A shift in behavior: Why grocery shoppers are going digital

Published March 25, 2021

The convenience and increasingly personalized experiences you get when shopping online have long been appealing to consumers. Add to that a global pandemic that saw people surging to online and mobile shopping for the ease, convenience and safety, and it’s clear that eCommerce isn’t going anywhere, even for grocery retailers.

In the U.S., online grocery shopping reached nearly $90 billion in sales in 2020, an increase of more than $30 billion. And in the U.K., the numbers are similar, with one in four consumers purchasing food online, a growth of 61 percent from last year. According to the same article, consumers say they’re shopping online for groceries for four main reasons:

  • For the convenience (41 percent)
  • They prefer not to go inside stores (40 percent)
  • They just hadn’t thought about it before (20 percent)
  • It helps with weekly meal prep (15 percent)

And while grocery shopping in general saw big changes particularly in the beginning of the pandemic, Forbes reported it was the online grocery shopping segment that presented the biggest change.

Related: See 4 best practices for grocery digital transformation

As reported by Forbes, “A year ago, 81% of consumers had never bought groceries online, but during the pandemic nearly 79% of shoppers have ordered online. In August 2019, U.S. online grocery sales totaled $1.2 billion; in June 2020, that total was $7.2 billion. Over that same time period, the number of online customers increased from 16.1 million to 45.6 million and the average spend per order grew from $72 to $84."

But will online grocery shopping go back to its previous levels after the pandemic is well and truly over? Not likely. According to Food Navigator.com, even when relative normalcy is restored, online grocery shopping isn't going anywhere. And that’s largely because online grocery shoppers will be used to getting their groceries that way, and many simply won’t feel a need to return to their old ways.

Related: Future, interrupted: The new store of tomorrow and how retailers can adapt 

The benefits of grocery eCommerce for retailers and shoppers


The large increase in online grocery sales has required grocery stores to make a lot of changes, including meeting buying online and picking up in stores (BOPIS) demands. And consumers have embraced the changes, too. But what are the benefits of online and mobile shopping for both shoppers and retailers?

Benefits for retailers


More opportunities to increase revenue. The stats speak for themselves. With an increase of 30 billion in the U.S. alone in sales with a projected increase of 250 billion by 2025, it’s evident that grocery stores simply make more money with the increase of online grocery shopping.

A better understanding of their customers. Online ordering presents an opportunity for grocery stores to understand their customer’s preferences and serve up more personalized shopping experiences. Say a customer wants to buy flour tortillas. There’s a good chance that they may be making tacos or burritos, so including pop-up recommendations for chicken, beef, sour cream, cheese and produce can increase convenience for customers, while providing an intuitive experience. And when they return to make another shopping online visit, you can display items they frequently buy, which adds convenience but also makes your customers feel like you know them.

Expand operations to meet demands. While some grocery stores were already expanding their services to meet online orders, the pandemic greatly increased them. Now BOPIS, curbside pickup and delivery are normal parts of doing business for most grocers. In addition, formats like dark stores, where there are no customers or front end—just employees filling orders—are also on the rise. And that all presents more opportunities for growth and for their employees to take on additional responsibilities. 

Benefits for shoppers


The convenience can’t be beat. What’s more convenient than using your phone any time you want to buy groceries, pay and have them delivered? For many shoppers, the days of driving to the store, pushing a cart around, putting items into it, waiting in line, checking out, packing and unpacking their cars with the items are long gone. And while other consumers still prefer to shop in-store, when they get a taste of that sort of convenience, they may switch to online grocery shopping, too.

Opportunity to save money. Buying online makes it much easier for consumers to keep track of how much they’re spending with their virtual carts showing the prices of each item and a tally before they checkout. When they see that their total is too much, or at least not what they want to spend, they can easily choose items to delete and then checkout. In the store it’s much less convenient to, once they see how much they’re spending, return items to the shelves or ask the cashier or other employees to do it for them.

Saying goodbye to unwanted hassles. Something most consumers would love to get away from is the trouble of parking, especially if their preferred grocery store is usually busy. And parking isn’t just a hassle; it’s also a hot spot for accidents, with almost 20 percent of accidents happening in parking lots. And they also aren’t going to miss waiting in long lines, especially as low-contact interactions for safety will continue to be a priority even after the pandemic.

How different generations are handling the grocery store eCommerce shift


Consumers in different generations don’t always have the same shopping preferences and that’s largely due to the digital influence on millennials and Gen Zers who grew up online and on mobile. Shopping online using mobile devices is something they’re generally more comfortable with than older generations. According to FoodIndustryExecutive.com:

  • Convenience is a top priority with 55 percent of millennials and 53 percent of Gen Zs saying it’s the thing they value the most in grocery shopping
  • Freshness is a priority for both millennials and Gen Zs who were raised by Gen X parents who instilled in them the importance of a healthy lifestyle
  • Many like to use coupons and make lists with 59 percent of millennials and 51 percent of Gen Zs making grocery lists; also 36 percent of millennials and 29 percent of Gen Zs use coupons
  • Online grocery shopping is used more with millennials and Gen Zs (because of that whole growing up in the digital age thing again) with 45 percent of millennials and 44 percent of Gen Zs generally grocery shopping online
  • When choosing a store their first priority is good value (they are conscious of their spending) also they aren’t big on traveling to a store with 72 percent of both generations saying they aren’t willing to drive more than 20 minutes to get to a grocery store


Generation X

  • Even before the pandemic, GenX was increasing their online shopping with 29 percent in 2018 and 40 percent in 2019
  • They spend the most money on food than any other generation and have the largest households
  • This generation downloads the most digital coupons
  • Willing to try new things, they’re the generation that tries the most samples and they enjoy meal planning


Baby Boomers

  • Boomers aren’t big on browsing in the store, generally because they have more disposable income and don’t need to comparison shop, but they do enjoy browsing online
  • Generally, they prefer shopping in the store because of their customer service expectations
  • Brand loyalty is higher for Boomers with 82 percent saying they buy the same brands each year
  • They’re also loyal to their preferred store with 93 percent saying they shop at the same store

The old way of grocery shopping isn’t likely to make a comeback


The pandemic seems to have sealed the eCommerce deal and that includes grocery shopping—which means how consumers get their groceries has forever changed (there will not be a return to normal). So, is that a good thing?

For all of the benefits for grocery store operators and consumers, the answer is largely yes, thanks to more revenue and growth opportunities for grocery store owners and more convenience and choices for consumers.

Ultimately, the truth is that the growth of online grocery shopping was bound to happen; shoppers’ need to save time and more easily receive groceries was already driving the trend. Those grocery stores that can offer the most seamless, intuitive and personalized online shopping experience, while investing in technology to deliver a seamless operational experience on the back end, too, will find themselves at the forefront. 

Need more information?