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The Grocery Industry and COVID-19: Search Trends and Opportunities

What’s the TL;DR?

  1. Search behavior across many verticals has changed dramatically since the COVID-19 crisis began in the U.S.
  2. Grocery shopping has been one of the industries most directly affected, with increases in searches for expedited and off-premise services.
  3. The data suggests that it’s critical for grocery brands to convey info around COVID-19 changes to a business at the user’s point of entry into a grocery store’s site; in this case, directly on store detail pages (in addition to the homepage or a separate landing page).
  4. Content updates should include details around sanitation, store hours & senior shopping hours, detailed pages dedicated to delivery & pickup options.
  5. In the short term, focus resources on improving store detail page content and accuracy, online ordering functionality and delivery information - but be equipped for consumer habits to change and last long-term.

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The Impact

As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, demand and search behavior across verticals has changed drastically. Grocery shopping has been one of the industries most directly affected, with dramatic increases in Google searches around online ordering, home delivery, and parking lot/express lane pickup.

Because of the pandemic, the customer journey and how they interact with grocery stores has shifted. In 2019, only 3% of grocery shopping occurred online, per data from Bain & Company and Google. For most consumers, going to the grocery store pre-COVID was as simple as making a list, getting in the car or walking down the street to their neighborhood grocery store, and making a purchase, with little/no need to interact with the grocer digitally before or after the purchase. In our current world, just leaving the house is a much more monumental decision. Before even considering going to the grocery store, consumers need to find out what the stores’ adjusted hours might be, if the grocer delivers or offers curbside pickup, if the store even has the products the consumer needs in stock, what sanitation practices are in place to ensure that it’s safe to go to the store, among many other needs and concerns.

Now more than ever, the customer journey to obtain groceries starts with an online search. Leveraging search data and analyzing trends during shifts like the one we are in now is critical for brands to be able to meet consumer demand and provide new services.

Observations

Unsurprisingly, brand queries for grocers have shot up significantly since the COVID-19 scare hit the US market.

Search engine optimization (SEO) typically uses Google search volume statistics at the individual query to target keywords, and because Google has a 90%+ market share for searches in the US, it’s a pretty accurate data source.

Grocery Image 1

However, this data is a lagging indicator of the previous 12 month average number of searches made, so it does not take into account more recent market shifts like the COVID-19 crisis.

After conducting analysis of other search data points, we have seen triple or even quadruple growth in branded grocery queries for “delivery” and “online” when comparing pre-COVID searches to now.

Non-brand Google searches show similar trends, but many grocery brands aren’t set up with proper keyword targeting to drive those conversions or garner the visibility in search to capture that traffic over their competitors. Google Trends is one secondary data source that can give us more up-to-date information on how users are changing their Google search behavior as is noted below, particularly the growth of “grocery delivery” searches by an order of magnitude.

Grocery image 2
Grocery image 3

It’s easy to rank your site when someone searches for your brand name, but effective SEO requires consideration for how users search when they aren’t looking for your brand like “online grocery shopping” or “grocery store delivery” which generated 9,900 and 5,400 average monthly searches over the last year, respectively. If you apply even a conservative growth percentage to the numbers above you can imagine how critical it is to target the right keywords for your site’s content to meet the demands of both new and existing customers to reduce in-person grocery shopping.

In a similar fashion, users are entering grocery sites at very different points than they used to. In terms of traffic and points of entry trends, we’ve noticed:

Significant traffic upswings to:

  • Delivery pages
  • Store detail pages
  • Pages detailing a brand’s response to COVID-19

On the flipside, we’ve seen declines to:

  • Category & product detail pages
  • Slight trend down for homepages

How can Grocery Brands Pivot to Meet the New Reality?

Given the trends of increased search traffic to delivery information, store detail pages, and COVID-19 information, it is critical for brands to have detailed content about how COVID-19 is affecting services, delays in online orders, or new hours to accommodate vulnerable populations. They must ensure this content is visible at a user’s point of entry into a website, not just the homepage or a separate landing page.

Brands must also optimize this content in order to rank on Google for non-branded queries around services in response to COVID-19, and meet their consumers’ demand. Additionally, clear content related to consumers’ concerns about sanitation and safety can instill confidence in how the brand is handling the health risks of COVID-19. Understanding where users are first landing on your site is more important than ever, and having content to address these concerns front and center at these points of entry is critical. We strongly recommend for grocery brands to build and/or optimize existing landing pages for home delivery, online order, store detail pages, and/or coronavirus response, along with performing regular keyword research to ensure that they are targeting the keywords that users are searching for now.

The upswing in grocery delivery and pickup queries, when non-branded, often trigger Google’s map listings or “local map pack” which typically drives users to a brand’s store detail pages. During this time, Google is temporarily allowing businesses to make minor changes to their Google My Business (GMB) name listing (though it may take some time to go into effect) and post from GMB to ensure that users can find the most relevant content on hours and new services. As you can see below, grocery businesses such as Walmart and Kroger have taken advantage of this and maintained a presence in this map result by creating a “Grocery delivery service” location detail within their store location — which drives directly to the delivery/pickup page.

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This provides grocery stores with a strategic advantage over third-party delivery services such as Instacart, Shipt, and Amazon — while these delivery companies have certainly seen an uptick in demand, they would not get a listing in the “map pack” because they do not have brick-and-mortar locations. While grocery stores will continue to partner with third-party services, just like restaurants partner with delivery providers, they can improve their profit margins on delivery and own more of the customer experience with in-house services.

Key Takeaways

While COVID-19 is a temporary condition that is driving increased demand for online grocery services and grocery delivery, experts in industries from banking to dining have indicated that the habits consumers are forming now will have a lasting impact, even after the pandemic is over. Consumers may find that they prefer grocery shopping online, or may continue to hesitate to leave the home until a vaccine becomes widely available. When we are not experiencing a crisis, consumers have high expectations of online shopping. Pre-COVID data from Google and Bain & Company indicates that only 42% of people who shopped online for groceries once in 2018 said that the experience saved them time versus shopping in a store. However, as users grew more accustomed to the experience, it became more efficient. After shopping online for groceries three times, the number of shoppers who said that the experience was faster than shopping in person jumped to 63%.

As the at-home economy continues to become the “new normal” and consumers get in the habit of grocery shopping online, it will be critical for grocery stores to adjust their business model and digital presence to meet this need. This includes not only ensuring that digital channels have content relevant to the current situation, but also effectively managing infrastructure and inventory to enable a seamless online shopping experience.

With consumers increasingly shopping for groceries online and potentially maintaining this habit post-COVID, brands will need to be able to meet this demand likely beyond the pandemic.

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