COVID-19 forced people and businesses to go back to the basics; activities that once seemed innocuous and routine – like grocery shopping – suddenly became uncomfortable and worrying for Dutch consumers. Thankfully, Dutch grocery retailers moved quickly to respond to these changing dynamics by prioritising safety and availability. And their efforts have been recognised; in our research, grocery retailers received a 7.52 overall rating this year, up from 7.36 in 2019. Yet grocery retailers had to give up their leading sector position this year. What have the leading grocery retailers been doing to drive their customer experience during the pandemic? And what can they do in order to regain their gold medal in our rankings next year?

Life disrupted

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the Netherlands, all sense of 'normality' disappeared. Most shops were forced to close. Grocery retailers, while allowed to remain open, had to rapidly transform their approach due to underlying consumer concerns and mandatory safety regulations. In the midst of the uncertainty, consumers gravitated towards those that demonstrated integrity – proving they would be there for customers, safely and fairly.

For the most part, Dutch grocery retailers stepped up. Plastic safety screens were quickly installed and processes created for cleaning shopping carts. Safe shopping initiatives were rolled out for the elderly – Albert Heijn and Jumbo reserved specific shopping hours; Lidl offered designated checkouts; Dirk provided expanded hours for instance.

Grocery retailers also took steps to communicate clearly and frequently with their customers in an effort to manage expectations in the new environment. The CEO of Albert Heijn, for example, sent out personal emails to customers to elaborate on the safety measures the brand had taken to create a safe shopping experience for customers and employees.

The willingness of the grocery retailers to take immediate action – to protect their customers and to respond to their needs – were well recognised by consumers, who scored the sector three percentage points higher on Integrity when compared to last year.

New customer journeys emerge

COVID-19 also disrupted the way consumers interact with their grocery stores. Indeed, the Dutch Government's call for people to stay home except for essential trips changed the way consumers shopped. Rather than going to a range of usual stores, consumers started to become much more conscientious about their external encounters. Many took the opportunity to shift their grocery purchases online.

Customers view online grocery shopping as being safer during the pandemic. In fact, research by KPMG shows that customer safety is now viewed as a key influencer for online shopping by 52 percent of consumers (only slightly behind convenience, still the number one influencer, at 54 percent).[1]

Data from the first month of the lockdowns shows a 32.5 percent increase in online grocery shopping (from 4 percent pre-pandemic to 5.3 percent at the end of March)[2]. Considering that – in the initial days of the pandemic – delivery slots were hard to find (some customers had to wait weeks), one can assume consumer adoption of online grocery shopping would have been larger.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that online grocer Picnic moved up the rankings to take top spot for the sector (taking over from Albert Heijn in this year's research). Picnic focuses on delivering groceries efficiently and effectively by providing customers with real-time information on their deliveries. As a result, customers awarded Picnic with the highest score for the sector under the Time & Effort Pillar. Picnic also stood out by demonstrating their values – for example, reserving space for COVID-19 staff at Erasmus MC to allow them to get groceries after their shifts.

Recognising the shift in consumer expectations, offline supermarkets also accelerated their digital in-store initiatives in order to deliver a safer and better customer experience during the pandemic. For example, Albert Heijn and PLUS both quickly digitised their stamp programs. Many grocers moved to expand their self-scanning capabilities. Some installed AI-enabled traffic lights in the aisles to better manage in-store footfall.

Looking ahead

While almost 80 percent of the grocery retail brands involved in our research increased their overall Customer Experience Excellence score from last year, it is worth noting that the sector was unseated from its historic place at the top of the CX leader-board. That should serve as a wake-up call to the sector.

Our view suggests grocery retailers will need to redouble their efforts if they hope to regain their top spot in the rankings. The shift to online is clearly accelerating and – with the 1.5 metre economy here to stay for the time being – grocery retailers will also need to rethink their offline store formats. Upgrading and expanding contactless shopping will be part of the solution. So, too, will be the shift towards other revenue streams.

The introduction of healthy and freshly-prepared meals could offer new opportunities. With restaurants and cafes only slowly reopening, some grocery stores are rethinking the role they can play in this space. Jumbo, for example, provides live cooking. Albert Heijn has partnered with Foodmaker salad bars and Poiesz to deliver warm meals to customers.

And what can we take from the rapid rise of the Financial Services sector – ranked first in this year's research? One takeaway is that their customer champions are 'purpose-led'. They are willing and able to take a stand on key social issues and they strive to bring their mission to life for their customers, both in the products and service they offer, and the experience they create for customers.

Grocery retailers may want to reflect on how their brands demonstrate their purpose. What does your brand stand for? How does that contribute to the lives of your customers? And what actions are you and your employees taking to show customers that you stand behind your purpose and values?

This will be critical over the coming year, as the only way to regain the top spot will be through capturing customers' hearts and minds. That is true in this time of crisis, but also in the new reality that lies beyond.

3 key takeaways for grocery retailers

  • Get the basics right. Make sure your customers and employees are safe and communicate consistently and transparently with stakeholders. Focus on improving those things that – while common across the sector – influence consumer behaviour. Some traditional factors (like good store hygiene) are more critical than ever. 
  • Accelerate digital investment. Consider expanding contactless shopping capabilities – including contactless payments, product selection and traffic flow. For example, consider how you can use technology to help in-store customers understand how they can move safely around the store. 
  • Learn from others. Take a lesson from the success of the Financial Services brands and the measures they took to demonstrate their integrity and purpose during the crisis. It's worth noting that 90 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for products they deem to be from ethical retailers.[3]

More information

For any further queries you can get in touch with Jeroen Slijkerman.


[1] KPMG (2020). Consumers and the new reality

[2] GfK (2020). E-Commerce Rapport

[3] KPMG (2020). Consumers and the new reality