Searching for Online Grocery: You Got Your Chocolate In My Peanut Butter

At a Glance
  • Consumers are pushing the grocery industry into digital retail.
  • Mirroring the in-store experience creates significant challenges for online grocery.
  • Organizing products with emergent and flexible taxonomies can better serve new consumers.
  • Great search and navigation, with precise and powerful merchandising, create dynamic and rewarding consumer experiences and increase market share.

The online retail space for grocery is an amazing landscape of new and exciting opportunities. With more retailers embracing direct-to-home, as well as click-and-collect features to supply a hungry populace there are interesting challenges that abound. Being able to provide a shopper an excellent experience is not simply a matter of having a well-designed site that is easy to use. A shopper has to feel at least as comfortable, if not more comfortable, within the site as they would inside of their local, and very familiar store. There’s a great deal of opportunity to make the shopper experience more efficient and rewarding, thereby gaining greater loyalty and increased market share.

In this article Unata makes the case about how important adoption of digital retail will be to the grocery industry. They argue, from a survey of over 500 shoppers across the U.S. in December 2016, that 1 in 3 grocery orders will be online. A key statement:

“In 2016, 50% of all shoppers who never made a second online grocery order said it was because they couldn’t easily find the products they were looking for.”

Grappling with the Problem

There are some fascinating challenges for search and navigation in the retail grocery online space. Regular tokenized search engines don’t have the right bias to handle the intricate nuances of grocery products. For example, eggs appear in egg noodles and egg beaters; a search for milk can often favor soy or coconut milk; oregano can be found in many product recipes, descriptions and pre-made products, making it difficult to locate it as a cooking herb.

Many of these issues can be overcome with common techniques including favoring well-sold products, or products that have been previously purchased by the visiting consumer. It may be possible to favor certain types of products, such as ensuring that produce is favored over any other type of food, which can help apples to appear over apple juice, or fresh corn to appear over creamed or frozen corn.

Merchandising an online storefront is definitely as important as merchandising brick-and-mortar aisles. Creating highly-contextual and personal experiences, as well as highlighting the most favorable products, comes through great use of merchandising tools on top of a rock-solid search and navigation experience. If you are not already engaged in search merchandising, or you want to greatly improve your ability to precisely target your consumers, then take a close look at FindTuner, which is already employed by top online retailers and grocery chains today.

While these concepts of product boosting have their place, and merchandising is an invaluable tool, a very important part of what online grocery seems to be forgetting is the idea of how online shoppers interact with these products. Traditional ecommerce paradigms are not applicable as the experience for the consumer is very different. It is far more intimate, where there is a much greater degree of familiarity with your inventory, and a much higher degree of expectation that you can easily surface what is desired. For this, efficiency is key for your consumer.

Considering Approaches

Shop by Aisle is a very common theme, and this is an excellent idea when we consider a local consumer that is familiar with the store layout. It becomes fairly intuitive to find cheese near deli items, or that soda and chips are often nearby. In a physical space, where eyes can quickly scan from endcap-to-endcap, this is a working idea. For a brick-and-mortar grocery company that is making the foray into digital retail it can be very tempting to align the online experience with the in-store shopping experience.

Choosing a data taxonomy that mirrors this experience is a further temptation, but it is one that is fraught with peril. For example, many un-tuned search engines will see the Dairy and Deli category cause a search for bologna to return yogurt. On the surface there is no reason for this to happen, but when we naively assign synonyms (such as yogurt = dairy, and bologna = deli) this trap can happen. This is not evidenced very often on the sites of top online grocery retailers today, I’m happy to say, but as a practitioner of search in the grocery space I have helped to solve this problem frequently.

Starting at the Root

User analytics for any online shopping retailer show that navigation is the dominant theme of how shoppers locate products. Your taxonomy shows how well you can map your products to the way your consumers see the world. This is a superb opportunity to get into their minds and show them you know them. This is how an online grocer reinforces that stabilizing feeling of familiarity. Bringing in Shop by Aisle certainly delivers that familiarity to the local, loyal shopper.

There is an important reason to rethink this paradigm. It’s clearly a good thing to help a local, loyal customer to feel as comfortable in your online space as in your physical space. In this way, a mirrored environment is fantastic. But any shopper that has tried to shop at a store chain different from one’s local chain has no doubt encountered the confusion that comes from the nuanced differences of another grocer’s layout. It’s easy to go toward the back of the store expecting to find milk on the right side of the store, only to find a different grocery chain puts their milk on the left side.

Please consider this confusion carefully, because in an online space there is no opportunity to stand near the front of the store and simply scan with your eyes to take in the topography…to walk a few dozen paces near the cashiers and see how things are laid out. The only tools available at the online shopper’s disposal are the navigation elements, merchandising zones, and search. With some tuning, search can do all we need it to do. Machine learning algorithms, artificial intelligence agents, metrics-based boosting behaviors, and search merchandising deliver quality results for the shopper that gives up and simply asks the clerk: “where can I find the milk?”

