Grocery Aisle 5 is the first of three installments, featuring Halla Co-Founder and President, Henry Michaelson in conversation with Steve Yankovich, CXO of HomeValet, discussing the complexities of effective substitutions in the digital grocery ecosystem.

Spencer Price and Brittain Ladd discuss the grocery industry’s response to Gen Z’s expectations and how that impacts the grocer’s economics.
Spencer Price and Brittain Ladd discuss the grocery industry’s response to Gen Z’s expectations of mobile first experiences.

Of all the shoppers who purchased groceries online during the pandemic, who do you think were the least satisfied?

If you guessed “less internet-savvy older generations of shoppers,” who presumably prefer the brick-and-mortar experience they are accustomed to, you’d be using pretty good logic.

You would also be dead wrong.

Despite being digital natives, it was actually Millennials and Gen Z who reported the lowest satisfaction rate amongst all online grocery shoppers in 2020.

Does that seem strange to you? It actually makes perfect sense to me. Those of us under 35 have grown up with relatively frictionless digital shopper experiences. Online shopping to us is already personalized, mobile-friendly, supported by one-click payments, and with free shipping and easy returns. We get only our favorite music from Spotify, movies tailored to our personal tastes from Netflix, and exactly the products we are looking for from Amazon.


In fact, most eCommerce stores understand us well and make buying from them as convenient and frictionless as possible. Why shouldn’t they? They have had decades to develop that level of convenience and service. And here’s the kicker—this online shopping experience is all we know. 

Meeting Millennial and GenZ expectations is no longer optional for grocers

According to Pew Research, however, Millennials have already overtaken Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest adult generation and Gen Z is in hot pursuit. Giving Millennial and Gen Z shoppers what they want is no longer optional for grocers.

However, satisfying young shoppers in online grocery is far harder than it is for other retail categories. Grocery shoppers buy more items per shopping trip. They must choose from a higher volume and diversity of merchandise. Fresh foods and substituting out-of-stock items pose complex challenges. And then, of course, there is the highly personal nature of food itself. With a multitude of bespoke tastes and dietary habits, how can grocers begin to know what a shopper wants?

That’s why we started Halla—and then created Taste Intelligence.

My co-founders Henry Michaelson, Gabriel Nipote, and I have been friends for more than half our lives. We grew up together. We’re similar in a lot of ways, but we each experience food very, very differently. I have food sensitivities. Henry is an adventurous eater. And Gabriel counts calories and carbs. In a sense, that’s how Halla started—three Gen Z friends thinking about how unique each of our human preferences really are.

Ultimately, that question became more specific. We asked: “How do grocers manage to understand what shoppers like us really want?”

And it turns out—there was simply no answer to that question.

So we created one. Halla Taste Intelligence is the only real-time, grocery-specific, and API-ready personalization engine in the market today. It is trained on over 100 billion behavioral and product data points across the food retail landscape to present to grocery shoppers exactly the products they are looking for, when they are looking for them, based on 1:1 customer ID’s, not just aggregate “people like you bought” algorithms.

Taste Intelligence works to improve the online grocery shopping experience in all the ways that really matter to young shoppers today: I am talking about:

— Search results that prioritize products according to unique shopper preferences and dietary habits.
— Recommendations that accurately predict what shoppers need to complete recipes or meet household stocking requirements.
— Substitutions for out-of-stock items that meet customers actual cooking and household needs.

Halla Taste Intelligence does all of that, personalized on a 1:1 basis to unique customer IDs, and it does it in real-time. It understands what Millennial and Gen Z shoppers want in a way that often feels as if it is some kind of magic (but—spoiler alert—it is actually just cutting edge data science).

Improving shopping for the young delights customers of all ages

While it was largely young shoppers driving online grocery before COVID-19 arrived on the scene, Boomers and Gen X rushed online in 2020 out of sheer necessity. Today, most grocery shoppers across generations are still buying groceries online— at least some of the time.

Although the young may have higher expectations from digital grocery, everyone appreciates being served well, regardless of their age.

