Guess who’s coming to dinner? That’s exactly what your grocer needs to do.

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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.

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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!