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What Will It Take to Make Grocery Mobile Apps Matter?

January 28, 2013

According to the holiday shopping survey from distribution software-provider Symphony EYC (formerly Aldata), only 5.6 percent of respondents used their mobile phone to actually buy groceries during the past 12 months. Yet supermarkets continue to launch and tweak their mobile apps.

The just-released mobile app upgrade from Wegmans promises to help more quickly build virtual shopping lists while also helping save money and time.

Among the new features:

  • Past purchases: Through Shoppers Club accounts, past purchases can now be seen, perhaps helping with forgotten shopping list items;
  • Bar code scanner: The mobile device's camera can scan product bar codes right from the pantry or refrigerator and quickly add them to a list;
  • Multiple shopping lists: Separate lists can be created and edited for an upcoming party or when shopping for others. The list can also be emailed to others with notes;
  • Quick recipe access: The app displays recipes from Wegmans Menu magazine with ingredients, instructions, and nutrition information for each. Ingredients can be added to the shopping list with a single tap;
  • Aisle navigation: Shopping lists are organized by aisle according to your store's layout to help avoid backtracking;
  • Cost calculator: The total cost of items on a list is now estimated to help shoppers stay on budget;
  • Shoppers Club access: Cashiers can scan the phone or tablet to capture Shoppers Club information so benefits can acrue to the shopper's loyalty card.

Other original features built into the app include checking store locations and hours, refilling prescriptions, watching cooking videos, reading the latest posts from Wegmans' Fresh Stories blog, browsing recipes, rating and reviewing products and recipes, and checking nutrition information and Wellness Keys for Wegmans brand products and recipes.

Other supermarket apps in the marketplace enable shoppers to scan and self-checkout in aisles, see the store's weekly circular, download coupons, gain meal planning and cooking tips, and track loyalty card points.

At least according to the Symphony EYC survey of 1,000 shoppers, supermarket apps are missing what shoppers wanted most: being able to compare prices with other stores.

Others features ranking high in the survey as far as importance for mobile grocery shopping:

  • Gaining access to coupons or promotions;
  • Receiving personalized offers;
  • Collecting and using loyalty points;
  • Locating specific and complementary products in store, and;
  • Requesting that a product not currently available with that retailer be stocked.


Discussion Questions:

Will in-store grocery shopping with mobile apps be fairly common in the years ahead? Which features of Wegmans mobile app will prove particularly beneficial to in-store shopping? What features may be missing?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

What's the likelihood that in-store grocery shopping with mobile apps will be common over the next three to five years?


I would think that because the industry keeps talking about them, we'll keep building them. However, unless they do unique things (like price comparisons vs. other stores in the area), I don't see them as a big deal. Then again, I don't use my phone for everything either.

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Dr. Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations

Apps are valuable when they save time, save money and make the shopping experience easier. The ideal grocery app needs to easily merge recipes from any source into a shopping list, automatically grab manufacturer coupons and apply them to purchases, help customers locate products in-store, update and redeem loyalty points/rewards, and quickly check out.

To date, grocers have not been able to produce the ideal app, but we are headed in that direction. Given a few more years we'll get there.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

For a variety of reasons, creating strong, relevant apps for in-store grocery shoppers is a logistical challenge:

  • Store specific assortments make serving up relevant promotions and complimentary sometimes challenging. It's often not clear what product is in what store.
  • Planogram accuracy is mostly inadequate for in-aisle promotions and information
  • Requesting that a product be stocked becomes another version of "squeaky wheel syndrome." Supermarket is all about turn, and just because I like something, doesn't mean it's viable for the store to sell. That can make it seem like I was asked a question and my answer was ignored. Better not to ask in the first place.

It'll happen eventually...just not to the level most customers might imagine. Me, I'd be happy if my local Publix just stopped re-stocking during the busiest time of the day. All those dollies real do get in the way.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

A mobile app that serves as a substitute for scanning a loyalty card (or entering one's phone number at the checkout lane) is a convenience but not a game-changer. And, as the panel discussed last week, offering discounts through new technology is not really a driver of loyalty anyway.

It would be interesting to see a food retailer really prepared to think outside the box of convenience: For example, how about entering your grocery list from the store website or mobile app, scanning your barcode upon arriving at the store and finding your order ready for pickup? This would take work to execute in a cost-effective way but might help redefine loyalty.