Studies show that younger generations highly value convenience, for example. (Hence the popularity of subscription meal services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh). But when it comes to convenience in general, who doesn’t want it to be easy to get their stuff? Inconvenient, non-intuitive online experiences are hardest on those “less internet-savvy older generations of shoppers.” My colleagues and I all had to help our parents and grandparents with online grocery shopping when the pandemic hit.

Millennial and Gen Z also expect what they see online to be personalized to our personal preferences like organic, paleo, vegan, and gluten-free. But offering search results, product recommendations, and substitutions that genuinely reflect a grocery shopper’s personal preferences is a good idea, regardless of the shopper’s age or personal dietary proclivities.

Better online grocery shopping experiences is not just good for shoppers, of course. It also translates into bigger basket sizes, better loyalty percentages, and higher net promoter scores. Millennials and Gen Z may be the shoppers who are driving the demand for better online grocery experiences, but if you ask me, grocers who invest and improve in this area early are the ones who stand to benefit the most.

Spencer Price and Brittain Ladd discuss the grocery industry’s response to Gen Z’s expectations of frictionless.

Spencer Price and Brittain Ladd discuss the grocery industry’s response to Gen Z’s expectations of reliability.

Why Better Substitutions are the Key to
Better Online Grocery Shopping Experience.

A 2020 Retail Feedback Group satisfaction survey revealed the key areas where online grocery shoppers are unhappy with their experience. Apart from “produce freshness” and “packaging,” all of the areas where shoppers desired improvement could be summed up in just one notion—”Make it easier for me to get my stuff.” 40% of respondents were dissatisfied with online checkout. 45% wished pickup and delivery were more efficient. 53% found navigation to be a chore. 58% said that finding items on promotion was difficult. And a whopping 74% couldn’t find the items they wanted to buy at all.

Halla Taste Intelligence helps shoppers get their stuff

It’s surveys like this that remind me why what we are doing here at Halla is so important for grocers. The Halla Taste Intelligence suite of products has the power to massively improve every one of these areas. Halla Search is designed to really understand what shoppers are looking for and to serve results in prioritized order. Halla Recommend not only understands and presents desired items proactively, it can also put forward items on promotion that match the shoppers’ unique preferences. That results in 5-15% basket lift, while increasing loyalty and shopper satisfaction.

But there’s one solution in the Halla product suite which is especially well-suited to helping shoppers “get their stuff”—Halla Substitute. The last time I wrote about Halla Substitute, I explained how unavailable items were driving as many as 20% of grocery customers straight to the competition. Given that 74% complain about “finding their stuff,” it’s actually amazing that the number isn’t higher. Failing to deliver what your customers already ordered is something of a “cardinal sin” for grocery. Why wouldn’t they go somewhere else? Now the competition is just one click away!

Halla Substitute makes fulfillment more efficient

When you dig into it, Halla Substitute solves way more than just the unavailable item problem itself. Take the problem of inefficient fulfillment, for instance. Nobody wants to wait longer than necessary to get their stuff. But when out-of-stock situations arise at most grocery stores today, the only way the order makes it on time is when a picker makes hasty (and usually bad) substitutions, or they leave out the missing items altogether. It’s a rock and a hard place kind of situation, and it doesn’t do any wonders for shopper satisfaction. If the picker takes their time to communicate with the customer, on the other hand, the order is almost certain to be delayed. Here again, Halla Substitute

To shoppers, this feels inconvenient and disrespectful. “If you couldn’t sell me this item, why’d you let me put it in my cart in the first place?” In this situation, Halla Substitute can instantly suggest the best possible replacement in stock right now, based on the item selected and the shopper’s true intent, according to both their past and current selections.” Instead of hitting a maddening wall at checkout, the shopper simply accepts the replacement and appreciates their grocer for understanding them so well.

 removes the root cause of shopper dissatisfaction. Giving pickers intelligent replacement items that really satisfy shoppers’ intentions means that they don’t have to make a choice between speed and accuracy anymore. 

