Like many people who hadn’t previously considered online grocery shopping, I was convinced to give it a try early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, my experience was mixed. One order arrived with a smashed jar of raspberry jam coating the contents of the bag. And twice I received orders that were missing items that the store charged me for. I got my money back, but that still left me short of essential ingredients for dinner.
I did appreciate the convenience of ordering online. And it was a relief not to have to worry about entering a supermarket filled with people and risk contracting COVID-19.
However, I still prefer grocery shopping in person, especially now that I’m vaccinated against COVID-19. I really like being able to pick out meats and produce myself. And when I’m shopping in person, I can make quicker decisions about substitutions when I find the supermarket is out of a particular item.
That said, I may have to rethink my stance based on a recent study on the positive effect online grocery shopping has on health…
Online shoppers made healthier choices
Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have discovered that while people do spend more money when buying their groceries online, they also tend to purchase fewer unhealthy impulse foods like candy and cookies.
The study, which was conducted before the pandemic, examined the shopping habits of 137 primary household shoppers who shopped at least once in-store and once online using curbside pickup for 5,573 total transactions. Nearly all items sold in the store were available to order online, except for greeting cards and certain seasonal items.
Items were categorized into 10 food groups and 34 subgroups. For instance, the main protein food group included the subgroup poultry, and the dairy food group included the subgroup milk.
Subgroups categorized as unhealthy, impulse-sensitive purchases include candy; cold or frozen desserts, grain-based desserts like sweetbreads, cookies or cakes; sweet or salty snacks; and sugar-sweetened beverages.
According to the study results, fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts made up the largest portion of spending for groceries bought both online and in-store: 19 percent online versus 16.8 percent in-store. But there was a significant difference in spending on protein. Main protein sources accounted for 17.5 percent of online spending, compared with 12.2 percent of in-store spending.
Participants shopping in the store spent more on desserts and snacks, beverages and prepared foods than people who bought their groceries online. Food groups classified as MyPlate staples by the U.S. Department of Agriculture accounted for 55 percent of online spending and 44.4 percent of in-store spending.
As for the impulse-sensitive subgroups, in-store shopping accounted for the majority of purchases of candy, sugar-sweetened beverages, sweetbreads, cookies and cakes, cold or frozen desserts and sweet or salty snacks. For example, 84.5 percent of candy purchases occurred in stores, with only 15.5 percent happening online.
Why online shopping encourages better selections
Researchers believe there are several reasons the online shopping environment can reduce unhealthy food purchases. For instance, when buying groceries online, shoppers avoid in-store displays of candy and sugary beverages that tempt them to add these unplanned impulse items to their cart. And when the shopper buys groceries online, they don’t have to take their children into the store with them, meaning they don’t have to deal with their kids begging them for that candy bar or bottle of soda.
Shopping online also requires planning ahead, which can lead to healthier choices. And it limits shoppers’ exposure to unhealthy foods by allowing them to save their shopping lists, which cuts down on the kind of browsing that can lead to impulse purchases.
As for why online shoppers tended to spend more money on groceries, often retailers have minimum spending requirements for shopping online, so people have to buy more groceries than they may have if they had shopped at the store. Or online shoppers may simply choose to buy more to justify delivery or services fees, or to reach a threshold where the fees are waived.
Shoppers may be less price-sensitive when shopping online than when inside the supermarket, and they may accept higher prices in exchange for convenience. They also may pay less attention to prices because of time pressure, or because they have a set shopping list they saved on the grocery buying site or app.
Tips for online grocery shopping
If you are considering shopping for your groceries online, there are a few things to bear in mind. First, you need to decide if you want to pick up your online grocery order yourself or have it delivered if that’s an option. Delivery is by far the more convenient choice, but it does tend to be more expensive. And as I learned the hard way, with delivery, if you find out later that one of your items is missing or damaged, there’s not much you can do about it except get a refund. By contrast, if you pick up your online order, you can always check the bags before you leave to make sure everything is correct and intact.
Make sure you have a list prepared beforehand to cut down on the amount of time you spend browsing the grocery site or app. And if there are any products you absolutely must have, it’s a good idea to choose a substitute in case the brand you want isn’t available.
If you use an app to order your groceries, you’ll be notified when your shopper is preparing your order. Keep your cellphone or tablet handy so you can answer any questions your shopper may have and make decisions in the event one of your items is sold out.
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Comparing Online and In-Store Grocery Purchases — Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior