Your innovation is awesome! Too bad no one will find it online…

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You’ve just launched an incredible innovation in salty snacks. It has all the benefits of popcorn, but can be eaten like a chip. It tastes great, and is reasonably healthy. This product looks poised to disrupt the chip aisle, and make millions. But it won’t, because no one will find it.

This might be the situation with PopCorners™, a relative newcomer to the chip aisle. With the ever-increasing number of CPG products, and the physical constraints of brick-and-mortar stores, it’s hard for products like PopCorners™ to find a place on the shelf.  Online grocery stores offer a whole new world of opportunity. However, online grocery shopping also poses massive new problems for marketers. It’s even harder for innovations that cut across traditional category lines.

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PROBLEM #1: Browsing the aisles is dead

One of the biggest problems for new products will be simply to have people shopping the aisles. The home screens of many mobile app shopping sites beg you to simply re-order what you ordered last time. Why even look through aisles when you know what you want?

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It’s now possible to order an entire family’s weekly shopping basket without even considering a new product. Of course, consumers desire variety, and that’s certainly true for salty snacks. For PopCorners™, consumers are likely to continue to browse and shop that online “aisle.” But if you want to launch an innovation in a “low involvement” category, you’ll have an incredibly hard time generating shelf awareness. It won’t matter how much standout your new toilet paper logo has if consumers aren’t even in the aisle.

SOLUTION:  With a more limited marketing toolbox, you’ll need new, creative techniques to get noticed and tried. Can you provide a new product recommendation INSIDE of their saved shopping list? Can you leverage their shopping list to provide a free sample they’re likely to try? Of course, online shopping is not done in a vacuum; there’s a high level of interaction between online and traditional shopping today. Therefore, classical awareness-generation techniques will remain important even if your focus is online.

PROBLEM #2:   Being found among 5 million chips varieties (literally)

Let’s assume that you do want to browse salty-snack options. Perhaps you wanted to buy PopCorners™, but couldn’t remember its name? Simply search for “Chips”…

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To be fair, this is not an optimal or recommended way to shop Amazon Prime. (Those 5MM options include the TV show “CHiPs,” Chips Ahoy cookies, a chip brush for painting, poker chips, BBQ wood chips…). By searching only the Grocery and Gourmet Food department, you’ll find only 27,314 options to choose from. This is the root of Problem #2—there are too many options online.

To deal with this problem, Amazon and other online retailers offer simple ways to sort, filter, query, and sift through those five million options. Will PopCorners™ be found as you browse the chip aisle? It depends on how you browse, and how Amazon classifies PopCorners™….

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Our brains are incredibly good at making connections and associations between different ideas, effectively creating “categories” of things. All these filtering options in online stores are really new ways of defining categories. With insightful classifications, it might be possible to actually have five million varieties of chips (Woo Hoo!).

SOLUTION: Chip varieties can continue to proliferate as long as consumers can successfully navigate online stores. Curation of chip options – insightful classification – will enable consumers quickly skip through five million chips to find the one perfect chip. With a rich understanding of chip buyers and their differing motivations, retailers could serve up the three or four perfect options to choose from, customized for each individual. Instead of feature-based classifications, imagine filters organized around need states (accompaniment to beer, sandwich enhancers, tongue-shocker) or occasions (watching football, dinner party, midnight snack). Without intelligent curation, category-blurring innovations like PopCorners™ may be invisible in the ocean of products. 

Example of a traditional “aisle” from Safeway, and more insightful curation from Fresh Direct:

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PROBLEM #3:   Getting noticed and understood on a 5” screen, in 0.1 seconds

Scrolling through potato chip thumbnails is not the same thing as walking through a real-life chip aisle. A new product might literally have 0.1 seconds to be seen, processed, and understood. It’s not enough for the PopCorners™ packaging to simply grab your attention. It has to be interesting enough to encourage another click and download a close-up. The picture has to be clear enough for me to classify it amongst the other thousands of chips I’m aware of. Additionally, you may not be able to use the context to interpret the type of product you’re seeing. Products that are immediately adjacent to each other may be totally unrelated and unhelpful in categorizing what you’re seeing.

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SOLUTION:  Packaging needs to be optimized and simplified for the consumer experience. That may entail customization of the image and information for different online retailers, different digital devices, and even different product classification. PopCorners™’s thumbnail below (Whole Foods via Google Express) illustrates a fairly successful example, especially considering it doesn’t fit neatly into the “Chips” category.  If you only see two things – the brand “Popcorners™” and a picture of a chip —  you get it.  It’s popcorn in the shape of a chip.

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PopCorners™ are great. But finding PopCorners™ in a digital environment today is not great. Marketers will need to use a different set of skills to get their products found and tried in online grocery stores. Category blurring products – such as PopCorners™ – will need to work even harder in this environment. Those retailers who can help consumers shop – not just search – will end up preferred by both consumers and marketers alike.