March Madness Shopping: Bringing Fun and Exploration to the Customer Experience - Medallion Retail
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March Madness Shopping: Bringing Fun and Exploration to the Customer Experience

POSTED ON: 02/22/21

As we come up on the NCAA’s March Madness schedule, we should take a minute to remember how the college basketball tourneys played out in March 2020. In what seems like a lifetime ago, teams and fans readied for college basketball teams to winnow their way down to the Sweet Sixteen, then the Elite Eight and finally the Final Four. Instead, Covid-19 began its relentless spread. And like dominoes falling, one conference after the next cancelled their tournaments, leaving only the Big East to play in Madison Square Garden. At first, they allowed fans, but the next day they were barred, and the day after that the tournament was cancelled in the middle of a game.

It was all breathtaking and rather shocking in its speed and reach. And it kind of encapsulates why shoppers’ psyches and behaviors were altered so very much within one (seemingly very long) year. And as one retailer after the next was closed due to stay-at-home orders, the humble grocery store was deemed essential. Not only were they needed for their staple items but, as the pandemic wore on, many came to see them as essential to their mental health. Why, grocery shopping was a reason to get out of the house! While plenty of shoppers adopted a grab-and-go technique, others viewed it as a form of entertainment. And that’s something that grocery stores can be capitalizing on now, even as Covid-19 restrictions remain in place.

When we wrote in 2020 about using the grocery aisles to market to sports fans, we wanted to highlight different approaches to utilizing things like QR codes and interactive displays. At that time, we couldn’t have imagined just how differently these tactics would come to be valued in a Covid-challenged world.

Euromonitor International’s Alison Angus, Head of Lifestyles, said in a recent Retail Touchpoints story that “digital tools saved the day last year, making it possible for much of life to continue despite the physical restrictions imposed by the pandemic. As a result, even older consumers have become acclimated to digital interactions, and consumers now expect integrated experiences.

“A blend of virtual and in-person occasions has been building, especially with younger consumers,” Angus said. “Teens today do not differentiate between digital and physical—it just is. Now, consumers of all ages experienced the virtual world more closely and have seen the benefits.”

In the beginning stages of the pandemic, shoppers either veered away from brick-and-mortar stores or were forced to shop online due to shutdowns. Buyer habits changed dramatically and online shopping skyrocketed. Consumers also took advantage of apps that offered instantaneous delivery of everything from cocktails to Murphy beds. Even the least app-savvy consumer found themselves becoming Uber Eats and DoorDash junkies. (Oy, the weight gain!)

But after months and months of having everything on-demand and just a click away, consumers started to question: Is this all there is?

What began as fear turned into acceptance and then adaptation, even if a level of anxiety remains. Those who ventured out adopted new routines. Car keys? Check. Gloves? Check. Face mask? Double check. So initial fears about entering stores or public spaces began to settle down, especially after consumers saw businesses were ensuring shopper safety with highly visible hygienic standards and practices.

Next Step: Occasion Marketing

One of the things that disappeared early in the pandemic was dwell time by the consumer. And retailers know all too well that “dwell time is a swell time” for their bottom line. Consumers who spend more time in store often purchase more—and impulsively. So now, once grocers have satisfied shoppers’ basics needs with staple items, they can put some experiential marketing into play and engage those consumers who are starting to look for an experience inside the store.

One way grocers can up their engagement game is by taking a page from retail marketing and creating a showroom or shop-in-shop type of experience. We call this occasion marketing, and it involves creating an area that focuses on fun activities and engagement with products.

Stores can employ a variety of engagement practices to attract consumers to a display long enough to engage with products, learn about new items and consider using different products or ingredients together. We’ve written about displays that have taken elaborate turns, becoming interactive extravaganzas that we call retail theater. Take, for instance, a snack manufacturer who built a basketball hoop in their point-of-purchase (POP) display, causing the consumer—especially kids—to interact with it.

These days, grocers might be wary of consumers having too much physical contact with a display. So instead, something like a March Madness presentation can involve baking utensils, pans and ingredients for cupcakes. A posted QR code on point-of-purchase displays could lead shoppers to recipes or a Pinterest page that has ideas for home entertainment during the NCAA games.

We’ve come up with 10 more ideas around QR codes that your shoppers can scan and engage with for a multi-sensory experience:

  • Ideas around party planning (perhaps by way of a branded video that provides short tips on how to keep your party planning safe but enjoyable)
  • Information on new products (their use, taste, ingredients and inclusion ideas for your at-home festivities)
  • Sweepstakes offerings (as promoted through a brand)
  • Coupons and promo offerings (to be used at the next visit)
  • Games (for the kids in tow, while mom or dad shop the space)
  • Game time recipes involving sponsored food items (short videos on meal prep)
  • Music playlists curated for March Madness fans
  • Updated scores
  • Time schedules of games
  • Teams stats

All of this would be staged in one generalized area, depending on the store’s square footage. It should be seen as a one-stop engagement or a library depository of ideas, in partnership with brand representation.

Since grocery stores can range in size from tens of thousands to over 100,000 square feet, merchants have plenty of room to create a safe, socially distanced area for discovery. And rather than expecting the consumer to do a lot of research before they get to the store, grocers can create discovery zones where shoppers can learn, discover and engage with products all in an area of 20 or 30 feet or less.

