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Online Grocery’s Searchability Gap, Opportunities for Today’s Sweets & Snacks Trends

Our team had a great time exploring the new confections and creations the 2021 Sweets & Snacks Expo had to offer. We were there to talk data, taste the goodies, and learn what is up-and-coming in the confectionery industry. While we succeeded with that delicious agenda, our team also left with a big question; are these trendy treats translating to the digital shelf? 

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Numerous themes and trends can be identified from a review of the sell sheets from the Sweets & Snacks Expo. Overall, the brands emphasize that purchasing their products is a “smart choice” for consumers. This emphasis is an accumulation of descriptors of ingredients that are present or noticeably absent from a product. Many of these items mention “real” or “natural” ingredients, being free from ingredients that might be considered potentially harmful (i.e., trans fats, GMOs, added sugars, artificial flavors, preservatives, sodium, gluten, dairy, etc.), and calling out functional ingredients (i.e., providing energy and a source of protein, a “meal-on-the-go,” etc.). 

Diet-specific trends include products that are keto-friendly, paleo-friendly, vegan, or plant-based. Many of the products often attempt to conjure up images of trust and depict benefits that transcend the product itself. Evoking memories of childhood, having fun, engaging in physical activity, being “on the go,” or supporting worthwhile causes (i.e., women-owned businesses, American-made products, etc.) are other notable themes highlighted by brands across the convention. These are clearly important messages from both a brand and consumer perspective; however, are they implemented effectively to serve these stakeholders?

Research states that “65% of consumers look for products that can help them live a more sustainable and socially responsible life” and “60% of consumers buy products and services that are socially and or environmentally responsible”. Brands emphasize these aspects of their products and company values everywhere from their sell sheets to their front-of-pack labels, yet if a consumer searches for a women-owned brand or regeneratively farmed product the shopping platform is not likely to populate accurate results, if it returns any at all.

The reach and efficacy of these messages is diminished on most digital shelves. There is a stark disconnect between what the food industry claims consumers are seeking and what they are enabled to find. These themes and trends could be key product attributes for omnichannel brands, retailers, and marketplaces and yet these online platforms are not set up to use these attributes for search or discoverability.

One publication illustrated this problem in connection with ketogenic products:
“Ketogenic is the 5th most searched term in online grocery categories. Although this represents a major sales opportunity, a full 98% of products that could make a claim to be Ketogenic lack the product attribute needed to be found in online search. The end result is that the consumer is presented with an empty digital grocery shelf, when in reality, online retailers are well-stocked with keto-friendly products – the listings simply lack the right product attributes to be found by interested shoppers.”

A brief inspection of a few major online grocery platforms demonstrates that searchability is largely non-existent across-the-board, with respect to virtually all current product themes and trends. For example, the online grocery platform for Fairway market returns 6 results for a  search of “dairy-free ice cream,” 3 results for “plant based ice cream,” and one result when “vegan ice cream” is searched and this single product happens to be cookie dough, not ice cream.

A virtual visual inspection of all of Fairway’s ice cream products reveals that there are actually 36 dairy-free options. The search function of Fairway’s platform is seriously underrepresenting available inventory and must be hindering sales of such products.

Not only is underrepresenting the available selection a problem, but so is the inaccuracy of search results.  For example, when FreshDirect’s platform is searched for high fat foods (a common product attribute for those seeking keto products), every single returned result is for products explicitly low in fat. 

Similar problems exist on the Whole Foods platform, because when it is searched for high fat products, only 1 product is shown (i.e., underrepresenting), and when this product is clicked on, it turns out to be a low fat product (i.e., misrepresenting).

Misrepresenting is a common theme. When the Whole Foods website is searched for low sugar (another product attribute related to the keto diet), the first product that appeared in our search is sweet tea.

Although brands and retailers are trying to capitalize on social, ingredient, and dietary trends (i.e. keto, dairy-free, organic, employee-owned, etc.), the gap in searchability using these same terms is difficult to overlook. Ascribing relevant attributes to products in the online grocery realm is a crucial aspect of good product data. Empowering the consumer through searchability and product discovery is crucial for the success of all stakeholders.

The digital shelf is an incredible opportunity; but a lack of good data is a significant barrier to an optimized experience and sales. Misrepresentation and underrepresentation are unnecessary burdens on brands and retailers. Good data will improve searchability, discoverability, and personalization and it’s a task that can be checked off within minutes. Foodspace is the product data partner with a solution to ensure each and every product unlocks the full potential of the digital shelf and reaches the consumers searching for it.   


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