Halla Substitute improves online checkout

Another area where good substitutions may improve bad grocery experiences is at online checkout. For grocers who have real-time inventory, realization that an item is out-of-stock might occur just as a shopper is ready to pay. Now, instead of getting to the finish line and getting on with their day, the shopper is stuck circling back to try to find a way to complete a recipe or solve a household need. That’s hard work! 

There is nothing else on the market like Halla Substitute

Given the known challenges and the mission-critical importance of shopping satisfaction in online grocery, it may seem like something of an enigma that so few grocers have solved the problem of substitutes. But in my role at Halla, I study this problem deeply every single day, and I’ve realized something: Without a hint of hyperbole, I say that Halla Substitute is not only the best solution on the market for grocery substitutions—it is the only one. Here’s why it works so well:

  1. Halla Substitute is grocery specific: It is trained on over 100 billion shopper and grocery product data points. Halla substitute understands food items and their relationships with each other, and with consumers.
  2. Halla Substitute is personalized: It uses machine learning to really understand shopper preferences and intent. When an item is unavailable, Halla Substitute determines, based on an individual shopper’s known preferences, with an incredibly high degree of accuracy—the most ideal inventory item that you can propose to them as a replacement.
  3. Halla Substitute is real time: It doesn’t just reference a shopper’s typical behavior or sales data from last week. Halla substitute makes its suggestions based on the shopper’s current cart and behavior, right up to the second, and it can process thousands of decisions per second.

If you are a grocery executive and you can show me another third-party software that does all of this, simultaneously, reach out to us. I’ll take you out to a steak dinner — or whatever substitution suits your unique preferences.

Good Substitutes create good customer experiences

Halla Substitute replacements are accepted by shoppers at a rate greater than 95%! This does more than help customers “get their stuff” in a quick and convenient way. Directly solving the unavailable item conundrum is the key to indirectly creating a much, much better online grocery shopping experience. Grocers who get substitutions right will have a huge competitive advantage over those who don’t. So if you are reading this, and your organization is not already working as hard as  InstacartAmazon Fresh, and Walmart are to solve this problem, it might be time to talk to Halla.

I really couldn’t be more excited about what we are doing here at Halla with substitutions. There’s only one downside to more grocers implementing Halla Substitute in their online stores…we will have fewer hilarious substitution stories to share!

Originally published in Today’s Grocer on June 28, 2021

By Spencer Price, co-founder and CEO of Halla

Like most other Millennial and Gen Z Americans, I can’t remember a time without the internet. My generation grew up digitally connected. It didn’t take COVID-19 to convince us to shop online. And yet, despite our comfort shopping online, Gen Z and Millennials reported the lowest satisfaction rate amongst all online grocery shoppers in 2020. We are—in the eyes of our elders, at least—“hard to please.”

If you are in the grocery business, you already know that this is actually a wonderful opportunity. Millennial and Gen Z shoppers stand 150 million strong and contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to annual retail spending. We will soon surpass GenX and Baby Boomers both in shopper volume and spending power.

But it is about much more than that. When you meet the high expectations of Millennial and Gen Z shoppers, you will simultaneously delight Gen X and Boomers as well. While my suggestions below focus on how to capture my generation’s market, I encourage you to think about how these improvements in grocery retail will improve customer experience for all of your shoppers.

We have learned to have high expectations
As a grocery industry insider, I understand why Millennial and Gen Z’s high expectations might seem unreasonable to some. The store item count, transaction basket sizes, fresh requirements, in-aisle order picking, and other complexities of grocery create unique online shopping challenges not faced by other retail categories. But you have to understand—we grew up with the likes of Zappos and Amazon. Hyper-convenient online shopping experiences are the well-established norm for us. Getting exactly what we ordered, delivered in a timely manner is how virtually every other online retail experience we engage in already works. 

Grocers need to meet our generation of shoppers where we already are in our relationship with retail. We know what we want, we have virtually unlimited choices online, and we have learned that “getting what you want is always just a few clicks away.”

So what do Millennial and Gen Z shoppers want from online grocery—and how can you give it to them?