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Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

So much of this is the curve—that is, there's an adoption curve that will take a certain amount of time to reach fruition, no matter what a supermarket does. It's likely longer than other areas of retail, due to demographics and the more utilitarian nature of food shopping vs. say, fashion shopping. Newspapers weren't immediately affected by the Internet, but after 5-10 years of the general public online, the effect set-in. Given enough time for old habits to die and generational shifts to keep evolving and the idea of an app/digital assistant to help shoppers will become the norm.

While I haven't personally reviewed supermarket apps, the general direction of the Wegmans example is good. It wouldn't take much effort to meet the features of the wish list presented, just willingness on the store's part. Price comparisons are really tricky and can backfire, so that's an unlikely feature unless provided by a 3rd party shopping comparison app.

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Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

Sounds like Wegmans gets it. It's all about simplifying the shopping experience and saving money. To do this you need to fully integrate the mobile app with frequent shopper data, be able to set up a list on your PC or tablet and bring that into the store on your mobile phone. I think we can put the gamification and badge nonsense to rest now....

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Joel Rubinson, President, Rubinson Partners, Inc.

The more that the app relates to the end-to-end process of eating, the more it will become common.

BigOven is a sample of an end-to-end, cloud-based app that goes backward from the recipe to the grocery list. It also does what all future apps will do—links together all of the tech platforms that a person(shopper) uses—tablet, PC, and phones(s).

Life is end-to-end and the best apps are too!

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Tom Redd, Global Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

As soon as a grocer moves their loyalty card over to the mobile app and then allows a customer to select coupons from the Sunday FSI by entering a code, then the use of the mobile device should show signs of life in the store. Then give the customer the opportunity to check inventory status or to ask for help from their phone while in the store and route the request to either staff or a manager on their mobile device.

The next generation uses texting, so why not get the store ready for that too? Lastly, add games to the shopping trip. If a customer sees a spill and reports it on their mobile device, they get points. Let all grocers take Feargal Quinn's approach to knowing thy customer.

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Frank Riso, Principal, Frank Riso Associates, LLC

I think we'll get there. It's taken a couple of iterations to get mobile right when the retailer has a sophisticated online presence, so I have to imagine that the learning curve is even steeper in grocery, where "sophisticated" is almost never used to describe "online."

I have to say that I have come to realize, through acquisition and testing of multiple apps, that a shopping list app is surprisingly complex. And grocery retailers won't necessarily be able to learn from the best practices of other retailers that have cracked their own mobile code—the shopping process for groceries is significantly different than that for say, apparel. The apps should reflect that.

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Absolutely. In my research comparing mature Millennials versus mature Baby Boomers, I noted a significant difference in mobile app attitudes and behaviors. Not surprisingly, the younger generation uses apps more for buying products and getting coupons, as well as for gathering information on products, services, and the retailer itself.

A review of the Symphony research leads one to conclude that these apps need to be more than discount vehicles. Consumers are looking for enhanced shopping convenience and connectivity. A needed feature is the ability to provide feedback (complain or compliment) via the mobile app. Such a feature addresses both the need for convenience and the need for connectivity.

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Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph's University

I'm interested that the number 1 thing shoppers want is the ability to compare prices: apps are walled gardens and since grocery loyalty is generally a bit of a fiction (location of store is the biggest "loyalty" driver) having to go to a different app for each store you shop seems counter-intuitive to what shoppers want and what FSIs have allowed them to do for years-find out who has the best price on what.

Seems to me to be an opportunity for Google or another wider market player to step in. Shoppers want aggregation and one stop solutions—not a series of 20 apps on their phones all related to grocery shopping

Lisa Bradner, Chief Strategy Officer, Geomentum/Shopper Sciences

The grocery shopping experience for many is a repetitive process at a defined set of stores. Most even buy the same SKUs on each trip and have memorized where these items are located in their set of stores. With that being the norm, mere shopping lists and store and product locators are not going to move the needle on shopper use of the application as they do not significantly improve upon the shopper's already streamlined regiment.

However, when NFC technologies and other real time connectivity is possible within the stores themselves, an application can then provide directed coupons savings to shoppers to a specific store and even in a specific aisle. Taking the application all the way to full utility, competing the purchase on the app and avoiding or expediting the checkout line is nirvana.

