Shopper Experience

Grocery ecommerce shows how online reviews are evolving

Albertsons and Instacart are taking fresh approaches to ratings.

reviews page of eggs

A reviews page on Safeway.com. (Courtesy photo)

Ecommerce is transforming how we interact on the web.

As brands and retailers find new ways to connect and engage with shoppers, new features often blossom.

This has been true since the '90s, when platforms like eBay and Amazon were inventing shopper experience as we know it today.

One of the innovations to arise from this period was the product review. Harnessing the internet’s communication and crowdsourcing capabilities, reviews brought a process of validation that was previously conducted via product research and word of mouth onto the same listing where shoppers found the rest of the details about an item, and ultimately made the decision to buy.

Underscoring their importance, reviews were one of the areas where Amazon made one of its notorious early stands. In an interview with Harvard Business Review editors, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos talked about the decision to post reviews of books in the company’s early days:

In the very earliest days (I’m taking you back to 1995), when we started posting customer reviews, a customer might trash a book and the publisher wouldn’t like it. I would get letters from publishers saying, “Why do you allow negative reviews on your website? Why don’t you just show the positive reviews?” One letter in particular said, “Maybe you don’t understand your business. You make money when you sell things.” But I thought to myself, We don’t make money when we sell things; we make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.

Amazon’s reviews have evolved since then. For one, they became ratings in fall 2019, and allow users to choose to communicate their opinions on a product by selecting only the number of stars that corresponds with their satisfaction (though written blurbs are still an option, too).

Development will continue, but on the whole reviews are an entrenched part of ecommerce. Shoppers seek them out: A study from Podium said 93% of shoppers use reviews to make decisions. For many, they've replaced Consumer Reports and passing neighborhood conversation as the source of info about a product.

As ecommerce expands into new categories, it's no surprise, then, that the new wave of platforms that power it are incorporating reviews to the experience. In some ways, they might look a little different, depending on the product sold. With reviews still being fresh, it offers a chance to get a glimpse at where reviews are heading.

This is taking place as a new era of grocery shopping emerges. The category emerged as an ecommerce force in the pandemic, as pickup and delivery options became attractive to shoppers. Going forward, grocers are building out ecommerce capabilities for a customer base that’s showing interest in continuing to have digital options. A pair of recent developments suggest reviews are a key ingredient of online food shopping.

Grocery shoppers have long prized the best information when making choices about which brand to purchase from the many on a shelf, or deciding whether a product lives up to the packaging. Reviews provide a new resource. In a survey conducted by PowerReviews, 90% of online grocery shoppers read ratings and reviews at least occasionally, up from 82% in 2021. In fact, having reviews is now seen as key to the shopper experience, as 83% of grocery shoppers said they are more likely to purchase a new grocery item online if customer reviews exist for that product, per the survey. The company is now putting reviews on display with one of the country’s largest grocers.

Albertsons adds product reviews

PowerReviews partnered with Albertsons Companies to provide reviews and ratings on 11 of the grocer’s websites, which include Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco and Shaw’s.

Along with reviews themselves, the company is providing the ability to syndicate user-generated content to related product pages.

“Customer-generated ratings and reviews empower purchase decisions,” said Jill Pavlovich, SVP of Digital Customer Experience at Albertsons Cos. “We’re proud to be one of the first grocers to offer this authentic conversation with our shoppers about their favorite products.”

As with most things in grocery, it’s a bit different to review a food product than other kinds of merchandise. Especially for fresh items, seasonality and crop quality can make a big difference. Nevertheless, the reviews and ratings can provide context and experiences to shoppers. Safeway’s website shows reviews for products from laundry detergent to Clif Bars (“Favorite snack,” says one subject line) to milk and eggs (“No broken eggs!” says one review). A Reviews tab on the page highlights a positive and negative review, and offers a search option.

Instacart's Shopper ratings

still of ratings on an app

Instacart's Shopper ratings system. (Courtesy photo)

Grocery ecommerce can also bring a unique interaction between the person preparing an order and the customer. That’s built in to the model of Instacart, which provides instant grocery delivery from local stores. Ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft brought ratings of the people behind the process into the so-called on-demand economy. Harnessing this model for grocery delivery, Instacart features ratings of its Shoppers, which are the roughly 600,000 people who pick and deliver groceries after orders come in via app. As with Uber, the ratings are a way for the company to collect feedback, and impact how likely Shoppers are to be linked with the next order.

Recent changes to this system offer a look at ratings evolving in real time. After receiving feedback that the rating system could improve, the company announced the following changes on May 24:

  • Instacart will now prioritize which Shopper gets an order based on whether a Shopper has a rating of 4.7 or above. This changes a system that prioritized access to orders based on having the highest rating possible, which affected shoppers' ability to get work if they had anything below a five-star review.
  • Instacart will forgive more ratings that are beyond a Shopper’s control, such as ratings from a customer that consistently rates below 5 stars.
  • A new screen called Your Stats will show info like customer rating, customer feedback and statistics like how many orders they've completed.

Shoppers will also get to leave their own reviews of sorts. The company is adding a feature where shoppers can provide feedback after an order, including reporting a rude customer and the ability to block a customer.

With these changes, Instacart said it is aiming to build a community based on “best intent.” This brings up an interesting acknowledgment about ratings and reviews in general. While including negative reviews is an important step toward ensuring feedback is genuine, it's important to remember that they offer a subjective look at a product or experience. Everyone has their own opinion, and they're willing to share it online. While this is a powerful tool, a review system must be a productive part of the shopper experience. After all, Bezos said the ultimate goal of a review was to provide a good experience for customers, and help them make decisions about what to buy. Ultimately, a successful system comes down to trust. Customers must believe they’re getting good information, and that it can lead them to an item they’re happy with. In turn, this could inspire customers to leave reviews of their own, and make more purchases. That's a five-star experience for everyone involved.

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