1. Reliability: There is nothing more disappointing than “conveniently” ordering your groceries online, only to find that your order could not be delivered or picked up at the scheduled time, or worse yet—that some items could not be fulfilled at all. If we have to go to a physical store or place another order with someone else because you didn’t come through, we won’t soon forget it. In fact, according to a 2020 McKinsey study, one in five shoppers claim that they have switched grocers due to such fulfillment fails. Order fulfillment needs to be as reliable as possible because we’re not as flexible with our food choices as other generations. We want grocers to use proactive technology that ensures efficient picking and delivery, accurately predicts our needs and makes our lives convenient. The only alternative— back-and-forth texting between picker and shopper—annoys us, delays our orders, and costs you valuable picker time.

2. Frictionless shopping: Second only to fulfillment fails in the drivers of online grocery dissatisfaction amongst my generation’s shoppers is the clunky experience itself. Like most other consumers, what we like about shopping in-store is the feeling of control of our choices and the joy of discovery of delicious foods and cooking ideas. But online, we instead endure tedious scrolling through products we don’t want, narrow filters that don’t take into account our specific dietary needs, an awkward search process that produces irrelevant results, and a dull, impersonal experience overall. We’re not strangers to bad UI/UX, but we also know how amazing a good ecommerce experience can be. I’m talking about remembering who we are the moment we log in, prioritizing search results according to our personal preferences, making recommendations and offering promotions that genuinely help us discover products that match our tastes, and offering to prefill our cart with frequently purchased items. Most of these are already table stakes in ecommerce, and part of how we judge the experience. As ecommerce continues to evolve, our expectations are going to rise up with it. 


3. Mobile-friendliness: Mobile is the characteristic that most singularly defines the relationship of Millennials/Gen Z with grocery shopping. 93% of Americans aged 18-39 use a smartphone, and 71% of Millennial/GenZ shoppers (vs. 44% of Boomers) are comfortable using digital devices in their grocery shopping experience. We use mobile phones to look up recipes, scan reviews, find products, and compare prices, even while shopping in physical stores. Whereas our parents’ generation may still write their shopping list with pen and paper, we input ours to our phones. We “check-in” and “tap to buy” on social media, use grocery apps, take advantage of mobile scan-and-go options, and use digital payment systems like Venmo and Apple Pay. We welcome digital coupons and rewards from mobile-savvy companies like Honey and Fetch Rewards. 

To satisfy Millennial and Gen Z shoppers, you need to make sure that your omni-channel grocery experience is heavily optimized for mobile devices. Our tech literacy presents you with the opportunity to personalize our experience, in real-time, wherever we are. We are on our phones, so—voila— take advantage! Present digital coupons as we walk through a given aisle. Send us a “Did you forget?” notification from our online shopping lists. Give us free wi-fi in-store, incent us to promote you on social media, and make recommendations for items that complement what is already in our scan-and-go cart.

4. Consciousness: American Millennials and Gen Z are the nation’s most socially, ethically, environmentally, and health-conscious generations. We represent the bulk of America’s vegetarians and vegans. We choose foods that are organic, free-range, ethically-sourced, and environmentally sustainable in greater numbers than any other generation, and we are willing to pay more for it. We also care about racial and gender diversity, fair employment practice, and other social issues. These ideas are not just lip service for us; This is what we expect from the companies we do business with—and we speak with our wallets. Show us products that run counter to our values and we will notice that you are not listening. I recently ordered a dozen Vital Farms pasture-raised eggs, for example, but instead received factory-farmed AA white eggs. It was so tone-deaf that I immediately decided to shop elsewhere next time. Failing to recognize and cater to Millennial/GenZ values in grocery search, recommendations, and substitutions does not help your customers—it only helps your competitors.

Meeting Millennial/Gen Z expectations is a huge growth opportunity
Although pleasing Millennials and Gen Z may sometimes feel like a sisyphean undertaking, keep in mind that we are also much more accepting of subscription programs and meal kits, new shopping and delivery models, and even new products and brands. Take services like Hello Fresh, for example, whose revenue is predicted to more than double this year. This poses a real threat to conventional grocers. (When I’ve used it, my monthly spend with my local grocer declines by 60%). Conventional grocers could mimic these intimate and lifestyle-tailored models successfully. Why not curate and re-market products you already have on the shelves, using what you already know about me, and lock in my loyalty to you, instead of to the competition?

