What is the future of online grocery shopping?

The conventional wisdom has been that the pandemic will lead to a widespread and permanent shift in American habits from analog to digital. But what about that most basic habit – grocery shopping?

Americans spend more on groceries than anything else, and how we buy food is considered a finger in the wind to judge the future of our shopping habits. At this point, the direction is… unclear.

I’ve searched data on online grocery shopping in the US, and I’ll be humble and say I don’t have a clear picture.

Americans are certainly buying a lot more groceries online than in 2019, but in some notable categories, such as fresh and frozen foods, online sales growth is much slower than before the virus spread widely in the US. For months, the sale of online groceries has decreased or hardly decreased compared to the previous year.

It is inescapable that digital sales will continue to grow as a share of US spending, including groceries. But digital transformation is often not a straight mountain but more of an uneven climb up, down and sideways. And grocery shopping has taken a particularly erratic trajectory.

My weak analysis is that Americans haven’t fallen head over heels for buying bananas over the Internet, but we’re not dismissing it either.

Coupled with numbers showing e-commerce losing ground to in-person shopping last year, the muddy picture of online grocery shopping shows that human behavior may be too complicated for simple explanations.

Here’s where things seem to stand: Before 2020, Americans weren’t so keen on having groceries delivered to our doors. By choice or necessity, almost all American shopping was done in stores.

Online grocery purchases have risen to about 7 to 15 percent from maybe 3 or 4 percent of total sales in 2019. (Analysts told me the data for the roughly $1 trillion in annual U.S. grocery store sales containing grains should be taken from salt.)

Groceries delivery to our door is still relatively small, but online grocery shopping for pick-up in the store has gained a foothold during the pandemic and is still around. Could be.

However, there has been some decline in online ordering and the vast majority of Americans are still shopping the old-fashioned way. It is difficult to assess whether and how much the online grocery shopping habit could linger.

A report from Forrester and IRI shows that online growth in many categories of products purchased in supermarkets is lower than in January 2020. In closely followed customer surveys by research firm Bricks Meets Clicks, online supermarket sales have grown unevenly of late.

It’s no surprise that online grocery sales couldn’t continue to soar as quickly as they did when we panicked the internet in 2020. But with sales still relatively small, it’s no sign of passionate digital love that the numbers aren’t rising quickly or steadily. (Rising costs for everything also make it difficult to compare shopping in 2022 to that in 2019.)

Even experts can’t say for sure how quickly Americans will adopt the habit of shopping online or how many of our purchases will end virtually. “The numbers are too small to draw any permanent conclusions,” said Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at advertising giant Publicis.

He told me that in his conversations with industry leaders, the major supermarket chains are betting that online grocery shopping will become a bigger part of our lives, but everyone is also constantly questioning their beliefs.

For now, supermarkets like Walmart, Target and Kroger are investing in expanding the options for people to pick up groceries they’ve bought online. That is the most commonly used method of Americans for digital shopping.

Major supermarkets are also redesigning stores to make it easier for their staff to collect online orders, and some have invested in more Amazon-like automated mini-warehouses.

Goldberg said grocery sellers don’t want to be left behind if and when more of our shopping happens over the Internet. But they’re also concerned, in part because selling online comes at a cost in an industry that’s already making a profit.

Even the relatively small amount of grocery shopping now done online has profoundly changed the experiences of many shoppers, some of the millions of Americans who work in grocery stores and those anxious salespeople.

Yet the difficulty of analyzing our current and future online messages calls for humility about the sustainability of our coronavirus adaptations. When people make bold statements about what’s going to happen in shopping, at work, or in the economy, try to remember that no one knows for sure.

Perhaps in your own life you are not sure how you want to go grocery shopping. I’m curious about your experiences at ontech@nytimes.com. Put ‘messages’ in the subject line.

Do you have restaurant meals or groceries delivered? Brian X. Chen, consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, suggests ways to assess the true cost of your order, including costs that are sometimes not clearly stated.

(Note that delivery app billing may vary depending on where you live. Some US cities require delivery apps to itemize their charges.)

Ever wondered why it cost $50 to have a pepperoni pizza delivered through DoorDash or why that Instacart bill seemed astronomically high? It’s not just because inflation has pushed food prices up. Online delivery apps and the restaurants that depend on them are also finding ways to include charges in your order that aren’t always transparent.

Consider an order I placed for a delivery of two Subway sandwiches. In a survey I conducted for a previous column, Uber Eats charged me $25.25, which included the cost of the meal, service charges, delivery charges, and surcharge for placing a small order — a 91 percent markup compared to the personally buying those sandwiches.

In a separate experiment, I found that some restaurants charged more for some menu items when ordering through delivery apps. The Family Feast meal at Panda Express costs $39 at the restaurant, but the same item costs $47.10 if you order it through DoorDash, Grubhub, or Uber Eats. That was before paying additional service charges. Restaurants sometimes raise menu prices to cover the commissions they pay to the delivery apps.

The next time you decide whether to order delivery, keep in mind what it could cost you. Take a close look at the bill and compare the cost of items in the app to what those menu items cost on a restaurant’s website or supermarket.

The real cost of using a delivery app may force you to use the phone to order takeout and pick up dinner yourself, or you may decide the delivery is worth it. At least you are better informed.

War is a testing ground for face scanning technology: My colleague Kashmir Hill reports that Clearview AI software, which promises to identify people by images of their faces, has been used to identify dead soldiers in the war in Ukraine to inform their families to set. But she also notes that facial recognition companies can take advantage of a crisis as a sales opportunity, and mistakes in identifying people can have deadly consequences in a war zone.

Problems for that apple of the eye scanning company. It sounds weird, but a start-up called Worldcoin promised to give people in low-income countries cryptocurrency and scan their eyes to try and make sure no one was paid more than once. BuzzFeed News found that some people were outraged that they had vouchers for a currency that didn’t exist yet.

How does e-commerce work in remote Pacific islands? In French Polynesia, locals have created their own online shopping service that relies on airplanes, cargo ships, scooters and the Facebook Messenger app, Rest of the World reports.

please meet the squirrel who loves an everything bagel.

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This post What is the future of online grocery shopping?

was original published at “https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/07/technology/online-grocery-shopping.html”