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Pitfalls in Online Grocery: A Comparison Between US & UK Retailers

US vs UK consumer preferences when grocery shopping

Unsurprisingly, consumer needs and preferences vary geographically. For example, in their product purchasing decisions, consumers in the US have been cited as showing greater concern for personal health, as they are generally more concerned about obtaining food without antibiotics or chemicals. Conversely, consumers in the UK have been noted as being more interested in furthering environmental sustainability objectives through reducing the use of plastic packaging.

In terms of store format, one study found that adults in the US tend to prefer smaller format stores and adults in the UK tend to prefer larger format stores. Additionally, product selection inherently differs between these two locations (and even if the products / brands are the same, their ingredient lists often vary)! Therefore, it makes sense that the online grocery websites in these two countries should differ to some degree; but what are the major differences? I wondered this myself as I traveled from my home in the US back to where I attend school in the UK and shopped online at Morrisons to restock upon my arrival. As I started filling my cart with grocery items, the process seemed more seamless than my previous experiences with online grocery shopping in the US. To investigate this further, I decided to examine three popular UK-based online grocers (Morrisons, Tesco, and Asda) and three popular US-based online grocers (Walmart, Target, and FreshDirect) and compare my findings.

Overall Trends

From this sample there were some clear trends: 

  1. The UK grocers examined had far more food & beverage subcategories on their websites than the US grocers 

Having more food & beverage subcategories presumably increases the discoverability of products as it makes it easier for consumers to search for products with greater precision. However, there is a fine line between providing sufficient categorization and overloading the consumer with too much information, and it is unclear if this boundary is being crossed by the UK grocers analyzed. As noted above, UK consumers have been found to prefer large-store formats in comparison to US consumers so this is a potential reason for this noticeable difference in category quantity and specificity. Moreover, if consumers are familiar with the online grocery platform, it has been suggested that they may prefer to navigate the website by clicking through categories and subcategories as opposed to using the search function (as this requires a lower cognitive load). If this is the case, having more subcategories would appear to be beneficial.

  1. The UK grocers seem to better define the nutrition-related attributes that they use 

Two out of the three UK grocers examined (Tesco and Asda) define their nutrition-related attributes whereas none of the US grocers examined did this. Definitions of the same nutrition-related attributes can vary between websites, and therefore it is useful from the consumer perspective to have access to these definitions. For example, Asda’s website only applies a vegan attribute to products certified by the Vegan Society whereas Tesco defines products falling under their vegan filter as items that “do not contain any ingredients from animals including eggs, milk, honey or fishery products. Some products listed are not suitable for milk or egg allergy sufferers because milk and/or egg are present in the environment where the products are made.” It is critical for consumers to have access to these definitions because without the definition provided by Tesco, a consumer with a severe dairy allergy might assume that a product that falls under the vegan filter is perfectly safe for them to consume, but as noted this product might not be suitable for those who suffer from a dairy allergy. The absence of accessible definitions on US grocer websites puts the consumer at a disadvantage when trying to make an informed purchasing decision.

  1. The nutritional facts statement and ingredient information are more easily accessible on the websites of the UK grocers

All of the UK grocers analyzed provide nutritional facts and ingredient information on the first product page without requiring additional clicks. In contrast, none of the US grocers examined provide this information on the first page, and therefore consumers are required to make additional clicks to view that information. It has been found in a previous study that “product information that required a click to access was rarely viewed.” Therefore, many consumers shopping on US grocers websites are presumably not observing the nutrition facts and ingredient information. This could lead to the unintentional purchase of a product with an allergen or other ingredients that the shopper is trying to avoid.

Pitfalls Across The Board

Despite the quantity of food & beverage subcategories, clearly-defined lifestyle & nutrition filters, and readily accessible nutrition and ingredient information, the UK online grocers nevertheless operate with a plethora of discoverability-related problems. For example, on Morrisons’ website, when you click on vegan → dairy alternatives → cheese & spreads, there are 18 results; if you then apply the “milk free” filter, there are only 7 results.

All vegan cheese products are inherently dairy free, but the filter is missing 61% of the relevant products, thereby hindering discoverability.

This is a common trend on their website, as if you click on Free From → Gluten Free → Frozen, there are 37 products but if the “gluten free” filter is applied, there are only 4 search results. The filter is missing 89% of products and impeding sales. This can also be seen on Asda’s website which has 18 vegan cheese products but only places 5 of these in their vegan & plant based category. 

Even though Morrisons’ website has an abundance of subcategories, some of them are not well explained and seemingly do not function properly or serve a useful purpose. For example, they have a Feel Good Foods product section that contains only three products, one of which is not even food – and what classifies the other two foods as “feel good?”

Tesco’s website has a “healthier snacking” subcategory but it is unclear what places products into this category. For example, Wotsits (a cheesy corn puff snack) are not usually associated with “healthiness” so why is it placed here?

Thus, having an abundance of subcategories might not be as useful if some categories are not well thought out, do not make logical sense, or are not correctly populated. 

Similar problems can also be found on the websites of US grocers. For example, on FreshDirect’s website, if you search for plant-based milk, there are 137 results but if you then apply the dairy-free filter, there are only 105 options – these should all be dairy-free options so why are there 32 less products being shown? A search for dairy-free milk on Target’s website yields 138 search results but when the “does not contain dairy” filter is applied, there are only 49 search results that show up – 64% of dairy-free milk products are missing the dairy-free attribute. On Walmart’s website, if you search gluten-free pizza, there are 77 search results but if the gluten-free filter is applied, there are only 10 search results left, leaving 87% of relevant products out of the filter. 

FreshDirect’s subcategory placements do not seem to make logical sense. Who would think to check the dairy section when looking to purchase hummus or eggs?

Takeaway

From the sample of six grocery stores observed, the UK grocers seem to aid the consumer more than their US counterparts. This is accomplished by providing a large quantity of food & beverage subcategories, providing definitions for their lifestyle & nutrition filters, and making nutrition and ingredient information easily accessible. However, these potentially useful features are not fully functional and seamless product discoverability is still lacking in both geographic regions.

Foodspace Can Help

US-based online grocers that currently lack a high volume of food & beverage subcategories and/or defined nutrition-related filters can take inspiration from UK-based grocers and start to implement these features. Foodspace can assist brands and online grocers in making sure that products are ascribed all relevant attributes and that lifestyle & dietary preference filters include all products that belong in the respective categories. This will ensure that products are not going undiscovered and will make the online grocery shopping experience easier for the consumer.

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