Expert Column: Digital Demand


As technology evolves, we continue to hear more and more about consumers ordering supermarket items online, to either get picked up at a store, delivered directly to their house or selected by a personal shopper through a service like Instacart. And while some traditional food retailers offer online shopping, there are many new players offering services that will, and in some cases already are, impacting established food-shopping channels. If you haven’t experimented with these services, I would strongly encourage you do so –- some of the best learning about how these services work comes from trying it out yourself.

At the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Connection: Retail Conference on June 19, 2014, we conducted a session entitled “Digital Grocery Services –- Responding to a Growing Interest by Consumers. “ During this presentation, Doug Madenberg, my business partner, and I unveiled the findings of our new Retail Feedback Group study focused on online shopping. This study took place among 446 primary grocery shoppers surveyed via the ShopWell “crowd,” a national panel of shoppers reached via the ShopWell smartphone app. We also provided the audience with practical observations from a live consumer panel throughout the session.

The findings from our study of online shopping, outlined below, provide valuable insights for retailers to contemplate as they plan their own efforts in this rapidly changing space or as they think about how to negate the advantage of those who do engage in it.

Reasons for Online Shopping

Of the shoppers completing the survey, 38 percent indicated that they purchased supermarket items online during the past year. The availability of hard-to-find products (56 percent) and lower prices/better deals than in-store (54 percent) were major reasons for doing so. Further down the list were other reasons, like saving time (44 percent) and the belief that online shopping was more convenient than shopping in-store (33 percent). Retailer panelists at the session reinforced some of these reasons: “Initially I was concerned about pricing,” said one panelist. “I knew there were some delivery fees attached to it and was wondering if that would negate using the service because it would be so overpriced that I might as well go to the store anyway … but my lifestyle made me take the leap. Working in the airline industry, I was able to order from [an online shopping] service while in west Africa and have it sent to the house. The convenience was more of a factor than price, but initially, price was a concern.”


The fulfillment method used by 58 percent of online shoppers consisted of items delivered by mail or a shipping carrier (not surprising, considering that many online specialty retailers ship this way, and, as we observed earlier, buying hard-to-find products is the No. 1 reason for shopping online for food items).  The next-highest method of fulfillment is picking up items at a store in their area (36 percent), followed by items being delivered from a store in the area (11 percent). 


The frequency of online shopping still remains an opportunity. The highest percentage of shoppers purchasing supermarket-type items indicated they bought online less than once per month (20 percent), followed by about once per month (5 percent), a few times per month (8 percent), and once per week or more (5 percent). When asked about their likelihood of shopping online for supermarket items in the next year, half indicated their frequency would be “about the same,” while 33 percent indicated “more often” and 17 percent “less often,” so it appears that this is still a fledgling effort in terms of frequency, at least at the present time.

Items Bought

What types of items are shoppers buying through online ordering? The categories with the highest percentage of purchases (indicated by a third or more of the shoppers surveyed) were natural and organic (55 percent), followed by health and beauty items (49 percent), special dietary needs (46 percent), nutritional supplements (44 percent), nonfood items (36 percent), and grocery items (34 percent). Notably, fresh departments fell significantly further down the list.

Brian Numainville can be reached at [email protected]


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