Story at a glance
- The coronavirus pandemic has pushed some Americans to switch to online grocery shopping.
- Grocers say that those who do shop in person are spending less time at the store.
- Experts are concerned that the pandemic will exacerbate existing health disparities and food insecurity.
The American grocery store aisle has long been an iconic symbol of the United State’s particular brand of capitalism. Or rather, brands.
Walking down the cereal aisle, frozen in awe and indecision at the sheer number of choices, is a right of passage for many immigrants and visitors from other countries. But the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the transition to online grocery shopping for some, and those who still visit their local supermarket or grocery store don’t have time to wander and wonder.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the average shopper spent about 41 minutes in the grocery store, according to the American Time Use Survey, an average that has been growing over the last two decades. But that's changing.
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"One thing we’re seeing across all retailers is less trips. And in retail, the trip is precious, just precious. And they have stepped back significantly. The basket is gone up to counter that, so it was supposed to come out even. But the nature of it is that with the way the store is set up now, it becomes more transactional. There’s much less of a value in merchandising, etcetera, because folks want to get in and get out," Walter Robb, the former Whole Foods Markets co-CEO, said during an online panel reported by Winsight Grocery Business.
Major grocery store chains, which consumers have trusted the most for cleanliness during the pandemic, are experimenting with new models as shoppers settle into online grocery shopping routines. Amazon-owned grocery chain Whole Foods opened an online-only store in New York — an epicenter of the pandemic in the United States — on Sept. 1 that had been planned even before the coronavirus outbreak.
But brick and mortar stores aren’t disappearing entirely — yet.
“The thing about e-commerce is that it’s relatively small — about 7% [market share] — and it has all of these inherent demand issues and some really profound cost-of-service issues. But the big thing is that it’s incremental,” Kurt Jetta, founder and executive chairman of consumer analytics firm TABS Analytics, said in a webinar reported by Supermarket News.
So while the TABS Analytics’ 8th Annual Food and Beverage Consumables Study published in August reported an increase in business online and decreases in person, Jetta said it wasn't as big as expected.
Still, grocery shopping just isn’t the same anymore. With shoppers spending less time in stores, many of them are falling back on trusted brands and favorite comfort foods. And this means the health disparity between high and low-income Americans is growing, The Washington Post reported.
“There are two different reactions to covid — a small number who are getting health conscious and reacquainting themselves with real food, and a larger group that is going with comfort food that is cheap and shelf-stable,” Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and dean of Tufts University’s nutrition science school, told the Post.
So grocers are reordering their best-selling items and suppliers are cutting back on diversity to save production costs. Online shopping only compounds this issue, as people are more likely to search for known brands than scroll endlessly through many different options, limiting the reach of newer and smaller brands. Targeted advertising then reinforces past buying habits, making it harder for consumers to change their habits.
“A system is being unleashed to take advantage of those who have fewer choices. Lower-income neighborhoods are already targeted, and with e-commerce they will receive a flood of unhealthy products,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told the Post. “No one is looking behind the digital curtain to see how it affects those most at risk.”
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