How Retailers Feed Our Inner Hermit
Courtesy of Target

How Retailers Feed Our Inner Hermit

It’s time to refine shopping conveniences born of the pandemic.

If fasting is a cleanse of toxic foods, then hermiting is a cleanse of toxic culture.

In the early days of e-commerce, being a hermit was something of a novelty—the ability to order groceries, essentials, and even entertainment made it possible to go weeks without leaving home. TV news stations would try it as a stunt, locking a reporter in an apartment to see how long they could survive on online shopping. Dig deeper and you find this hermit life connected to Chinese monks, who view time alone as a spiritual renewal of the soul.

Now, we are nearly two years into a period of forced hermiting, brought on by the pandemic and exacerbated by the onslaught of divisive politics and culture. We use “toxic” to describe the news, our elected officials, our work culture, and the air we breathe. It is no wonder some people are in no hurry to leave the house again. And retailers are making it easier than ever to live like a hermit.

Hermit is the new black?

Credit goes to Brian Lannan, formerly Target Director of Guest Experience and now VP of retail experience at Avtex, a customer experience firm, for pointing out this intriguing insight—that retail is enabling the hermit lifestyle. He also helped me accept my odd behaviors when using myself as a guinea pig, because he does it too. I have no need to live like a hermit, in fact living with limited human contact seems like torture for this socially inspired author. But, for the love of market research, I’ve been testing the options for getting stuff with minimal human contact.

We know retailers pivoted quickly in the early days of lockdown to offer curbside pick up, or simply start offering online ordering. I wanted to see how far they’d advanced since early 2020—grocers like Lunds & Byerlys and our favorite big box Target as well. Yet, are they continuing to improve this new format or just resting on laurels?

Curbside pickup: The test

So I pulled up the Target app, made my list, pressed order, waited for the message to pick up and headed out on the adventure. The transition from an app to texting me while I waited was smooth and respectful. The wait was 30 minutes, which seemed like a great chance to browse woodworking projects on Instagram Reels or nap, for the parents in one of the other cars near me. The Target team members were courteous, quick, and all my items were there when I unbagged at home.

Yet, it wasn’t perfect.

My Target is still unable to deliver milk and half & half to my car in the parking lot due to lack of refrigeration space in their order pick up area. So I drove to Lunds & Byerlys hoping to pick up my dairy products through their drive through experience, only to realize they don’t offer instant turnaround; I needed to order at least 4 hours ahead. Not exactly the height of convenience, but we’re getting close enough to smell the fresh donuts in my backseat.

Let’s be clear, one of the more impressive feats of the pandemic was all the retailers who reacted to the market need for new ordering conveniences in record time. We commend those leaders and workers who made it happen. But now that they’ve done it, and seen its popularity with consumers, let’s optimize the experience.

This fall the University St. Thomas Opus College of Business invited me to guest lecture and facilitate a journey mapping exercise with a group of graduate students led by associate professor Lisa Abendroth. Her Business in a Digital World class was the perfect cohort to help me gather more data, beyond my own experiences. And these young minds had some great inputs into the ongoing challenges of a buy online, pick up at store experience.

Here are some of their findings across a variety of retailers including Cub, Target, Lunds & Byerlys and Hy-Vee:

  1. When a requested item isn’t available, the substituted item sometimes isn’t well communicated by staff and can come with a significant extra charge. For example: Barilla pasta at $2.50 is not De Cecco at $7.99.
  2. Customers are expected to know the weight of a banana when ordering online, which just isn’t common knowledge. And guessing might lead to an order containing only two bananas.
  3. Digital interfaces designs can be confusing and lead a shopper to think she’s ordering four apples and find four bags of apples placed in her trunk.
  4. Lack of communication means even a free gift from the retailer can feel like a mistake to the customer if it’s not labeled as a promotion or trial product.

How might we make it better?

After identifying a number of shortcomings in order ahead/curbside pick up services from the students’ personal experiences, ideas started to flow. Even in a 20 minute “Usain Bolt” sprint, this class of creative minds were able to pull together an impressive list of “How Might We” statements. (And, yes, retailers, you’re welcome to steal these and get to work on them tomorrow.)

  1. How might we make tipping easy and cashless on grocery or other retail purchases?
  2. How might we design the return process to be just as efficient?
  3. How might we plan for elderly shoppers and set a weight of the bag limit?
  4. How might we suggest recipes based on past orders?
  5. How might we scale a “degree of pickiness” on produce orders?
  6. How might we translate “checkout spontaneity” in an online order?”

The consensus with the class at St Thomas was, if retailers see the long game, collect proper data, and deliver a seamless experience, they actually have a chance to fend off the giant dragon on the horizon known as Amazon.

That’s the view from my hermit cave in Plymouth, Minnesota.