Such an idea takes a page from party stores that have long helped busy parents stock up for a kiddie birthday party. In these stores, supplies are curated by party theme and children can pick a licensed character or theme, and within the same aisle parents can find all the necessary and matching items they need to complete the party theme like plates, cups, napkins, decorations, goody bags and more. Easy, fast and targeted.

Another example is Target’s seasonal holiday or Back-to-School pop-up department. It’s usually at the back of the store, drawing two-way foot traffic down aisles. Even Target’s Hearth & Hand with Magnolia shop-in-shop displays, replete with the wood tables and chairs, linens, greenery and accessories, tell a story to consumers. And it’s a story that changes—and captures consumer interest—regularly.

Going back to the grocery store March Madness idea, such a display—or what we like to call Party Central Station—could appeal to all family members. Dads could enjoy a video playing from a classic basketball game. The kids could scan a QR code on their phones and play games. And moms can gather food and entertaining ideas. These displays offer an opportunity for shoppers to easily engage, discover and satisfy their inner quest for new flavors, products and experiences.

Some ideas to consider for a point-of-purchase display that focuses on March Madness at-home celebrations:

  • Themed decor
  • Housewares (paper cups, disposable utensils/tableware, napkins)
  • Pre-packaged snacks (for individual consumption instead of communal bowls)
  • Healthy food choices
  • Baking supplies
  • Condiments
  • Beverages/Mixers

An occasion display that addresses the customer’s staple shopping needs also gives grocers the chance to bring brand awareness to items that captured more popularity during the pandemic when other brands ran out. And it provides an area where shoppers can slow down and be (safely) distracted from their unease and drawn into the shopping experience a little longer. Once a specialty area like this is established in the store, shoppers will look forward to returning to that spot, whether it’s for holidays like Easter and July 4th or an occasion like March Madness.

Convenience. Fun. Discovery. It’s an experience.

Like a recent Forbes article pointed out, shopper anxiety might continue, but that doesn’t mean customers aren’t interested in having fun and interesting experiences in store.

“The grocery store of the future will be much more focused on experience than just things,” the Forbes article states. “Customers won’t choose the store because of the products; they’ll choose it because it offers a convenient or beneficial experience. It will be a place where customers come to learn about their food and experience it in new ways instead of just buying it. That means stores will offer things like cooking classes, wine tastings and restaurants.”

A distinctive Party Central Station area makes particular sense when you consider the average grocery store is 42,415 square feet. In the case of a Walmart Superstore, locations average around 178,000 square feet (practically an entire neighborhood in Brooklyn, right?). Also consider that the average consumer made 1.6 weekly grocery shopping trips in 2020. Consumer psychology would dictate that an anxious shopper who just wants to get what they need and get out of the store would appreciate finding all they need in one area, rather than navigating an entire store.

Here’s another eye-popping stat: The traditional grocery store carries anywhere from 15,000 to 60,000 SKUs. New food products regularly roll out on store shelves, and a report from Kroger’s found 60% of shoppers liked experimenting with global flavors and recipes while they spent so much time at home last year. However, pandemic safety rules have done away with in-store tastings by brand ambassadors. This is another chance for a Party Central display to demonstrate its value, as it can showcase, through a wide variety of ways, information on new products or house brands that the shopper may not have known about or miss when shopping down other aisles.

Draw the grab-and-go shopper in and make it easy.

These specialized areas are also ideal for presenting shoppers with impulse items. In a recent Progressive Grocer article, Retail Feedback Group’s Douglas Madenberg, principal for the consumer insight consultancy, spoke about the importance of product adjacencies.

“One key to making center store more helpful for shoppers centers on leveraging product adjacency,” Madenberg said. “Not a new idea, but by locating solutions for specific occasion or recipes together, it makes center store items much more accessible to shoppers.”

If grocers can make that shopping excursion more rich and focused, meeting not only the immediate needs of the shoppers but also providing multiple levels of interaction and education, it can be a catalyst for drawing customers to the center of the store and down the aisles. Many grocers who have chosen to take unconventional approaches toward customer engagement and loyalty programs have found their efforts rewarded many times over (think Stew Leonard’s, Wegmans, Trader Joe’s) via consumers returning for the experience of shopping with them.

At-home traditions continue and brands should be about helping with these.

Last year, lockdowns around the U.S. just weeks before Easter had businesses and consumers “in a tailspin,” the Hershey Company recalls in its blog. The iconic chocolate and candy maker worked hard with its retail partners to make digital orders happen. But this year will likely be different.

“A year into the pandemic, we’ve seen just how resilient consumers are,” states Hershey. “They love routines, rituals and traditions, and despite Covid—or maybe in spite of Covid—they’re keeping opportunities for connection and goodness a priority. They’ve gotten creative at planning meaningful experiences with their own families at home, and candy is a big part of those celebrations. Many indicated that this year, they plan to celebrate in bigger ways than in the past by buying more Easter candy, baking more homemade treats, making bigger Easter baskets and planning backyard egg hunts.”

While online grocery shopping will no doubt continue, shopping in store will as well. It just might be a little different (and yes, better) than what we all remember. It is ironic that in this day and age, while we have limited choices in entertainment, there are so many choices in shopping. Why can’t they be synonymous with each other?

Throughout our 60 plus year history in retail, Medallion Retail has witnessed many shifts in consumer behavior.  We apply our historical and strategic expertise to our work in helping retailers and brands remain relevant and customer-focused in physical retail spaces during difficult times such as these.

If you would like to discuss how Medallion Retail can help grow your business, give Medallion’s Chris Gordon a call @ 646.677.5618.

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