Thinking Beyond the Aisle

If it is your goal as an emerging leader in the online grocery space to expand your market share and wallet size then the idea that the online experience is a mirror of the physical experience is no longer appropriate. There is no restriction to 55′ with 4 or 5 shelves to pack in a mixed set of goods like soup, noodles, herbs and spices, and oils. Bathroom tissue does not have to be located near plastic drinking cups. There is no compelling reason to couple pre-made deli and grilled foods by bakery items and breads. The manner of this coupling is rooted in decades of proven best practices in a physical retail space. They are completely artificial, and I dare say detrimental in an online retail space.

This isn’t to say the Shop by Aisle concept needs to be disposed of. As noted, the local, loyal customer knows your grocery layout and should be quite comfortable navigating the online flyover controls to get to what they desire. And while there are concepts like Shop by Recipe or Shop by History, which are very useful tools, these are not replacements for a well-devised product taxonomy that shortens the path for a consumer unfamiliar with your brand and perspective to become a first-time shopper. If the experience is rewarding and intuitive it’s much more probable they will become that desired loyal customer.

I do not take it lightly to suggest building a new taxonomy. This is an exercise that is usually seen as a serious and large effort. Debates often erupt about how to classify products, how many tiers of classification are acceptable, how granular or abstract to make the classification. Many taxonomy rebuild projects struggle to complete, and some are aborted, conceding to the “better the devil you know” argument rather than work it through to the end. If it’s any consolation, this is a problem that permeates nearly every kind of business, not simply online retail or grocery — everyone hates his or her taxonomies.

But the taxonomy is vital, and what’s more important to consider here is that there doesn’t have to be a single taxonomy to define a user’s successful experience. The real goal here is less about how to classify products, and more so to provide flexible, intuitive tools to navigate products based on your products’ attributes.


Nielsen makes a great case in their recent report on Grocery in digital retail…read their fascinating insights here. Among many notable perspectives, their advice on a strategy for success there are two elements I find most compelling:

  • Establish credibility and exceed expectations
  • Make it easy

It may be easy to rest on one’s laurels and expect that the brick-and-mortar success you have experienced so far will simply translate to credibility in the digital retail space, and that may be true for your loyal, local consumers. But we all understand that one cannot rest, and new consumers will have no reason to grant you credibility simply because you exist. To keep your loyal consumer, and win new consumers, you must ensure that you have met and exceeded their expectations.

Making it easy is the hardest part, and their advice is clear: “functionality and ease of use should be top priorities”. We are focusing our discussion here on the way that consumers navigate your site…how they use the tools you make available to them to find what they are looking for. Our goal is to make it easy to find what they need.

Consider a navigation experience that is responsive to the behavior of the consumer. There are alternatives to fixed categories and tiers of products, which are rigid and demand fixed screen real-estate. Flexible and faceted navigation can be emergent, based upon where the consumer is currently viewing data.

Inbound marketing campaigns can expose curated results and responsive navigation elements that guide the customer more effectively to their desired products. Personalization data can be leveraged automatically to provide visual, compelling options that speak directly to the shopper. The shopper story can either be made to be more compelling and interesting, or to drive more lucrative facets into view.

This behavior blends very well with the Shop by History concept, where previous purchases can be an additional driver for the automatic elevation of navigation facets. Shoppers that consistently purchase fresh produce, deli, or dairy products can see more of those options much earlier in their shopping experience. When this is blended with targeted merchandising and selective segmentation, the page effectively transforms into a personal grocery store where coupons, recipes, and special events become a powerful way to expand the wallet and increase shopper satisfaction.


Our goal is to continue to reward your loyal consumer with an intuitive experience, and to appeal to new market segments that are unfamiliar with your brand. We wish to make the new consumer feel at home, without alienating your loyal consumer. Successfully executing this bridges the gap from a rock-solid retail experience into an expanding and profitable digital retail experience.

Everything starts with great search and navigation. If the search engine is tuned well, and the navigation elements respond to clicks as well as searches, then we have the right foundation to begin. From this foundation, responsive faceting can bring an exciting and dynamic experience to the consumer:

  • Consumers’ loyalty can be rewarded by better exposing previous purchases.
  • Specials and coupons can react to KPI and cohort metrics.
  • User segments can be funneled to specific product views and compositions.
  • Consumer experience can be made to feel much more personal.
  • Less time is spent rethinking product taxonomy, and more time is spent addressing shopper spend and interaction.

If you would like to improve your consumer experience by tuning your search engine, enabling responsive faceting and navigation, and by employing search merchandising through FindTuner, please get in touch with us. We understand the grocery experience intuitively, and we can provide you with a wealth of best-practices and hands-on experience to increase your wallet size and market share.