Service With A Smile...No, Mask July 2020








How the Coronavirus has Shoppers

Missing the Sensory Experience and

the Effect on Private Brands

I miss the grocery store, I mean

I really miss it.

But, there are many who don’t.

For shoppers who already saw it

as a mind-numbing, robotic and

repetitive chore that just had to be

done, then you might not be missing

a thing, embracing the digital

or curbside experience in all its

passionless glory during the coronavirus

pandemic. It is this group,

the newer digital/curbside shoppers,

who private brand marketers should

worry about.

Yet I miss it, and I especially miss the

sights, sounds and everything sensory

as it applies to my local supermarket.

The smell of the bakery, the

color-breaks and display pyramiding

of a good produce section, product

sampling munchies, chickens turning

on the rotisserie and even the smiles

and conversation from customer

service. My local store succeeds in

everything sensory.

But today COVID-19 does not have

us valuing anything sensory. Rather

it has us valuing the functional

experience, premised on safety and

efficiency. For the foreseeable future,

it more like service with a mask, not

service with a smile.

A Sensory Gut-Check.

Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell

our five basic senses. Two of them

have basically been taken away. No

product samples and in-store cafes,

so really no “taste”. You can only

count “touch” if that includes touching

something with rubber gloves.

“Sight” is also a little impaired, as

most shoppers just have their heads

down, walking with the forced aisle

flow, and just trying to go as fast as

they can. We also can’t see any people’s

expressions in the store, as they

are covered by masks.

That leaves “smell” and “sound”. As for

“smell”, it is tough to smell anything

except the overpowering scent of hand

sanitizer these days, and the “sounds”

of the store have also been muted. 83

For retailers and CPGs, taking a sensory

gut-check is really important as you move

post-COVID. How do you powerfully start

to bring these sensory elements back into

the shoppers’ psyche, how do manufacturers

think differently about the pointof-sale

merchandising in the future (since

shoppers aren’t stopping to read anything

these days), and how do we think about

getting those digital shoppers back. Bottom

line, if your sensory experience is not

powerful, then you may lose post-COVID

shoppers forever.

Good for private brands,

but don’t be complacent.

share that they lost. Again, just don’t be

complacent, we still have many marketing

and private brand stories to reinforce.

Not that the two topics are entirely

unrelated, one, COVID-19 and, two, a

significant Recession (which coronavirus

was the catalyst to), but I believe it is the

recession that will produce more “sticky”

Private Brand behaviors than the coronavirus.

The desire for more value and limited

budgets, will make certain channels

(Limited assortment and Dollar) even

more attractive and will further shoppers’

desire for Private Brands.

All the statistics and syndicated sales information

show that coronavirus has been

good for Private Brands, and the thinking

is that shoppers have been [forced to

be] more experimental during this time

because lack of availability. The working

theory is that consumers who have tried

Private Brands and appreciate the quality

may become loyal. I am not so sure.

I had two sub-par experiences with Private

Brands during the crisis, and one was

with Bath Tissue at Costco, their #1 selling

sku in the entire warehouse, Kirkland

Signature 2 ply, which our family didn’t

care for. The other was in Paper Towels

and, which have a sheet count

of only 112 sheets. Now I am not picking

on either of these beloved retailers, where

I buy a lot of Kirkland Signature and

Prince & Spring products, but in these

two instances, they did not “convert” me.

It actually had me yearning for the brands

I could not find.

My message here is do not be complacent.

Not every new Private Brand

experiment is going to amount to a

conversion. Some will, yes, but some

will just reaffirm some shoppers’ prior

loyalties to brands they enjoyed, and just

couldn’t find. I also think there is another

important dynamic at play to watch out

for, and that is the CPG claw-back. Do you

think Procter & Gamble is just going to be

content having lost share in some household

categories? Absolutely not. They will

invest heavily in marketing promotions

post-COVID all designed to claw back

Promotional cadence that

is changed.

The coronavirus will have lasting effects

on the way we shop. We have learned to

shop less during the virus, plan better

with lists, and buy more extensively and

deeply when we are in the store once a

week or once-every-other-week. These

visits are certainly more “functional”,

with a lot fewer impulse buying decisions

happening, as shoppers really have their

blinders on.

So if shopping cadence changes from 1.6

trips per week (prior to the pandemic), to

once a week or twice a month, then

this also changes the way manufacturers

should promote. Promotions that are

less frequent, promotions that might be

deeper, and promotions that consider

the digital-social vehicles a little more

seriously than prior to COVID-19 in terms

of their balance-of-spend.

Your private brands

and SEO

We know one of the shopper behaviors

that will be forever accelerated and swayed

is the amount of digital and curbside that

consumers have already adopted. Household

penetration for E-Grocery hit 33% in

May according to Brick Meets Click.

Now these increases may not be shockers.

But what I think is shocking is how

Private Brands have not invested in

any Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

on the very retail sites and platforms on

which they sell. Just one example we conducted

by entering “diapers” into multiple

retailer websites, showed some interesting

variations. Wegmans and HEB with

their strong Private Brand programs,


< Marks & Spencer –

produce revamped for sensory.

Photo courtesy

of Fresh Produce Journal

also show many of their diaper products

on the first page of the search.

However, retailers like Amazon, Rite-

Aid and [surprisingly] Kroger didn’t

fare so well. None of their own brands


If consumers are moving to more dot.

com grocery buying, then Private

Brands and the retailers that own them

have to invest in better SEO thinking

in a post-COVID world.


rationalization and

new space allocation

Retailers in a post-COVID world also

have to think carefully not just about

amplifying their sensory experience instore,

but also think about their range

of categories and their space allocation

differently. Do you think about slightly

bigger paper sections in the future, or

how about enhanced frozen opportunities,

or do you just leave them the way

they are? How about end display appl

cations and which categories get this

prime real estate? I also believe that

certain categories might be prone for

assortment editing and rationalization

for efficiency, as some consumers may

lean towards bigger sizes and stock-up

behaviors that could be long-lasting in

the future.

As much as COVID-talk is in itself

exhausting, the consumer, shopper,

retailer and brand behaviors really

have to be thought through and

re-evaluated for the future if you are a

retailer or supplier. I shudder to think

of a contact-less shopper experience

in the future, but one devoid of smile,

expression and humanity is even more


As always, if this has provoked any

thinking on your part, then just reach

out to me freely. In the meantime, stay

safe and well.

Perry Seelert is a retail branding and marketing expert, with a passion for challenging

conventional strategy and truths. He is the Strategic Partner and Co-founder of Emerge,

a strategic marketing consultancy dedicated to helping Retailers, Manufacturers and

Services grow exponentially and differentiate with purpose. Please contact Perry at 85

At Emerge, we are focused around two

simple client objectives, which are at

the heart of everything we do.



Looking to expand and differentiate

their business or take new innovations

to market



Wanting to build a unique roadmap

and actionable tactics for Private Brand



We would love to start

a conversation with


Perry Seelert, Partner; Mark Dickinson, Partner

+1 203 529 3668

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