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Difficulties in Finding Stuffing for Thanksgiving: The Shortcomings of Online Search

Finding food products that are personalized to our own preferences is not easy, so consumers often turn to online search functions. All too often, however, search yields an empty or sparse digital shelf because of inadequate or inappropriately used product categorizations and descriptions. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, we thought we would put this to the test and see what we would find if we shopped for stuffing for a traditional holiday meal. According to a YouGov RealTime survey, stuffing is tied with mashed potatoes as the most popular Thanksgiving side dish, with 75% of those consumers surveyed stating that they anticipated serving it for the holiday meal this year. We also looked at the searchability of specifically gluten-free stuffing. Gluten-free products represent a sizable part of the market, and could have a significant effect on overall sales, as approximately 43 million Americans are estimated to either suffer from Celiac disease or have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity (i.e. 14% of the US population). Our survey focused on the top 5 grocery ecommerce retailers in 2021 based on sales, Walmart, Kroger, Target, Albertsons, and Amazon. 

The four-week period leading up to Thanksgiving is a critical time for the grocery industry because sales of edible products tend to rise by about $2.2 billion nationwide. However, supply chain problems are causing a disruption that is affecting the availability of certain items, and according to IRI this has led to some expected trends, including the following:

  • Thanksgiving holiday shopping will occur earlier this year, as consumers need to plan ahead, so brands and retailers will need to be prepared to keep products stocked to meet the higher initial demand.
  • Manufacturers need to carefully keep track of their in-stock levels regionally and by retailer and may need to allocate products across markets to prevent anticipated shortages.
  • Shoppers need to be prepared to make substitutions because availability of certain items may be in question, including whipped toppings, liquid gravy, bakery pies, frozen pie/pastry shells, bottled cider, and pie/pastry filling.  

The following is what we found in our online search for stuffing by platform:

Walmart:

The initial search for “stuffing” yields 58 results for food and 196 results for crafts & sewing:

Looking at the 58 food products, only 11 are for stuffing (around 19%); the other 81% are made up of various products, including mashed potatoes, soup, and mac and cheese. Thus, from the consumer’s standpoint, there is inefficiency and possibly frustration. Additionally, although there is a dedicated Thanksgiving section on Walmart’s website, stuffing surprisingly does not seem to be included anywhere in this section. Presumably it should either be found in the “Thanksgiving Staples” section or the “Easy Side” section, but is not found in either location.

A search for “gluten-free stuffing” yields 1000+ results, only 3 of which seem to be relevant:

It should be noted that these gluten-free stuffing options were not displayed when just searching for stuffing. This should be a significant concern to brands that are trying to sell these products. 

Target:

A general search for “stuffing” returns 15 results, 10 of which are actually stuffing (so only 66% of results are what was searched for). In addition to inaccuracy, there is a filter problem because there is no option to search by dietary needs. From the consumer’s perspective, this can make the search process highly inefficient. When Target does use filters, in many cases they do not make sense. For example: (i) there is an “age” filter with only one option: 8-10 years; (ii) although there is a “brand” filter, most of the brands listed don’t even make stuffing; (iii) there is a “material” filter which is not relevant to this search, and (iv) although there is a “type” filter how do any of the following besides “stuffing mixes” relate to stuffing? Finally, a search for “gluten free stuffing” returns 1101 results, none of which are gluten free stuffing. 

Kroger:

A main search for “stuffing” yields 1347 results, only 22 of which are even a form of stuffing. Of these other 1325 products, most are dog toys (because they are “stuffing” free). Other results include irrelevant food products such as banza pasta, banza rice, and mac and cheese. Out of the food items displayed, only around three-quarters are stuffing. The website has dietary filters, including gluten free, which narrows the search of stuffing down to 4 relevant gluten-free stuffing food products.

A search for “gluten free stuffing” yields 5 relevant products; however it also shows a sponsored ad for a stuffing product that is NOT gluten-free – this could easily be overlooked if this comes up in the consumer’s search.

Finally, applying the “gluten-free” filter to the search for gluten free stuffing narrows the results down to 3 relevant products but why are the other 2 displayed before no longer shown?

Albertsons:

A general search for “stuffing” yields 133 results – 19 of which are stuffing (only 14%). The other 86% are made up mostly of products that have “stuff” in the name – i.e. double stuf oreos, stand n stuff taco shells, stuffed olives, stuffed crust pizza, stuffed chicken breast, etc. Applying the “gluten free” filter narrows this to 13 results – none of which are gluten free stuffing (note: they do sell gluten free stuffing and these products are shown under the general search for stuffing but not shown when the gluten free filter is applied). This is troubling for the brands selling gluten free stuffing products.

When searching for gluten free stuffing, only 2 of the 16 displayed results are relevant (12.5%).

Amazon(searching on Whole Foods on the Amazon website):

A main search for “stuffing” yields 219 results, only 4 of which are stuffing (less than 2%). The other 215 products include highly irrelevant items such as salmon, crispy onions, cheese tortellini, sweet potato fries, and croissants). A search for “gluten free stuffing” on the Whole Foods platform returns 89 results, 2 of which are stuffing but none of which are gluten free. This can be very misleading to shoppers.

Takeaway:

These results demonstrate that there are many problems with online search functions. It was far more difficult to find relevant choices for a common holiday item such as stuffing than it should be.

The problems include poor categorizations and filters, incorrect information, a failure to match product types to identified categories, and search result clutter (i.e. irrelevant products displayed, whether because of inaccuracy or because the retailer is populating results based upon its desire to promote unrelated products). It is also striking how there are such tremendous disparities in the search results from the different online grocers surveyed. In performing this research, we also noted that there are sizable differences in search functions and results depending upon the geographic region from which the search is run. From a brand’s perspective, all of these problems should be very concerning as they can dramatically affect a consumer’s ability to find their product. This survey also highlights that shoppers looking for gluten-free foods may have a particularly difficult time finding what they are searching for.

Giving the consumer sufficient tools in terms of robust search categories and filters and accurately populated search results goes a long way towards facilitating product discovery, but it needs to be supported by adequate data and precise product attributes supplied by brands. Too little product information or the wrong product attributes can lead to an empty digital shelf. Additionally, incorrect product information or imprecise product attributes can result in digital shelf clutter that may impede discovery, lead to cart abandonment, and hinder sales. Fortunately, Foodspace can help. We are experts in assisting brands and last-mile providers in ensuring that product searchability and product attributes are optimized for sales maximization. 

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