While on-demand grocery and convenience delivery is nothing new — Instacart started in 2012 — COVID-19 reshaped the way the average person thought about their grocery shopping experience and many more turned to online options for either grocery store pickup or delivery.

There’s no doubt that virtual grocery shopping has many advantages — there’s the convenience factor, it saves customers’ travel time, it reduces the chances of impulse purchases and it’s a safer option for customers wary of extraneous trips to public places during a pandemic. While the online grocery segment has matured, there are still plenty of opportunities for growth especially in the area of on-site shopping experience and search.

In e-commerce, nearly 42% of online shoppers begin their shopping journey by heading straight to the search bar. These customers know what they want and they’ll abandon a site if they can’t find it. What’s more, searchers are 1.8% more likely to convert than regular shoppers. The same customer behavior can be applied to online grocery shoppers as well. Building a robust on-site search is often overlooked by grocery store delivery brands of all sizes, even though it’s one of the most crucial elements in converting sales.

One of the reasons why search has been deprioritized could be simple — search is exceedingly complex. Customer intent can be maddingly difficult to match up with search results, and small differences in query construction can be lost on search engines. For example, a search for “dairy free milk” or “dairy-free milk” can sometimes lead to different results. A human knows exactly what is being searched for — but search engines often do not.

Beyond basic query understanding, there are many other features online grocery merchants can add to improve the site search experience. We’ve put together a list of five elements of on-site search to consider.

Localize Store Selections

Grocery store delivery platforms have a unique challenge other e-commerce platforms don’t have - store localization. On-demand grocery services typically deliver products directly from a nearby store instead of a warehouse, so a site’s inventory needs to pull from each store’s individual data. What’s in stock at one regional grocery might not be available in another state, or even across town for that matter. Not taking regional store data into account makes it challenging for users to find the products they’re looking for, while also making it challenging for those doing the shopping to fulfill orders.

Make Your Online Inventory Spotless

Your online grocery store shelves should be as spotless and organized as they are inside the retail store before the doors open each morning.

When it comes to search, your index should be up-to-date with clear titles, descriptions and other information such as prices and discounts. Test it to be sure that customers get the results they’re after. For example, if someone were to search for “flapjacks” and someone else searched for “pancakes,” they’d end up in the same place. Some search solutions require you to create synonyms to handle these kinds of queries, but newer AI-powered search solutions handle common synonyms without any training needed.

Have up-to-date inventory management for your online customers to avoid the dreaded "out of stock" message as much as possible. If something is getting low in inventory, let online shoppers know so they can plan accordingly.

Relevance and its Relationship to Recommended Replacements

How many times has this happened? A customer is in the process of checking out online and they’re in the processing of approving recommended replacements for their groceries, but none of the recommendations seem to match their desired items. Instead of a different brand of fresh blueberries, they’re being recommended frozen. Instead of La Croix, they’re somehow being recommended Truly.

Relevance is how closely product results match with a customer’s query and intent behind the query. Common on-site search engines use complex rules or keyword-based algorithms to determine a query’s relevance, which can be laborious on the backend. Thankfully, advances in AI have taken a lot of manual labor and guesswork out of this process.

Personalization matters

An online grocery system should be able to learn quickly from customer shopping behaviors to offer recommendations based on past purchases. This way, grocers can tailor their online merchandising to display better results. However, they oftentimes overlook personalization in search results and product ranking.

We’re creatures of habit, so when a repeat customer searches for milk, their past purchase and browsing history should rank their previous selections above the other results, for example. If a customer is a habitual Ben & Jerry’s customer, then make sure their Cherry Garcia ranks higher than Häagen-Dazs or Talenti.

Pay Attention to Facets and Filters

One surefire way for a website manager to amplify on-site search is to leverage filters and faceted search. While both features are similar in that they help a customer narrow down their queries and find results faster, there are some stark differences.

Filters refer to larger categories like dairy, deli, produce, bakery or frozen items. Think of it like the aisles at a physical grocery store. Using filters is one the first step in narrowing down a search query.

Facets on the other hand are more granular and dynamic than filters. They’re generated based on the values of a search and can be dynamically changed based on each search. Facets are perfect for when a customer wants to narrow down a selection by multiple dimensions, e.g. milk-related facets might include types (Whole, skim, 2%, etc), ingredients (almond, oat, dairy, rice, etc.), or other filters (organic, GMO-free, etc.).

In 2022, it’s more important than ever for online grocery platforms to invest in on-site search. Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies have made it easy to take some of the guesswork out of amplifying search engines. Make this the year of powerful onsite grocery store search.

IMG_2256.JPGJoe Ayyoub, Search.io's chief revenue officer, brings over a decade of e-commerce and search experience to Search.io. Prior to Search.io, Joe served as chief customer officer at ZineOne. Before that, he was senior vice president of customer experience and partnerships at Unbxd and head of global support operations at Magento Commerce (acquired by Adobe). Joe holds a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from Jordan University of Science and Technology and an MBA in Finance and eBusiness from Golden Gate University.