Ham Wars: How Search Impacts Your Dinner Table

Food is big business, maybe the biggest. I can’t think of a more routinely asked question than “What should we eat?”

Thankfully we now have technology — namely search — to help us answer that question so we don’t hurt our brains thinking too hard. Although we’ve probably all used the Internet to help us find a local restaurant or order a pizza, the vast majority of our eating is done inside the home and the food is procured the old fashioned way — from a visit to your local grocery store.

Impulse decisions aside, grocery shoppers tend to be an informed (and often thrifty) bunch who turn to the Internet in increasing numbers to research and prep for their trip to the store. ComScore’s latest search data sheds some light on how consumers and manufacturers are making the most of search with this ubiquitous consumer behavior.

Just how important is search to the food industry? In the fourth quarter of 2010, food related websites attracted nearly 400 million visits from U.S. internet users via search, a number that has grown 22 percent in the past year and shows no signs in slowing down as more opportunities to “play with your food” become available online.

Paid Search for “Recipes” is Huge

Far and away the most prevalent interest in all of online food searching is the quest for “recipes.” U.S. Internet searchers ran more than 150 million “recipe” related searches in Q4 (with chicken recipes consistently leading the way).

Savvy marketers are well aware of this fact and are investing heavily in attracting these consumers via paid search, serving nearly 1 billion paid search ads to recipe searchers during that same time period.

Three of the largest paid search food marketers — Kraft, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury — use search to drive traffic to their branded websites, which offer a variety of recipes and cooking ideas.

This paid search investment helps these big brand marketers drive brand engagement in order to ensure their products remain top of mind during their customers’ next shopping trip. While these branding paid search dollars most certainly are being invested, we shouldn’t neglect those direct response opportunities either.

Online Ordering via Search

Many local grocery stores have begun to allow online ordering — if not for an entire set of groceries, certainly for specialty items during high traffic times throughout the year. (More than 5 million “ham” searches had been conducted by late holiday season).

Because my family listens to me at least some of the time, they are savvy enough to take advantage of these emerging technology trends and found the new local grocery store that accepted online ham orders, via search, reserving our delicious bounty. Search was just the start of this online ordering process, but leads directly into deeper analysis food merchants must consider.

The Ham Wars: Search Lessons for Merchants

The importance of online ordering (and ensuing execution) became quite apparent to me as my mother sent me to the store to pick up our honey-baked ham for Christmas dinner. I had a pre-scheduled time for pick up, an order number already in hand, and it should have been simple.

But an orderly system will break down if not enough people utilize it. Based upon the chaos that followed at the deli counter (an event to which I now affectionately refer to as “The Ham Wars”) you would have thought we were all vying for spots on the lifeboat of the Titanic. Elbows were flying as we each made our move for the best ham.

As a grocery retailer, these are the types of events that can be anticipated. If online ordering is offered, retailers must effectively process those customers in an orderly and timely fashion.

Although my experience was an example of a retailer watching the online trends and trying to be ahead of the curve, all goodwill engendered by such an effort can be lost when the in-store experience doesn’t match the convenience and efficiency of an online order. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that these decisions are all part of a greater supply chain and customer experience plan that must be taken into consideration before implementation.

Search got me through the door, but the Ham Wars almost prevented me from making it out alive. There is plenty of opportunity for food manufacturers and retailers to acquire customers online, but they’ll need to consider the logistics further down the purchase funnel if they intend to keep them.

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