Health-related activities are often the first to go when life picks up, and having the time to grocery shop for fresh, nutritious food is no exception. Fortunately, these days shopping for food is more convenient than ever—with online grocery services, all you need is the click of a button. Web-based shopping isn’t a new concept, but the popularity of online grocery ordering has skyrocketed in recent years in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. IFIC’s 2021 annual Food and Health Survey found that 42% of survey respondents shopped online for groceries, representing about a 56% increase from 2019. The survey also found that consumers ages 18–34, people who identify as African American or Black, and parents tend to grocery shop online more frequently than other groups. Although concerns about contracting coronavirus from grocery stores seem to have been an initial reason for the significant increase in online grocery purchases, this trend appears consistent over time.
The Benefits of Online Grocery Shopping
Convenience With 52% of Americans citing convenience as a top purchase driver, consumers can log into their account, select their items, and designate whether or not they want to pick their groceries up from the store or have them delivered for an additional fee. These options enable consumers to do their shopping from the comfort of their homes while also avoiding long grocery-store lines and stressful parking lots.
Easier Budgeting With online grocery shopping, you can easily see the price of each item you select and watch the total cost increase as you build your grocery cart. You can also easily remove items before check-out to stay within your budget, whereas if you’re shopping in person it is more difficult to keep a tally before you reach the check-out line. All this said, it’s important to keep in mind that when considering your budget, many online grocery services do charge additional fees to cover processing and delivery.
Saving Money and Time By limiting yourself to a virtual platform, it’s easier to stick to your list since you’re no longer perusing the grocery store aisles and susceptible to in-person impulse purchases. Ordering online also saves considerable time and energy by eliminating travel to and from the grocery store and providing the added benefit of a guaranteed delivery time frame.
While the convenience and benefits of online grocery shopping are many, there are some challenges, too.
Concerns About Online Grocery Shopping
Food Safety Although most Americans feel confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply, more than 60% of Americans are nonetheless concerned about foodborne illness from bacteria. Online grocery shopping can pose a food safety risk because it’s up to the consumer to handle food safely after it’s been delivered; and by forgoing the chance to inspect the food yourself before purchasing, you may be at risk of not noticing issues with food quality should they arise.
Prep Yourself To reduce the risk of foodborne illness from food delivered to your home, look to the following tips:
- Know the safety standards of the company you’re ordering from (e.g., Do they use insulated packaging and materials, such as dry ice or frozen gel packs?). Notify the company if your food was delivered at an unsafe temperature or appears to have been damaged.
- Check the temperature of refrigerated and frozen foods upon receipt with a food thermometer.
- If you’re opting for delivery, make sure someone is home to put your food safely away.
Nutrition Misinformation Nearly half (46%) of people who shop for groceries online are more likely to examine nutrition labels, yet unfortunately the information provided online isn’t consistently presented and often is not easy to find.
A recent study published in Public Health Nutrition found that nutritional information routinely found on in-person grocery-store items was being offered on only about a third of online grocery items that were included in the analysis. This included information such as the Nutrition Facts panel, the ingredients list, the percentage of juice in commercial fruit juices, and, most alarmingly, common food allergens. Such oversights are concerning for individuals with food allergies and other dietary-related medical conditions.
In IFIC’s 2017 Food and Health Survey: Focus on 50+, 75% of respondents who ordered groceries online said they read nutrition labels, but found it more difficult to identify product and packaging labels when ordering online compared with ordering in-store. Such lack of label transparency could lead to incorrect orders or consuming an item that doesn’t align with one’s dietary preferences or restrictions.
Because people use labels to make food and health choices based on considerations such as how food is produced, it’s also important to include this additional information (e.g., regarding the use of hormones or antibiotics, organic production processes, non-GMO methods, etc.) with online options so that people can make optimal health decisions for themselves.
Barriers to adopting online grocery shopping can include extra fees, perceived lack of quality of food, and consumer desire to see and touch food before purchasing it. However, online grocery shopping does offer a convenient option for getting food into the home without having to travel to the store. Because it’s relatively new territory in terms of quality control when compared with in-person shopping, additional regulation is needed to uphold food-safety standards and promote transparent nutrition information.
This article was written by Debbie Fetter, PhD, Assistant Professor, UC Davis.