Online Grocery Ordering During and After COVID-19

While many have stopped going to restaurants, movie theaters, and other entertainment venues during the COVID-19 pandemic, one public place that is difficult to avoid is the grocery store. The risk of exposure to COVID-19 is lower at grocery stores than at other locations such as restaurants, but the CDC still recommends limiting shopping trips because of the potential for contracting or spreading COVID-19, particularly for grocery store employees and shoppers in low-income areas. In light of these warnings, some individuals have chosen to rely on grocery delivery or pickup services in order to reduce their contact with others in the store. In this post, we examine the reasons provided by respondents to our COVID Future survey for using grocery pickup and delivery services, as well as the demographics of respondents who report grocery store-related COVID-19 concerns. We investigate whether or not concern about COVID-19 actually translates into choosing grocery delivery over in-person shopping, and how this type of behavior might persist past the pandemic.

Portions of this blog post are based on preliminary responses to our survey. These responses over-represent highly educated and high income individuals, white and Asian respondents, and people who work from home or don’t commute by car. These results are identified by the term “convenience sample.” All other results come from our nationally representative sample.

Nearly 40% of our respondents reported regularly ordering groceries for delivery or pickup. When asked to select reasons why they shop online for groceries, our convenience sample respondents gave various justifications. The table below illustrates these reasons and their frequencies.

Reason for Ordering Groceries Online% of Respondents Who Selected Reason
I can avoid going to stores65%
It saves time63%
I can shop 24/743%
It’s easier to stick to the list33%
I do not have to carry my groceries31%
I can more easily compare prices24%
I have a wider variety of choices17%
NOTE: Respondents could offer multiple reasons for why they chose to grocery shop online.

Wanting to stay out of stores is a response that has particular prominence because of COVID-19, but other justifications that people gave might remain important even after the pandemic. While COVID-19 may have been a catalyst for people to begin online grocery shopping more regularly, it is possible that this trend will persist, especially considering that many respondents who expressed concern about COVID-19 expect to continue shopping online in the future.

Given how many of our respondents indicated concern about going into grocery stores, we decided to investigate the relationship between concern about COVID-19 and online grocery orders. First, we wanted to determine who in our sample was more or less concerned about the virus. We did so by grouping individuals who said that they had “Low” or “Extremely low” concern about contracting COVID-19 while doing tasks such as grocery shopping into a Lower Concern group, and those who responded with “Medium”, “High,” or “Extremely high” concern into a Higher Concern group. Respondents who made under $75,000 annually were significantly more likely to fall into the Lower Concern group, while those making over $75,000 were significantly more likely to be in the Higher Concern group. Now, the important question to ask is: Does this concern actually translate into more online grocery deliveries?

The answer is yes. We saw that Lower Concern respondents were more likely to not order groceries online at all, as compared to Higher Concern respondents. Even the Lower Concern respondents who did order groceries online did so less often than Higher Concern ones. Those with Higher Concern were 1.8 times more likely to order groceries for delivery once per week, 2.3 times more likely to order two/three times per week, and 3.1 times more likely to order more than four times per week. This is how the COVID-19 concern manifested itself for online grocery shopping habits at the time of our survey, but we also wanted to know if these trends would last.

We asked our respondents about how often they expected to order groceries in the future and analyzed their answers based on both their concern about COVID-19 and how frequently they ordered at the time of the survey. COVID-19 concern translates just as well to future grocery deliveries as it does to present ones. Those who perceive COVID-19 to be a low or medium threat were significantly more likely than more concerned respondents to say that they would only order groceries a few times per year or less. Like COVID-19 concern, current online grocery ordering habits are expected to affect future orders. We found that if individuals did not order groceries online at the time of the survey, they were not likely to start doing so in the future. However, of those that did order at least once per week, they were likely to indicate that they would order more in the future. Overall, the 84% of our respondents said they would most likely maintain their current ordering habits, 14% wanted to begin ordering more, and only 1% reported that they would order less in the future.

It is notable that current concerns about COVID-19 may affect future grocery shopping habits, since this health risk will presumably subside at some point in the future. Our survey indicates that grocery ordering and delivery may be a “sticky” habit, possibly for multiple reasons. One reason may be that the perceived need to order online during the pandemic has made shoppers more aware of the other benefits of online shopping such as price comparison and time-saving, explaining their desire to continue in the future. Another reason that online grocery shopping may remain popular in the future is health-related. The COVID-19 pandemic has made many people aware of the ways in which they expose themselves to airborne illnesses, and shoppers may want to rely on online grocery shopping in the future to protect themselves from more mundane health concerns like the flu or the common cold.

What we have found is that online grocery shopping, for a myriad of reasons, is likely to be more prevalent in the world after COVID-19 than it was before. Only a few of our respondents indicated that they would do less online grocery shopping in the future than in the present. For now, though, we know that COVID-19 remains a large factor in motivating people to stay out of grocery stores, and that concerns about contracting the virus are more prevalent for those with higher income. There are some important implications to consider for these trends. The first is that online grocery shopping platforms will likely require more infrastructure and resources to support increased use. On the other end of this scale is the likely decreased investment in physical grocery stores, which could experience staff and funding cuts if people do not resume shopping in stores. This could spell very bad news for small, independent grocery stores without the means to support an online service. Finally, it is possible that we see a decline in car usage as people can do one extra errand from the comfort of their home – a trend that COVID-19 is highlighting in many areas outside of grocery shopping as well. Ultimately, many people and businesses are going to have to adapt to online grocery shopping’s place in society as more than just a side effect during the pandemic.

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