Nicholas Carroll
Senior Retail Analyst, Nick Caroll, has a particular flare for the grocery industry but analyses and writes in-depth reports on a range of UK and European retail markets.

Speaking on a panel at a recent Waitrose  e-commerce event, I was struck by a comment by Rob McCarthy, the Head of eCommerce at the retailer, where he noted:

“Digital is an arms race. We are not and will not be a super power, but we are and can be the best guerillas, the best insurgents, the best disrupters – and in doing so we will be the best and most relevant for our customers.”

Rob McCarthy, Waitrose Head of eCommerce

There were three main themes at the conference outlining the innovative changes developed by the Waitrose online team to help boost customer satisfaction and overall sales performance as they battle it out in the fiercely competitive online grocery sector:

• Digital improvements
• Curated online content
• Personalisation

Digital improvements
A number of practical enhancements to the Waitrose online experience have been introduced, after careful customer trialling. The biggest launch this year has been the new iOS app, which has made it easier to books slots and make searches. Responding to increased demand for next day grocery deliveries, the cut-off times was also extended from 11.45am to 10pm – with customers now able to amend orders as late as 11pm and receive their groceries as early as 6am the next day.

Another new function, described by Waitrose customers as “life changing”, is the ability to view a recipe on the website and now be able to add all items to a basket in one click as well as the ability to adjust ingredients needed based on number of people the meal is being prepared for.

Curated online content
The online team is trying to create content that is “uncompromising good” based on what customers are interested in and makes the most of sharing the Waitrose food expertise. This includes explanations from the in-house buying team for their product recommendations, such as their top picks for cheese. Waitrose says this contrasts with other online rivals who merely provide a functional list of cheeses or other products.

Waitrose has introduced several initiatives to improve its online grocery shopping experience

Personalisation
While not quite yet at individual personalisation, customers are segmented into several main groups such as families, vegetarians, top-tier spenders etc. When these customers are on the website, the content is then personalised depending on which segment they belong to. So for example, when looking at the Christmas range vegetarians would be directed to non-meat options, while families are given choices with larger portions.

The website also uses that great British talking point of the weather, to help personalise the customer experience. So over a recent bank holiday, those parts of the country where it was warmer had more outdoor imagery, whereas colder regions had subtle changes to include more in-door items.

For the future
Building on recent announcements, such as the trialling of the ‘While you’re away’ service where groceries are delivered and put away while customers aren’t at home, there’s a promise of more new and innovative developments to come. This includes more co-operation with John Lewis to help customers make more of that relationship.

Waitrose is trialling its ‘While you’re away’ online grocery service, Credit: Waitrose

Analyst viewpoint

The challenge for any retailer trading online is to ensure that what defines them at store level is translated to the online experience. For a retailer such as Waitrose, one that prides itself with expertise and strong connection with its customer base, this is especially true.

It is therefore heartening to see its customers and their experience being put front and centre of the improvements made over the past year, and those to come in the future. The move toward same-day is important, it is an option that over half of online grocery shoppers believe it is important to have, but what is most intriguing is the trial of in-home delivery. Waitrose is leading the industry here, and it will be interesting to see if it can find the demand, and make the numbers work, for the scheme. If workable this could be the next great evolution for the sector in the long term.