You can see how meeting the high expectations of Millennials and Gen Z can actually be a great source of growth and loyalty. But to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you change your entire strategy to cater exclusively to these generations of shoppers. Actually, meeting the expectations I’ve highlighted here will boost lift and loyalty across all generations of shoppers. 

Considered in this context, Millennial/Gen Z dissatisfaction with online grocery shopping is quite good news for grocers. We are telling you exactly what we want, and how you can give it to us. And in doing so, we are telling you how you can create a competitive advantage with all of your shoppers. The question is—”Will you listen?”

Here’s why and some ways to make them better.

It’s an experience that millions of American grocery shoppers had last year: You order your groceries online, and then you sit back and await delivery in the comfort and safety of your own home. A short time later, a car pulls up and delivers you something, but perhaps not quite what you actually ordered.

Substitution fails: so common are these unwelcome exchanges that they have spawned a Twitter hashtag devoted to chronicling the bad substitutions shoppers receive.

“Ordered eight tubes of toothpaste. Was substituted for eight kids’ electric toothbrushes. We don’t have kids,” complained one Reddit user.

“You ordered Sainsbury’s fairly traded red label tea bags. We’re delivering Heinz no added sugar beans in a rich tomato sauce,” said a dismayed UK grocery shopper.

“The last time I ordered frozen juice is never,” grumbled an Instacart shopper, “I have diabetes.”

The phenomenon is so common that there was even an SNL skit about it: “Bartenson’s—We want to give you what you want. But first, we need you to buy what we have!”

For grocers, however, substitution fails are no laughing matter.

Unavailable items drive as many as 20% of grocery shoppers straight to the competition.

I want to recognize that substitutions are very common in online grocery for a number of reasons from supply & demand of various products to issues with real-time inventory capabilities. For now, customers should not be surprised when a small portion of their order needs to be substituted. It is, however, completely reasonable for them to expect that the substitution made will be very similar to and also fulfill their need of the originally ordered product.

Why do bad substitutions happen so often?

Most of the time, it comes down to human beings and our familiar foibles. When an item is not available, it is tough for grocery pickers to get the buyer’s input in time. And so it falls to the picker to make an immediate judgment call: “Do I leave this out of the order entirely? Or do I sub in something that might work in a pinch?”

picker looking at item.jpg

Making those kinds of substitutions on the fly requires a fair bit of experience, which few pickers have, given the rapid expansion of online grocery. An experienced picker might be able to successfully substitute Roma tomatoes when the Red Beefsteak tomatoes are sold out, but ask the same picker to suggest a replacement for Romesco sauce and the decision process might start to get fuzzy.

Even in those circumstances where simple, logical substitutions do exist, human pickers use their own preferences and tastes to decide what is appropriate. That’s how Johnsonville premium pork brats get swapped in when Abbot’s Butcher pea-protein chorizo are out of stock. Pickers don’t know your diet, preferences, or intent. They can’t tell who is loyal to a brand and who just wants the best price. They don’t have a record of the store’s stockroom inventory in their brains.

There are just too many variables that go into understanding a shopper’s taste and intent for anyone to assume an in house picker or a shopper at a third-party app will be able to consistently make customer-pleasing substitutions. Not to mention that the clock is ticking and the customer isn’t answering the shoppers calls or texts. “If a customer is distracted or not tech-savvy, they can miss every message from a shopper about out-of-stock groceries, only to receive a bag of replacements and missing items, leading them to believe the shopper botched the order”, reports Ehud Sopher. In this scenario the customer feels disrespected that they had zero control over the substitutions, the shopper feels under-resourced with the right tools to pick the correct items, and the retailer likely looses that customer due to a poor experience.

Technology to the rescue…perhaps?

