For Brookshire Brothers Inc., an employee-owned grocery store operator based in Lufkin, Texas, selling groceries online provided a way to compete with larger grocers and boost its customer service. The move also changed some customers’ lives more than expected.
On the retailer’s first day fulfilling online orders in February 2018, Brookshire Brothers delivered groceries to a woman immobile because of severe back problems, says Corry Lankford, ecommerce director for the retailer.
“That was her first time ordering groceries by herself—and without reliance on somebody else in the apartment complex—in six years,” Lankford says. The customer credited the online service with giving her her way of life back. Lankford described that sentiment as “humbling.”
With the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing, more customers than ever view grocery ecommerce as an essential service, Lankford says. Because of pandemic-driven demand and industry trends, the retailer is expanding online grocery ordering, curbside pickup and delivery at a growing number of stores, he says.
Getting ahead of the trend
Brookshire Brothers, which celebrates its 100th year in business in 2021, tried to sell groceries online years ago, using in-house resources. That effort did not work out, Lankford says. But by about 2017, new technology and a changing marketplace meant it made sense to try again.
“We saw the need for it as we started to see this arise as a growing trend in the grocery industry,” Lankford says.
Grocery industry trends usually start on the coasts and then “trickle in” to the center of the country, Lankford says. When online grocery shopping began emerging on the east and west coasts, company leaders decided Brookshire Brothers should get ahead of that trend by offering ecommerce in its local markets. But it wouldn’t go online on its own.
This time, Brookshire Brothers decided to get online using the online grocery platform Rosie. Brookshire Brothers chose Rosie, Lankford says, because the retailer wanted something customizable that also enabled it to create an ecommerce operation using its own branding. The retailer calls its online ordering system Brookshire Brothers Anywhere.
Lankford declined to say how much Brookshire Brothers spends on Rosie’s services. But, he says the vendor receives a monthly fee, along with a small percentage of online sales.
“Rosie was very responsive to what we were looking for,” Lankford says. The platform also was scalable, allowing the retailer to start with a handful of stores and till out more stores later. Many of the larger online grocery platforms offer “cookie-cutter” software, he says, whereas Rosie was interested in developing Brookshire Brothers’ ecommerce platform as a collaboration.
Working with Rosie, Brookshire Brothers offered grocery ecommerce in Lufkin and many other local markets before its competitors like Walmart Inc. (No. 3 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000) and H-E-B Grocery Co., Lankford says.
The retailer handles deliveries using staff members, he says, because that gives it more control over the customer experience. Delivery represents about 30% of online sales, while 70% comes from curbside pickup orders, he says.
The pandemic changes everything
Brookshire Brothers offered ecommerce from seven of its 116 stores by the end of 2019. When the pandemic hit, the retailer experienced a massive increase in online orders. And company leaders realized it should expand the online operation to more locations.
Early in the COVID-19 crisis, 2020 year-over-year online sales growth hit 700% to 800%, Lankford says. For the whole year, online growth was about 400% above 2019 levels, he says.
The retailer now offers delivery and curbside pickup of online orders at 24 locations. It currently plans to launch ecommerce at 31 additional stores in 2021 and early 2022, bringing the total to 55.
Brookshire Brothers typically launches ecommerce at no more than one or two rollouts per week, Lankford says. That’s partly because the retailer takes extra time to ensure it trains staffers to meet high standards. He credits the training staff with helping to make the ecommerce operation successful.
Deli trays and online SNAP payments
In November, the retailer rolled out online ordering for deli trays, using a Rosie software module, Lankford says. The functionality allows customers to order “hot and ready” food—such as trays of chicken wings—for pickup or delivery. It also offers cold options, such as fruit or vegetable trays.
With Rosie’s help, Brookshire Brothers also is working to offer ecommerce to consumers who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, commonly referred to as Food Stamps.
As a percentage of total sales, he says, online orders represented about 1% to 2% of sales in 2019. As of mid-February 2021, online sales represent about 2% to 3% of total sales, he says. While that might not seem like a significant gain in the online share, Lankford points out that in-store sales also grew tremendously in 2020.
Early in the pandemic, consumers around the country—including Brookshire Brothers customers—stocked up on essentials. The primary motivation for the stockpiling was uncertainty surrounding coronavirus-related lockdowns and a desire by many to limit shopping trips, Lankford says.
Ecommerce is essential
Since early 2020, ecommerce has become a necessity for many shoppers, Lankford says. What used to be a convenience offered to busy mothers and fathers is now an essential part of grocery retailing, he says.
The key to succeeding in the increasingly competitive online grocery sector is differentiation, Lankford says. Brookshire Brothers looks to stand out with offerings like its deli-tray program. Also, he says, the retailer now uses its website to feature products aimed at specific communities or are exclusive to Brookshire Brothers.
“But most importantly, you differentiate by just providing really over-the-top service,” in stores and online, Lankford says. “You can’t let it be a faceless program,” he adds.
The retailer has 6,000-plus employees at its locations across Texas and Louisiana. In addition to grocery stores, Brookshire Brothers operates fuel stations, pharmacies, tobacco shops, convenience stores and coffee shops.