Grocers Use AI, Voice Tech to Manage ‘Black Wednesday’ Crowds

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Thanksgiving is less than 24 hours away, and supermarkets around the country are overflowing with last-minute shoppers. The so-called “Black Wednesday” rush that happens the day before Thanksgiving each year is something that grocery stores expect and plan for. But beyond managing the chaos with extra staffers and longer hours, a growing number of supermarkets are using technology to improve the shopping experience and turn rushed shoppers in loyal customers who will return again once the holidays are through.

At least, that’s the goal.

Nobody wants to leave a store empty-handed, but long lines at grocery stores on Black Wednesday can seem unavoidable. According to a report by InMoment, 67% of consumers lose faith in brands they previously loved if they break their promises. If an ad in the local newspaper shows pumpkin pies for $5.99, and they’re sold out by the time the shopper arrives on Black Wednesday, that’s a broken promise. Shoppers in these situations leave upset, and they have no problem taking their money elsewhere in the future.

Technology is changing the game, as supermarket chains discover innovative new strategies for battling crowds and keeping customer loyal. By pushing transactions online, and moving order pick-ups outside the store, supermarkets are decreasing the chaos on one of the busiest days of the year.

Sal Visca, chief technology officer at Elastic Path, says voice ordering and integrations with digital assistants are two examples of solutions making it possible for brick-and-mortar supermarkets to streamline the purchasing experience. Kroger, for example, recently announced a Google Assistant action that allows shoppers to order groceries through their grocery pickup application, and Peapod grocery delivery has an Alexa skill.

“In both of these applications, voice ordering allows customers to shop while they’re thinking of it, whether at home, in the car, or elsewhere, rather than while they’re at the store. It’s the same process as making a grocery list, but rather than the additional step of purchasing those intended items at a physical location, the experience becomes much more seamless and at the convenience of the shopper,” Visca says.

The rush among grocers to start offering digitally focused experiences comes as consumers are clamoring for the technology. But InMoment’s research, which involves a survey of 1,300 U.S. consumers, shows that shoppers still want to come inside stores, even if it means dealing with some lines. In InMoment’s survey, 53% of consumers said their most recent enjoyable experience was in-store.

While self-checkout has been around for years at this point, Visca says self-checkout through consumer mobile apps is an upgraded in-store experience that supermarkets are exploring to combat overcrowding during the pre-Thanksgiving period. While they’re in the supermarket, shoppers use the grocer’s app, scan products, and pay through the app. Then they go to a front desk to prove the purchase.

“Before Thanksgiving, stores are swamped, and if someone is running in to grab the stick of butter they forgot to purchase when they made their big trip yesterday, that shopper is going to be upset when they have to wait in a massive line to purchase one item,” Visca says.

As more grocers pivot to support the growing trend towards online grocery shopping, Visca believes shoppers will capitalize on the ability to transact online. Even if they’re not ordering from home, voice ordering will allow shoppers to order milk and eggs from their cars and avoid the holiday rush by picking up everything they need at the curb. However, Visca also believes that the industry will have to wait a few more years to witness the full realization of voice ordering.

According to an eMarketer study, only 37% of respondents have performed a shopping activity via voice. To reach its full potential, the voice purchasing experience needs to be integrated into other touchpoints the consumer has with the brand.

“For new technologies like voice ordering to take off, grocers like Kroger, need to have a unified vision of their consumers across online and in-store touchpoints and across banners. They also need to facilitate a consistent commerce experience for their shoppers across these touchpoints,” Visca says. “A unified experience can help this technology reach its potential in grocery.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.