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Online Grocery Shopping: Bridging the Gap Between Physical and Digital Experiences

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Online Grocery Shopping: Bridging the Gap Between Physical and Digital Experiences

Despite consumers’ familiarity with shopping online, many still prefer to do their grocery shopping in-person. This is due in part to the affordances physical grocery stores offer that have not yet become available in the digital environment. Recently, online retailers have made strides in trying to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds of grocery shopping to improve the overall user experience.

The sensory shopping experience
Tangible cues that evoke our senses are difficult to translate into the digital shopping environment.


One area of focus is translating the sensory experience of in-person shopping to the digital. In a physical grocery store, the entire experience is curated, starting with the placement of the bakery, floral and produce sections at the entrance, all of which entice your senses and prime you for a pleasant experience. In the digital world however, sensory experience is limited, forcing customers to rely on visual elements to elevate the experience. Unfortunately, most digital grocery stores have not embraced the visual as a way to entice the senses. Rather, traditional digital grocery stores present products with a basic image, label, and price. This basic imagery does nothing to entice the customers’ senses, and grocery shopping moves away from a curated experience towards a rational practice.

Playing with image quality
Photography can work to evoke on our senses in the digital environment.

One online retailer that has embraced the visual affordances is Good Eggs. They have carefully curated high quality images using different backgrounds and lighting to highlight each of their products. In addition, the landing page of the site attempts to mimic the in-person shopping experience by presenting an array of produce, just as you experience as you enter almost every physical grocery store.

GroceryStoreBlog_Image7 Homepage

The digital advantage
Images of products can be more compelling than the actual physical object.

Good Eggs has gone even further than physical grocery stores are able to by presenting products as you would see them in your home (the egg carton open, the avocado sliced) all which entice your senses further. This is an area where the digital experience can go beyond the physical experience by presenting the user with products without packaging. In doing so, users’ senses are enticed further through associations they have with certain products and how they might consume them.

Below are two examples of the possibilities images afford to digital retailers: one of a traditional grocery item display and another of new item display devoid of packaging. The latter showcases how the digital experience can surpass the physical by presenting products in their ready to eat form, which is more appealing to the users’ senses.

Left: Traditional Grocery Item Display. Right: Devoid of Packaging Item Display.

Left: Traditional Grocery Item Display Right: Devoid of Packaging Item Display

The learned experience of physical shopping
Physical grocery stores’ layout and organization are familiar experiences that do not match the digital grocery marketplace.

Moving beyond the sensory experience, another area where the digital and the physical grocery shopping experiences have yet to meet is through organization of products. Physical grocery stores provide an organization customers are accustomed to. Almost all physical grocery stores are organized the same way with wayfinding through the aisles carefully curated to guide customers through the store effortlessly. This however, has not yet translated to the digital experience.

The usability of online grocery retailers forces users to completely reestablish their methods of food organization. In a physical grocery store, a customer looking for milk can head to the back of the store where shelves are organized by dairy type, and then by size, then brand, and finally within brand, other features such as fat percentage. This creates a seamless customer experience, one that is familiar and easy to navigate.

However, online even at the most successful grocery retailer websites, when a customer enters into a specific ‘aisle’ the organization is unbeknownst to the customer. In most instances, customers can sort by price or brand, however this is only one level of organization, whereas in a physical store there are often four levels of organization guiding the customer to their desired product. Although digital grocery retailers have not yet adopted the multiple levels of organization, just as with the sensory experience, the potential exists to go beyond the organization of a physical store to better meet users’ needs.

Bridging the sensory and organizational gap
UX research to better align the physical and digital grocery shopping experiences.

These are just some of the ways in which the transition between the physical and digital grocery shopping experience can be perfected. Regardless of industry, the more seamless the transition, the more likely users will adopt your online platform. To learn more about bridging the gap between the physical and digital environments for your customers, eVOC recommends:

Card Sorting to gauge how users categorize your products and how they expect to navigate through a digital environment

In-Depth Interviews to learn about how users think about your product and what they are looking for in the online experience