Clearly, software offers a better solution. This kind of rapid, multifaceted decision-making is what algorithms are very good at. Whereas a store picker has no way of knowing the entire stockroom inventory, incoming delivery manifest, and a particular customer’s past purchase history, software can do all of those things simultaneously and in milliseconds. A human being augmented with substitution software algorithms ought to produce much, much better substitutions than a human alone.

But in reality, “human plus software”, is how most online grocery substitutions are already determined. What the human can not do, the software provides. So why are there still so many substitutions that miss the mark?

The first reason stems from the simplistic methodology that most substitution software uses. One such method simply recognizes product names and searches for similar names amongst other products. That works perfectly well when “Dean’s 2% reduced fat milk” is proposed as a stand-in for “Borden’s 2% reduced fat milk.” But in other cases, this approach can actually make matters much worse. This explains how you get “sunflower seed butter” when you ordered “sunflower oil” and how you get “rolled whole oats” when you simply wanted “whole grain bread with rolled oats.” Text search algorithms are a poor solution.

The second place where most software substitutions fail is in a computer’s difficulty understanding what food products really are. Although some models succeed in teasing out fine correlations between groups of products, most go no further than broad category assignment. So while “chunky salsa” and “blue corn tortilla chips” may be frequently purchased together from the “snack aisle”, it’s clearly illogical to swap one in for the other. A substitution engine must—at a minimum—understand the raw ontology of food items. Tortilla chips are a “grain product that you scoop with,” for instance, while salsa is a “spicy vegetable sauce for scooping.” Without a deep understanding of the unique properties and interactions of the food products themselves, correlation engines also are far too limited a device to make good substitutions.

The most intimidating place where algorithms go awry, however, is in trying to understand human intent. Each shopping selection is influenced by a human desire—to complete a recipe, to use for a birthday party, or for a health or dietary reason, for instance. If the algorithms understood that, they could offer a substitution that meets those specific needs perfectly. When they don’t, those numbered birthday candles you bought for your husband’s 40th celebration become scented, lavender, aromatherapy candles, and the large pack of cultured French unsalted butter you ordered to make hollandaise sauce-drenched eggs Benedict becomes an inappropriate tub of Land-O-Lakes margarine.

When you drill down into it, the main reason there are so many bad substitutions is that deciding “what you really want” is an incredibly complicated activity for someone (or even some software) who isn’t “you.” And yet—anything besides just that is a band aid solution that will be ripped off time and time again, until shoppers decide to shop somewhere else.

How to make substitutions smarter

Online grocers are aware of the chasm between the current state of substitutions and the high expectations of customers. Here are 3 ways grocers could make substitutions smarter and help customers feel they are in control and at the center of every substitution decision:

  1. Look for new technologies that were built specifically for the grocery industry, have deep domain-specific product data and understands human behavior in relation to that product (how it’s used in a recipe, for example).
  2. Make sure the technology can target down to the unique customer ID to ensure that the substitutions are not just for a “persona” or specific “segment”. The most well-received substitution is one that takes into account each customer’s individual needs, not “customers like them”.
  3. Leverage real-time capabilities to boost speed and accuracy. This could give customers 100% control of their substitutions by seeing the most up-to-date version of inventory, but could also push customers towards personally relevant alternatives of items that may be running low in the grocer’s inventory.
Happy woman receiving order from delivery.jpg

This is just the start of the substitution sausage in the software design kitchen. When fully deployed, online grocery shoppers will witness a sea change not just in substitutions but in the entire online grocery experience.

The end of substitution shaming is nigh. What will we see in its place? Who knows—I’d like to think that there might even be some “substitution bragging” coming our way!

To learn more about how Halla helps grocers make better substitutions, see this release or schedule a demo with us!

Succulent roast turkey…steaming mounds of mashed potatoes…rich, thick, gravy…tangy cranberries… mouth-watering pumpkin pie: The holiday season brings predictable, traditional meals that everyone loves, and with it—an easy opportunity for grocers to stock up and promote holiday favorites.

But now hold on a second. What happens when those traditional meals become less— traditional?

