Grocers: how to please consumers’ brains to ensure loyal return customers




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Grocers: how to please consumers’ brains to ensure loyal return customers

Dr. Brynn Winegard

  • 7 March 2017

Dr. Brynn Winegard is an award-winning professor, speaker, and writer. Brynn completed her formal education at the Schulich School of Business (MBA, PhD) in business and McMaster University in Neuroscience and Psychology. After over a decade in corporate marketing working for Pfizer Inc., Nestle Inc., and Johnson & Johnson Inc, Brynn has dedicated herself to speaking about ‘Building a Better Business Brain’ to groups, organizations and companies, stemming from her research, which combines neuroscience and business. Dr. Winegard retains positions as Faculty at Schulich School of Business’s Executive Education Centre, an Adjunct Professor at Ryerson University, and Executive Faculty in Guelph University’s College of Business and Economics.


If you missed it, please read the first article in this series, which considered overall retail atmospherics and fundamental social cognitive neuroscience (SCN) to help shoppers make the ‘buy’ decision for farm produce in your grocery store.

The second article in this series focused on how to persuade consumers’ brains to make the buy decision in-store—we know that 95% of purchase decisions are made subconsciously and at shelf, so getting the brain to say ‘yes’ requires much work at the store level.

This is the third and final article in this series and focuses on how to please your consumers’ brains in order to ensure that customers will come back to your store, so that you might have a chance to be included in their shopping routine, and ultimately so that they develop a loyalty to your stores and brand.

Services best practices

Vendors of anything can sell one of four things: commodities, goods, services, or experiences. Grocers are in the services business, predominantly: they provide the service of bringing a series of goods together for shoppers to select from in one location, instead of having to procure it all themselves from various vendors. Accordingly, grocery retailers should have a good understanding of services best practices, which is said to have ‘8Ps’:

Price: Make sure prices and pricing are in keeping with your target market’s expectations, the level of quality, and your brand equity. Want to make prices really appealing? Drop the $ sign. Research shows consumers feel less of the ‘pain of paying’ when there are no decimals or dollar signs.


•  Product: Ensure your products are well stocked, of high quality, dusted and maintained, consistently presented, and available. Out-of-stocks are highly disappointing to loyal shoppers and will reduce loyalty.


•  Place/distribution: Ensure that products are in logical places in the store, purposefully placed, as well as easy to find and reach. While consumers like choice, too many can be a problem (‘the choice paradox’/’analysis paralysis’). so keep categories simple with only highly relevant SKUs.


•  Promotions: Everyone loves a good bargain, though too much discounting can actually compromise consumer perception of quality and brand equity in your consumers’ minds. Looking to off-load inventory? Bundling, BOGOs, and BOGOHOs are a good way to ‘save face’ while moving mountains.


•  People: Consumers and shoppers take your employeestheir conduct, behaviour, language, and code of dressas evidence of the type of experience you’ll provide, as well as whether or not they would like to come back. Are your floor-front employees well -groomed, courteous, pressed, and helpful? Let’s hope so. Brain science tells us that the biggest moniker of consumer perception of quality and store preference will be your people (brains are hard-wired to subconsciously notice and pay attention to people before products or anything else).  


•  Physical evidence: If a picture can say a million words, the physical evidence of an experience says a billion. While it seems obvious that your storefront, entry-way, walls, ceilings, floors, carts, baskets, displays, registers, showcases, products, etc. would all be clean, well -maintained, and of high quality, it never ceases to amaze how much of this can go overlooked in the hustle and bustle of every day operations. Make sure the physical evidence of your store’s quality and brand equity are purposeful, clean, and well -maintained: the brain is hard-wired to process this information as evidence of your true quality and service- level and favours visual information over almost all others (‘seeing really is believing’).   


•  Purse: ‘Purse’ stands for ‘share-of-wallet’(SOW)—something good retailers have much of: consumer loyalty that allows high share-of-their-wallet or disposable spending. A grocery retailer especially (because of the human necessity for food), can have very high levels of individuals’ SOW annually, if they do the right things to please the customer. Properly pleasing the customer allows that you will have repeat shoppers, get built into the consumer’s shopping routine, and ultimately have their loyalty—as long as you don’t error or commit any major transgressions (e.g. out-of-stocks, dishevelled staff, disorganized store).


•  Purpose: Good service providers know that they need to have a solid vision, mission, values, and sense of purpose about how they curate their brand, the experience in their space, and the products they offer—and grocery retailers are no exception. When a retailer has clarity about their brand and consumer-facing ‘purpose’, it’s more likely that the consumer will perceive and comprehend this as well. ‘Cutting through the proverbial clutter’ and beating your competition requires that your shoppers know when and why to favour you over another retailer. Consumers can’t hope to know what sets you apart (and then reward you with their loyalty) if you don’t.


Atmospherics and ‘being’ spaces

In an ideal scenario, the service-providing retailer has such a great handle on the atmosphere, design, flow, feeling, and ambiance of a store that they transform a ‘service’ into an experience.

The best way to transform a service into an experience is to create an environment that people want to be in. When people want to be in a space, they often want to be seen in a space. When ‘seeing and being seen’ in a retail environment (think Starbucks in the early 2000s, Nordstrom Café, Longo’s Wine Cellar) have been accomplished, you have what’s called a ‘being’ space: people construct their identities, behaviours, consumption decisions, and social networks based on their affiliation with your brand and in your environment.

