscore labelling for health advice.

While this may seem complicated, the simple fact is that food is constantly in the public eye as nutritionists, governments and regulators seek to promote healthier lifestyles with the rise in obesity and mental health challenges that can be linked to poor diet and a lack of exercise.  While retailers want to continue to promote choice, there is also an expectation that they should play their part in the health of the nation.

ESLs therefore enable a product to play many parts according to the current trends and in ways that provide the customer with the information they need to make good choices.  For instance, product reviews, once confined to holidays and electronics, now include food items as they undergo greater scrutiny by the media and influencers.

What this means is that the customer may already have broad experience of a product long before they have gone shopping and will therefore expect to not only be able to find it, but to see what they have learned in advance reflected on the label and on occasion, digital signage.

The flexibility enabled by ESLs also means that retailers and brands can engage in more innovative types of promotion that cross over with models used for other purposes.  For instance, a cross-sell promotion based on a recipe bundle comprising pasta + sauce + parmesan + olive oil, for example, can be promoted in the same way as a meal deal, either from a dedicated aisle-end that groups the products or at each product location (or both).

In addition, those supermarkets with loyalty cards can group products that are all on the loyalty scheme, so they might promote these through the ESLs using text or a QR code that opens the customer’s app.

While retailers may respond to regulatory demands because they have no choice and to customer demands which initially simply add cost, the real opportunity is differentiation in crowded markets.  ESLs are a tool that have multiple applications far beyond their initial function as replacements for paper.  And at the same time, the investment over time generates not only new sources of revenue, but cost savings in labour as all the applications can be managed centrally, automatically and instantly.

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