Online Grocery Shopping Is Going Mainstream

The wheels are falling off the real-life shopping cart

Illustration: Diana Quach
Jul 28, 2016 at 4:29 PM ET

Americans are getting a lot more comfortable with click-to-buy groceries. In a bricks-and-mortar supermarket, the appearance of a mouse might have you questioning the safety of the food. But what if all you needed to ensure your week’s supplies arrived at your door was … wait for it … a mouse. Mind. Blown.

A new study from the Harris Poll found that 31 percent of Americans (45 percent of online shoppers) have ordered groceries online in the past six months, avoiding swerving, almost sentient shopping carts, screaming children underfoot, and the old lady who’s emptying her coin purse at the register. The study found, not all that surprisingly, that city-dwellers and parents are among those most likely to shop for groceries online. Which makes sense, given the inconvenience of grocery shopping without a car, or with a kid trying to escape your clutches in search of the candy aisle. Web-trusting millennials are also driving the trend. A recent Nielsen report directly attributes that drive to a willingness by digital natives to accept e-commerce more readily than other generations.

While the practice of buying groceries online is growing in popularity (researchers predict 15-18 percent growth over the course of the next decade) it’s certainly not quite time to bulldoze the local grocery store. Only 10 percent of Americans say that online food shopping has replaced some or all of their routine trips to the store. (It is, however, taking off in the Asia-Pacific region, unsurprising given that the region holds eight out of ten of the world’s biggest megacities.) According to Harris Poll, 49 percent of those that choose to purchase groceries online prefer to order non-perishable items, which explains why snacks are the most popular category of food purchased.

It’s an industry that’s taken a relatively long time to make the move to the web, something management consulting firm McKinsey & Company attributes to the failure of the first e-commerce grocer, Webvan, in the late nineties. Today, there are at least 50 different services for online grocery shopping, including pickup and delivery options from major brick and mortar chains. Amazon, the country’s biggest online retailer, is leading the charge in tech innovation. The integration of Amazon Dash (its one-click IoT ordering system) with Amazon Fresh (its online grocery $300-a-year grocery delivery service) means you can do your grocery shopping from home by scanning the barcode of a used-up product or simply saying its name into the device. And soon, drones may be delivering these products straight to your door. Subways in Korea were fitted out with walls of fake shelves and QR codes so shoppers could make a grocery run while standing on the platform, waiting for a train.

More Tiny Swedish Store Has No Employees, Just An App

Retail companies also indicate that a focus on mobile-based grocery shopping will follow next, ideally suited for consumers looking at their phone on their way home from work, thinking about what’s for dinner, or looking to have a comparable real-life shopping experience from their home.

“It’s intuitive basket-building,” CEO Chieh Huang recently told Nielsen. “It’s like walking the aisles at a big box store.”

Meal kit delivery services are also having a moment, and the market for them will likely grow between $3 and $5 billion over the course of the next decade.