Pricing comparing across retailers will remain problematic. Most retailers have no desire to facilitate cross shopping or potentially highlighting a pricing disadvantage.

Anytime technology reduces time, simplifies the process, and/or adds incremental savings, the technology has a great chance of gaining traction. So far, many of these apps fail to meet these criteria.

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Mark Heckman, Principal, Mark Heckman Consulting

I agree with Mark Heckman (as I usually do) about the routine nature of grocery shopping, but let me put another spin on it: the fact that mobile apps are (and always will be) generally ineffective for grocery shoppers is a *good* thing: that means that customers are familiar with the store and comfortable to handle any problem-solving tasks on their own, without relying on expensive technology. All retailers should aspire to get their customers to that level of comfort and familiarity.

In short, mobile apps are a solution to a non-problem for most grocery shoppers.

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Peter Fader, Professor of Marketing, The Wharton School of the Univ. of Pennsylvania

Any feature that customizes the shopping experience (i.e. personalized offers) enhances the in-store shopping experience and might prove to be a traffic driver.

The objective of the apps should always be to extend the shopping experience to the consumer's cupboards. It it gives the consumer the feeling of organization and more efficient shopping, the app will be utilized.

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Carlos Arámbula, Strategist, One Ninth & Co-founder of MarcasUSA, One Ninth, MarcasUSA LLC

This is a fast moving area that requires constant forward momentum and experimentation to stay in the game. I applaud Wegmans for applying their app for more than just delivering deals. Grocery chains need to find ways to add value beyond price.

Smartphone/tablet apps that have real utility to make shopping easier and more enjoyable, along with social media that is sharable, are great tools to stay engaged with the shopper out of the store.

Bill Chidley, Senior Vice President, Interbrand Design Forum

There is still too much "pain" to use a grocery focused mobile app when measured against the potential "gain" for doing so for most consumers.

Until someone crosses that pain/gain chasm, it won't be possible to drive adoption sufficient to impact the business.

In the short term, retailers will need to think hard about supporting mobile apps that have so little adoption (currently) and provide little (or no) impact on retailers' bottom line.

Tim Belvin, CTO, VisibleBrands

Again this is not a one size fits all. The best app will depend on the individuals shopping behavior. For example, my husband does the shopping in our house and I never know when he will be stopping by a store. He likes to be spontaneous. We use a great app that allows me to put items on the shopping list for each of his favorite stores that then syncs to his app. When he arrives at the store, he can look and see what I may be out of or want from that store.

We've never been much into coupon use, however with the app, he can also see if there is a coupon for any of the items on the list. That's all we really need or want.

Lee Kent, Sharing Insights for Success in Retail, YourRetailAuthority

Mobile shopping apps will take off when they eliminate "checkout." It is the wallet function that will be KING!!!

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Herb Sorensen, Ph.D., Scientific Advisor Kantar Retail; Adjunct Ehrenberg-Bass, Shopper Scientist LLC

The apps will never be embraced as long as they focus on what the store wants them to do rather than what the consumer wants them to do. If an app were to help me to find items on my list in the store, scan them to check them off and tender my transaction for me when I leave so that I don't have to stand in line, I would use it every time.

It would be nice for grocery stores to move staff from behind the counter out into the aisles to help customers and offer advice rather than wasting payroll hours on performing transactions that often no longer require human interaction. From a first things first point of view the app would have to work well in the store so my recommendation is to start with high speed in store WiFi.


I guess the more important question is "how, if at all, will increased app use benefit (food) retailers?"

Most of the suggestions here seemed designed to make shopping more organized, quicker and on budget; all things which would be great for consumers, but bad for retailers as it would reduce impulse buying. Maybe they should hope app use DOESN'T become more common.


I finally went with a friend to try out the Stop & Shop handhelds the other night. During NRF, I spoke with one of the vendors involved with the Stop & Shop project and finally realized that the thing that really made it work was the advent of reusable shopping bags. Allowing the customer to scan and bag as they shopped seemed the perfect answer. My friend is a real efficiency freak and in her 40 years of grocery shopping has always been annoyed by the number of times she had to handle grocery items between the shelf in the store and the shelf at home. We both had high hopes for the experience.

