How COVID-19 Has Transformed Grocery Shopping

FLM Harvest

2020 summer intern Hayley DeHaan recently took part in FMI’s “How COVID-19 is Reshaping Online Shopping” webinar. She shares her takeaways and perspectives during this pivotal time for retail food purchasing.

One of the primary differences between shopping for groceries in-person and online is the experience, wandering and exploring the aisles, inhaling the scent of fresh baked bread, trying samples, chatting with the butcher.

COVID-19 took that away from us, transforming how we navigate the aisles, what we buy and how we feel. It has also elevated online grocery shopping, which has more than doubled since the pandemic began.

Now, nearly five months into this transformation, new data is emerging revealing who is consistently shopping online, how they are embracing it and what grocers are doing to meet this new behavior.

Who is grocery shopping online?

Before the pandemic, most online grocery shoppers were millennials with 63%* under the age of 40 i.e., tech-savvy families with busy schedules looking for convenience. Now, the consumer base has significantly diversified with older generations increasingly represented. People under 40 now only hold 48%* of the market. As individuals in the risk category have become concerned about their safety, they’ve started shopping online to reduce their chance of exposure. For some, online grocery shopping is now less about convenience and more about necessity.

Nevertheless, many online grocery shoppers still spend some time in-store with only 50%* of their weekly grocery budget going to online orders on average. In addition, their purchases are changing. Before COVID-19, online orders were primarily non-perishables like canned foods, snacks, candies and paper goods. Now shoppers are buying more fresh produce, refrigerated products and fresh meats.

Will these new habits continue?

According to research from the Food Industry Association, consumers say they will continue to use online grocery shopping as a tool to maximize their time. Will that truly be the case when the pandemic passes? Time will tell, but habits are no doubt forming during this time. There is one aspect of online grocery shopping that will truly impact whether consumers will continue to buy online: experience. While new-to-online consumers have been patient to date with issues related to fulfillment and usability, their tolerance will only go so far. They will expect grocers and delivery apps to improve moving forward.

How can online grocery shopping be improved to adapt to changing times?

While retailers can’t replicate the experience of being in-store, there are strategies that can improve online platforms and ordering for customers.

The Food Industry Association highlighted some of these approaches in the “How COVID-19 is Reshaping Online Shopping” webinarfocused on fulfillment and finding ways to replicate the experience shoppers receive in-store.

For example, Kroger and Amazon are experimenting with “dark store” locations as a potential avenue for fulfillment of online orders. These companies refit past grocery locations to become small-scale warehouses customers can visit directly to pick up orders. This setup helps ensure employee and customer safety, while retaining the convenience of online orders customers enjoy.

Some chains, like Target, have transitioned only part of their stores to be fulfillment centers. This may be an effective option for smaller chains that can’t fully transition their storefronts “dark.”

Look for grocers to quickly adapt in the months and years ahead to the transformed grocery shopper, just as they have over decades past.

*Facts and figures used are from the FMI “How COVID-19 is Reshaping Online Shopping” webinar.

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