Today, at least 5% of adult Americans say they are vegetarian, while a full quarter of 24-35 year old Americans now identify as vegan or vegetarian. As many as one third of Americans avoid gluten. An estimated 32 million Americans are allergic to food ingredients like milk, eggs, and nuts. Still many others prefer food that is organic, ethically farmed, keto, paleo, kosher, hallal, heart-healthy, or some other personalized variation. Any number of cultural or religious differences can be the source of yet more variations to the traditional culinary theme. Together, all this means that there will likely be at least one member of each holiday gathering who prefers vegetarian gravy on tofurkey, dairy-free mashed potatoes, gluten-free pumpkin pie, or some other personalized culinary variation.

Meanwhile, there is another sea change in holiday culinary planning—online grocery shopping. Consequent to the pandemic, online grocery sales are on track to increase more than 50% in 2020, reaching as high as $89 billion by the year’s end. 68% of Americans now shop for groceries online. And with COVID-19 continuing to spread, you better believe that more grocery shoppers than ever will be ordering online for the holidays this year.

Online Grocery Shoppers Expect Personalization

We live in the era of Amazon, Netflix and Spotify. Online shoppers already expect their unique preferences to be catered to. So too do they now expect their online supermarket to understand their preferences, without having to scroll through page after page of grocery search results.

Halla Blog

Mind you, this trend is not limited to esoteric dietary choices. Even those shoppers who do prefer traditional holiday meal selections have personal preferences around budget, cooking convenience, brand, and staple stocking. This customer looks for the most economical option. That one typically buys the leading brands. Still another prefers prepared meals and easy-to-cook frozen dinners. Some shoppers are cooking for themselves while others buy for a large family. There are craft pumpkin spice beer boosters and then there are eggnog aficionados. To earn these shoppers’ loyalty and compete with the likes of Walmart and Whole Foods, online grocers must be prepared to present offers that serve each family’s personal preferences—and they must be prepared to do so for thousands, if not millions of unique online grocery shopping sessions.

Guess who’s coming for dinner—if you can
This represents a fantastic opportunity for grocers! A grocer who can correctly guess “who’s coming to dinner” has a big edge over the competition.

How does this look in practice? It may be queuing up items in search that match recipes shoppers are already buying for. It might involve recommending food items that shoppers want, but do not even know exist. (Think “out-of-the-box tofurkey roast and gravy,” a “non-alcoholic pumpkin-spice ginger brew,” or “an ingredients list for gluten-free stuffing.”) It also might include single-portion prepared foods that meet the dietary requirements of ‘that one guest,’ to make things easier on the chef.

What about substitutions? We are already seeing stockpiling of essential items, amidst fears of new lockdowns. When popular holiday food items inevitably run out of stock this year, grocers need to turn on a dime to offer subs that continue to meet the needs of individual tastes and holiday meal expectations. Yes, tofurkey is a meatless tofu product—but that doesn’t mean your shopper wants tofu scrambled eggs or vegan maple-bacon jerky for their holiday dinner any more than conventional shoppers welcome applesauce and turnips when the cranberry and yams run out.

Rotten recommendations make for bad business relationships.

Deep personalization of online grocery shopping is on its way
Many grocers were caught off guard by the unexpected swell in online grocery shopping. There are levels to this game, to be sure, but by this time next year, I predict that drop down dietary preference menus and highly personalized food recommendation engines will be viewed as table stakes.

Online grocers will know that Dad is watching his sodium intake, while junior is bulking up for that rugby tournament and Mom is on the keto diet. They will understand the culinary traditions, brands, products, and flavor profiles that shoppers prefer. Ultimately, it will be as if each shopper carries his or her own personal grocery store in their pocket.

This year’s holiday season will, sadly, be like none other before it, as we continue to fight this pandemic. But I predict that next holiday season will be unique for much better reasons. Personalized holiday grocery shopping will feel as if the local grocer is a part of the family who knows you and your family’s preferences like the butchers and bakers of old.

And that’s a tradition I think we can all appreciate. Happy Thanksgiving!