I had also read the Wegmans announcement of their new version of their shopping tool. I liked the features it offered and the ability to build a shopping list using the camera on the consumer's smart phone. Ultimately, a Bluetooth scanner attached the trash can and linked to the phone will allow people to simply wave the item by the scanner as they throw away the container and upload the list when they are ready to go shopping.

With all the anticipation, we were disappointed with the experience. The handhelds were really "dumb" terminals. For customers used to their smart phones, the handheld seemed both clunky and stupid. Since we were in a new store, we needed help finding things but the terminal could not do that. We did get a lot of discount offers, but they were not always synced with our current location in the store.

In general there is a lot of discussion of "BYOD" for workers. I think retailers are even more challenged to let their customers use whatever device they own. It seems like Stop & Shop has focused on the in-store experience and Wegmans has focused on the pre-sell experience. The ultimate answer will be a solution that spans both aspects, allowing the customer to prepare their order then execute it right there from the device they chose.

Bill Bittner, Principal, BWH Consulting

Persistence pays with consumer adoption of new technologies. With grocery being such a high frequency category, the rationale for downloading and using the apps is there and with Wegmans and Safeway among the major brands pushing these, word of mouth should start growing. The key is to make sure that the in-app experience is well designed and the benefits of use are clearly explained.

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Martin Mehalchin, Partner, Lenati, LLC

Okay, lets see how many panelists I can irritate today. It is absolutely insane the number of ways mobile apps can help or hinder your business, and I appreciate the genius ideas that we continue to see flowing into our business circle. As an independent supermarket owner, this task would require a huge effort to adapt, maintain, and keep it fresh; plus accuracy of pricing is critical.

The Wegmans of the world, and other big chains can try and experiment with these ideas, at a fraction of the cost that I can, so let them work out the bugs. Running the day to day operations, of procuring deals, setting up the ad campaigns, and trying to keep the word out in my community about our store is an endless job, which I accept. Adding the mobile app technology and thinking this is the way to go, makes me pause and think, hmmm, is the way I do business today not good enough for the future? Maybe, but the nuts and bolts of running this store are way too important right now to create this mobile app program, right now.

Someday, as the smoke clears, and a simple system that really has a proven track record is available to someone like me, I'll pursue it, but it won't keep me from doing what I believe is right until then.

Embracing technology is important, but so is keeping the customers happy, with the proven track record we have. This will be a bonus to our store once it becomes more user friendly, so hoepfully I won't be too late to the party.. Enjoy the Game this weekend!

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

What's hot? Geo-fenced apps, like the ones that Macy's and Walmart offer, will usher in the next wave of features. In-aisle messaging and promotions will prompt impulse purchasing, at least to the extent that retailers won't want to miss those opportunities.

But beyond this, the killer app will include payment on the same device as the list and scan. With Google Wallet and Isis, we are nearly there. The payments of the future will include accounts for both fiat currency and shopper points. Combined with personalized promotions, this kind of comprehensive shop-n-pay app will be such a useful tool to sellers, that we are bound to see them pervade the market.

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Liz Crawford, SVP, Strategy & Insights, Head of ShopLab, Match Drive

I believe I can tell from the comments which respondents actually food shop. The apps may become common, but shoppers visit too many stores and yet know how the aisles are organized in each by heart; cooks collect recipes from dozens of sources and not first from supermarkets, and foodies need to see the tomatillos aren't yellow—and parents that the bananas don't have "icky" brown spots—before they buy.

Grocery shopping is complex on an easy day. Most grocers will invest and do it uselessly. While there are interesting possibilities, Wegman's shoppers will love their apps because they love Wegmans—and so on—no app will ever turn a shopper's least favorite local store into a store of choice.

Hannah Roveto, Strategist, Tier One Partners

Consumer adoption of mobile apps is accelerating. In-store apps already drive sales in retailers across the globe. The challenge is to have apps that matter, as the article states. Long-term usage of the apps required constant and consistent evolution to stay ahead of consumer trends.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Retail Industry Analytics Marketing Executive, IBM

Sure, there will be more mobile apps. The feature of adding prices from chosen items is useful. An additional feature might be to add recipes for items chosen in real time, e.g. you bought products x,y and z, if you bought product 'w', you could make "****"


Will in-store grocery shopping with mobile apps be fairly common in the years ahead? Let's think TCS: total customer solution. In February alone we have the following:

  • February
  • Ground Hog Day
  • Mardi Gras
  • President's Day
  • Valentine's Day
  • Daytona 500
  • February Sweeps for Television
  • Black History Month
  • American Heart Month
  • Cancer Prevention Month

Each one represents a problem waiting for a solution, a problem representing a social opportunity. Instead of promotions, why not offer shopper-specific solutions? There are hundreds of these events throughout the year.

