Online Grocery Stores: An Effective Replacement During COVID-19?

Online Grocery Stores: An Effective Replacement During COVID-19?

With the COVID-19 outbreak forcing many to take up shelter in their homes, essential business locations such as grocery stores have remained open for those looking to buy food during these times. But as we have said in previous pieces, going to any of these locations can be a health risk, especially for those that are a part of vulnerable populations.

As such, one of the alternatives to physical grocery store visits has been shopping for groceries online. While millennials have traditionally been the largest demographic of online grocery shoppers up until this point, the current times have produced an explosion in online grocery demand around the world.

For those running supermarkets, as well as online grocery providers, this would seem like a boon for business. But in some parts of the world, such as the UK, many of the available online grocery services are severely bottlenecked—with many grocers feeling overwhelmed by the 10x jump in demand, and scrambling to provide service.

Articles discussing this issue, such as the USA Today piece written by the AP’s Kelvin Chan, detail this problem in the UK as some residents complain of increasing difficulties in putting together meals. Details such as these have likely prompted some to consider this central question: Is it fair to suggest that what is happening to grocery shopping in the United Kingdom is a glimpse into the future for the United States?

On one hand, I would say possibly—but only because it would be foolish to think that there was no possibility of this happening. But on the other hand, I would say probably not.

As it stands, the United States is probably one of the lowest ranking developed nations when it comes to the proportion of online grocery shoppers relative to traditional in-person shoppers. This automatically means that with fewer people being accustomed to buying groceries online, many American shoppers may continue to make in-person grocery purchases as an excuse to get outside of the house.

The other reality of the American marketplace is that because we are a bigger country, we also benefit from more variety and competition between grocery providers. Most places in this country enjoy anywhere from 3-6 local grocery providers. Additionally, the national chains in America are large enough service providers to facilitate global demand. For example, while the largest grocery provider in the United Kingdom is Tesco, the largest grocery provider in the United States is Walmart, followed by Amazon—a material difference in service capacity and order of magnitude.

This is to say that while our online grocery infrastructure is not heavily utilized by Americans, it is built in such a way to accommodate heavy amounts of utilization. This also means that our online system, under heavy amounts of utilization, is built to be more reliable. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be shortages of certain products, but what it does mean, is that many Americans will likely not have to worry about multi-hour login cues, service bottlenecks, or some of the other inconveniences associated with being in smaller marketplaces.

Mind you, Americans have already begun to utilize online grocery shopping at high levels. As far as interest, downloads for Walmart’s grocery app increased by 218%, with Instacart and Shippt’s downloads increasing by 160% and 124% respectively. With Nielson reporting that online grocery sales only accounted for 4% of US grocery sales in 2019, online stores are currently seeing an explosion: 33% of grocery shoppers reported shopping online in March of 2020. Of this 33%, 41% of shoppers reported having done it for the first time.

This is all said to say that the current demand for online grocery shopping in the United States is certainly efficient to rely on in these times, and no, the inefficiencies in the UK grocery system are not a foreboding sign for the US. While the online option is not available everywhere, it is available in some notable places, such as Kroger, Lowes Foods, Harris Teeter, Jewel Osco, Safeway, and many others. Finally, there are also national options, such as Wal Mart, Target and Amazon, which is the official online store for Whole Foods.

For those of you looking for fresh locally-sourced fruits and veggies online, Seal the Seasons is regionally available for same-day delivery via Amazon’s Whole Foods Market."