( Photo courtesy Dan Bourgault )

Dan Bourgault, recently with Instacart and now headed to a new grocery tech startup in the Northwest U.S., is a man seeking to stay one step ahead of rapidly evolving technology in online grocery sales.

So far, it is mission accomplished.

“I’d say the thing for me is, I’ve been really cognizant of the advancements of digital and the technology around it. I’ve almost chased the technology as it evolves.”

His list of former employers in his 25-year career includes Kodak, Coupons.com (later re-branded Quotient Technology Inc.), NBCUniversal Media LLC, and others.

All of those stops are part of a different career path than he imagined when he started college with sights on a degree in marine biology at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona. By the time he was an upperclassman, the marine biology program was shut down and Bourgault switched his focus to business studies. An internship at Universal Studios in Southern California grew into a full-time job offer after graduation.

In his most recent stop, at Instacart, he engaged with produce industry about how brand marketers could sell more online.

Under his leadership, Instacart developed a banner ad unit and later a search functionality, like Google adwords for the grocery space.

The growth of all things online grocery delivery — Instacart’s boom, the expansion of Amazon Fresh, Google Express, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, Target’s purchase of Shipt, H-E-B’s purchase of Favor Delivery — all have added to the momentum of the sector.

“I think the next phase of evolution in this space is going to be the consumer experience evolution,” he said. 

While delivery services are growing fast, the real challenge is retaining customers.

“Everybody’s using (delivery). But is everybody using it frequently?” he said. “That’s the big question now to ask. Because it seems like most grocers have now aligned with a certain platform for delivery. Now the question is going to be who owns that customer?”

Having worked at Instacart as head of CPG partnerships and ad sales from April 2015 until just recently, Bourgault brings firsthand knowledge of both the evolution of online grocery shopping/delivery services and the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in consumer satisfaction with home delivery.

“We have to figure out how to penetrate produce better,” he said, noting that produce is the No. 1 food category that Instacart sells. 

“Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables are one and two into the most popular categories that are sold,” he said. 

At the same time, the No. 1 reason people wouldn’t want somebody to do their grocery shopping for them is they don’t trust others to pick up their fresh food.

Beyond the hurdle of getting someone to try grocery delivery, the even bigger issue is retention, he said.

Pricing and bad experiences are the main stumbling blocks to retaining customers.

If a picker doesn’t pick a ripe avocado it could translate to a problem basket, leading to customer loss.

“We have got to be better at picking produce,” he said, suggesting education efforts are needed. “How can we do that with the produce industry; is there better ways to work with the produce industry to better train these 100,000 thousand pickers to understand what is a ripe pineapple?”

Most shoppers would trust a retail produce clerk to pick their produce, but there aren’t enough clerks to do that.

Instead, the common model is an Uber or Lyft driver who goes shopping at Sprouts or another retailer for a online customer.

“So they park their car, they walk in, and they go to pick out produce. You are thinking, half the people in my family can’t pick a ripe tomato or even know the difference — how do I know these guys are doing it?” 

Fresh produce is probably one of the biggest reasons why people go into the grocery store because they don’t trust somebody else to do the job, he said. 

And yet fresh produce is the biggest category of food delivered by Instacart.
 
“How do you make sure this is better?” he asked. 

While he couldn’t talk about his new job yet he said it will look at the customer experience.

“So I could see this customer experience evolution coming. And that’s the thing I’m going to go work on next,” Bourgault said.

 
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