Instead of coupons, how about solutions? Vendors can collaborate to create them. It's not real until there is an acronym - MVCMRSS - multi vendor collaborative mobile retail sales solutions. Don't forget to join our next working group meeting at the Hilton in Chicago.

Vahe Katros, Consultant, Plan B

One thing I've not seen—in any of the responses—is the "Health and Wellness" aspect. In that, whatever the app does, it should be able to factor in: 1) Chronic Food Conditions, 2) Food Related Diseases, and 3) Food Allergies. Yes, there are apps that address parts of the above, but they don't "integrate" with any other functions.

While I agree with what most have said re: Checkout, Coupons, Price Specials, etc., I believe the real value will come from an app that KNOWS its users.

Gregg London, Owner, Gregg London Consulting

Getting the application right, for the consumer is the key. That has not happened yet, but its closer today.

The real hurdle facing grocery is that the products and the product packaging on the shelf (particularly the nutritional facts) do not match the images and data in the database that the device and application rely on. 25% of the products on shelf at Walmart have no image at all and another 39% have packaging that differs on shelf vs. the HH. Until we solve this (and no the TSD effort is not the answer) these applications will not meet consumer needs.

Mike Spindler, Managing Partner, Panther Mountain Companies, LLC

Eventually, leveraging mobile apps in-store will become commonplace. For that to happen, though, those apps must deliver on the personalized experience that customers are requesting—customized products, coupons, recipes, loyalty programs, etc.

The current generic version does not deliver sufficient benefit vs. existing online mobile services to make a difference.

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Mark Price, Managing Partner, LiftPoint Consulting, Inc.

A number of great comments in this string. To date, mobile apps in supermarkets have been disappointing and in reality the Wegmans effort detracts from the cause rather than help. IMO as noted, it will be the convergence of wallet, loyalty, offers, recipes, solutions and self scan that will truly bring value.

Below you will see an approximate (not weighted) average of thousands of user ratings between iOS and Android. This tells the story of where the value is created. You will see COT has a major impact on the usability. We have a long way to go in supermarkets.

Zappos - 4.7
CVS - 4.5
Walgreens - 4.4
Walmart - 4.4
Amazon - 4.3
Target - 3.9
My Web Grocer - 3.5 (ShopRite, Winn-Dixie, Brookshire's, etc.
Safeway - 3.4 (Just For You)
Kroger - 3.3
Wegmans - 3.1

Steve Frenda, Managing Director, Strategy and Development, In-Store Marketing Institute

The mobile grocery services market is still in its early stages and many retailers find themselves frustrated and overwhelmed by the choices around which technology to incorporate into their stores.

Consumers on the other hand have become so reliant on mobile—apps in particular—that the focus of rolling out a mobile solution for grocers should depend solely on convenience and customer service.

Many decision makers in the grocery industry don't know:

  • there was a 75% increase in mobile app usage in the past year
  • that 4 out of 5 Smartphone users access retail content from mobile devices
  • that last year there was a 103% increase in shoppers viewing recipes on mobile phones
  • that mobile coupon users make 23% more shopping trips and spend 50% more each year

Shoppers are looking for offers and coupons, deli orders, recipes and the ability to make a shopping list. More advanced features are often ignored over simpler, more basic functionality.

Provide your customers with easy-to-use tools which save them time and money. That is what we know matters most to grocery shoppers.

Alexa Davis, CEO, Gourmet Apps

Key missing features include personalization—for both special offers that are related to products on the shopping list and product suggestions that are relevant to that shopper. For the retailer, comprehensive analytics that help understand who is buying what, which offers they respond to, etc. provide deep insights into how to better increase revenue, customer satisfaction and customer loyalty.

Todd Sherman, Managing Partner, T3C Partners

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