Last updated: Dear Grocer: Meet my teenage son, and the digital natives just like him

Dear Grocer: Meet my teenage son, and the digital natives just like him


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I was recently traveling with my son, Spencer, in North Carolina. On the way to the airport for our flight home to Boston, I asked him if he wanted to stop by a grocery store to stock up on Moon Pies, a southern U.S. delicacy which he loves, but are hard to find in the north.

Spencer’s answer: Nope.

Me: Why not? None of the stores at home carry them.

Spencer: That doesn’t matter. I can buy them online anytime. And when I order them, I can also buy other stuff you can’t get at our local grocery stores.

Me: But, if we bought Moon Pies here today, you wouldn’t need to take the time to search for them online.

Spencer: It takes me a total of 30 seconds to get them online. Why would we drive all the way to a grocery store to hunt for them, stand in line to buy them, stuff them into our roller bags, and then get on an airplane? That’s just crazy, Mom!

Welcome to the future of retail grocery, folks.

Digital natives: They don’t shop for groceries the way their parents do

A few days later, I asked Spencer to pick up a few things on his way home from school – milk, paper towels, and garbage bags – and I texted him twice just in case he forgot. He got the items, but they were obscure brands I’d never even seen.

Me: Why didn’t you get the brands I normally buy?

Spencer: I didn’t see them.

Me: Where did you buy these things?

Spencer: At the gas station.

Me: You went grocery shopping at a gas station? Why didn’t you go to the grocery store?

Spencer: It’s not convenient.

Me: It’s just like going to any store – you park and you walk inside.  When you went shopping at the gas station, you had to park and get out of the car there, didn’t you?

Spencer: Yeah, but you really have to commit yourself to go to a grocery store.

Me: How is going to a grocery store related to making a commitment? I asked you to buy a few groceries – not make a major life decision.

Spencer: If I want to get a Gatorade, and I go to a grocery store, I have to buy them in packs of 32. What am I going to do with 32 Gatorades? That is a major commitment, and it’s not convenient.

I’m sure he was exaggerating about having to buy 32 at a time, but I wanted to pursue the discussion, so I continued.

Me: What could a grocery store do to make shopping more convenient for you?

Spencer: They could put all the “grab and go” stuff up front – so it’s all right there when you walk in. Create a convenience store within a larger store. And, they should have a drive-through window. (Hello, BOPIS)

Me: A drive-through in a grocery store? Dream on!

Spencer:  Why not? I’d buy their “to go” foods just about every day if I could text them my order and payment, and then just pull up to the window and get my order. I’d even be willing to walk a few feet inside the door, as long as I could just grab my bag and go. I love their chicken wings, but I’m not going to walk all the way to the back of the store and stand in a line to get them, and then go up front and wait in another line to pay for them.

Me: But in real life, you can’t just text your meal order in, pay online with your phone, and then walk up and have your food waiting for you.

Spencer: Actually, Mom, you can. That’s how I buy most of my food.

I suppose you could blame me for Spencer’s attitude. I did, after all, start him out by buying his baby food online.

So, dear Grocer, here is your dilemma: Your future customers have clear digital expectations – are you ready to meet them? 

Spencer and his peers are still young, and maybe their views will change. But, what if they don’t?

What if this first generation of digital natives who grew up with everything online continue to expect – and demand – this kind of customer experience and extreme convenience all the time?

Or, what if their evolving views on shopping could actually work in your favor?

Digital natives – in my experience – do not seem to have rigid perceptions about what a grocery store can or cannot sell. If you put something they want in a digital catalog, and make it convenient for them to buy on a smartphone, I imagine you could probably sell them just about anything. And you need to think of something, because your current engagement models won’t work in the future.

Chances are you have 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds working in your stores as shelf stockers, baggers, and maybe cashiers. What a great place to start – with someone who probably lives in your community, knows about your business and customers, and can give you some creative ideas on what she or he and their friends are willing to buy – and HOW they want to buy it.

And who knows, maybe some of the ideas your younger employees inspire you to try could also make grocery shopping an amazing experience for all of us.

Yours truly,


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