Setting up cafes, cafeterias, eateries, places to sit, places to congregate, places to lounge and enjoy your products—these all help toward creating being spaces. Further, in order to create worthy being spaces, it follows that the space would be inviting, hospitable, pleasing to all the senses (e.g. comfortable seating, the smell of warm coffee or scrumptious croissants), clean, well designed, and have a logical flow or organization so people are enticed to come, sit, consume, and stay awhile.

And we know from cognitive dissonance theory that the longer a consumer stays in your space, the more they will spend. If a shopper or consumer likes ‘being’ in your space, you know you have done a great job at pleasing them toward becoming a loyalist.


Another tactic best-in-class retailers—including those in the grocery category—often use, is to have and host events, contests, special interest parties, gatherings, concerts, drop-ins, demonstrations, etc. in their store space in order to create not just ‘being’ spaces, but in-group identification and tribalism among store- or brand-loyalists who attend.

Events don’t just contribute to the atmospherics of a space but allow your loyalists (and the odd straggler) to come together and identify with each other about your brand, store, space, and experience. This in turn creates community, which the brain is hard-wired to seek, value, and reward.

If a person attends an event at your location, you know you have elevated their concept of your store, space, and brand to that of an ‘experience’ and done the requisite job of pleasing the parts of their brains that they also happen to make purchase decisions withthe social, emotional, subconscious brain(s).

Among loyalists especially, events create happy shoppers pleased to purchase further who feel embedded in a tribalized community that corroborates their shopping routine, lifestyle, purchase choices, and consumption patterns—and what shopper doesn’t want to feel that?


While we have discussed services best-practices, as well as how to convert a service-based retailer into an experiential ‘being’ space with tribalized loyalists, we have to consider also how to please shoppers in our space at the last possible opportunity.

While there have been great innovations in front-of-store best-practices (offer a landing strip with carts, baskets, greeters, a decompression zone, refreshments, grab-n-go foods, convenience items, etc.), there hasn’t been as much focus on the end-of-shopping experience, and I think there ought to be more. Simply put, this is your last chance to wow your shopper and make them feel as though they’ve had a worthwhile, pleasant experience that they might like to repeat sometime soon.

As discussed in the last article, we know that paying for things and parting with one’s dollars actually registers in parts of the brain that process pain (paying is literally painful), so doing everything possible to minimize that pain is critical to creating pleased shoppers and store loyalists.

Start with the cashiers. Ensure their shifts aren’t too long, they are well- trained, they are helpful, courteous, and quick with ringing things in, bar codes, SKUs, computer and payment systems.

Second, ensure that there are enough registers and payment options—making it easy to pay (instead of laborious and line-up ridden) eases the pain of paying.

Third, offer low-involvement (e.g. flashlight), easy-to-leave-off-the-shopping-list (e.g. batteries, tape), easy-to-forget-to-put-on-the-shopping-list (e.g. gum), didn’t-know-they-needed-it (e.g. magazines for the doctor's office waiting room), high-utility (e.g. baby-wipes) products that are easy for shoppers to choose in favour of and likely to be things they constantly need (e.g. scissors, glue, Tide-to-Go, elastics, mints, water, etc.).

These point-of-sale (POS) products don’t just typically bear higher margins because of their smaller size and individual formats (bonus!), they are genuinely perceived as helpful by shoppers stuck in line, ready or needing to leave, and feeling as though they might have forgotten an item.

While shoppers asked about these products will report with their conscious brains that they felt trapped or coerced into buying some of these products at POS, EEG studies show that in actual fact the brain registers these helpful everyday items as a convenience overture of value to them—you just made their inconvenient, fast-paced, hectic lives a little bit easier and more convenient. And we know from the last article (and brain science) that pandering to convenience shoppers bears pleasing fruits for shopper and retailer alike.

Rewards/loyalty cards

Finally, in order to have a lasting impact on a shopper long after they have left your store, it’s a good idea to offer them something to remember you by (and especially in the food category, it will perish or be consumed).

What better than a rewards program or loyalty card that reminds them of their value to you and your reciprocal relationship? While there has been some argument about the remaining usefulness of loyalty cards given their proliferation, their usefulness still follows the 80/20 rule:

80% of the rewards will be appreciated and used by 20% of your top loyalists, the remaining 20% of the offered rewards, but the bottom 80% of shoppers, which means that they are still worth offering because incidentally, 80% of your revenues are also coming from the top 20% of loyalists.

In short, offer rewards and loyalty cards if you want to please your most lucrative set of shoppers—tthese consumers will notice and care about the overture (while the remaining 80% won’t necessarily care or notice particularly and aren’t likely to have it make the difference toward them becoming loyalists).

Further, having a card on someone’s keychain or wallet is both good branding and works on their subconscious brain—they must like you, frequent you, value you, be pleased by you if they are going to see a card they signed up for that often or wear it on themselves.

Finally, we know from persuasion theory that making someone sign up for a card or program of some type—and even better yet sign their name somewhere—subconsciously operates to make them more loyal and likely to follow through with purchase interest and shopping behaviours because the brain favours consistent actions and behaviours, even out of oneself. 


Thank you for reading this article series—Priming, Persuading and Pleasing Consumers’ Brains in Your Grocery Stores. For more, check out Brynn using these principles in action to make over a real grocery store:

A Big Thank You to Ontario Pork for sponsoring this article series as well as the shared belief that a better understanding of brain science makes us all better business people.

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