There have been plenty of studies recently about online grocery shopping, how it surged during the coronavirus pandemic, and how plenty of shoppers are likely to continue getting more of their groceries online, even post-pandemic. But what, exactly, are online shoppers buying? A new study has discovered that online shoppers are making healthier choices – but they’re paying a price for it.

“Comparing Online and In-Store Grocery Purchases” is set to appear in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. The researchers found that study participants who bought their groceries online spent more money and purchased more items – but spent less on candy and desserts than they did when shopping in-store.

The researchers studied more than 5,000 grocery transactions that took place over a period of nearly two years. They found that “shopping online was associated with reduced spending per transaction on candy, cold or frozen desserts, and grain-based desserts like cookies and cake,” lead author Laura Zatz of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health explained. Online shoppers spent an average of $2.50 less on treats per transaction.

And yet that reduced spending on sweets didn’t translate to reduced spending overall. “When study participants were shopping online, they spent about 44 percent more per transaction, and they purchased a greater number and variety of items compared to when they shopped in-store,” Zatz said.

So why are online shoppers buying more and spending more, if they’re presumably saving money by avoiding unhealthy snacks that might otherwise blow one’s grocery budget?


The researchers offer a few hypotheses. Online shoppers might spend more in order to meet retailers’ minimum spending requirements. They may do their big stock-up shopping online while visiting a physical store for smaller fill-in trips. And online shoppers might simply be less price-sensitive, accepting higher prices in exchange for convenience.

As for what they’re buying, and not buying, the researchers have explanations for that, too: “Shopping online requires shoppers to plan ahead, which leads to healthier choices.” Online shoppers might regularly reorder the same items without ever browsing additional products. And selecting groceries online means shoppers “avoid in-store displays of unhealthy items such as candy and sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Other possible explanations involve more practical concerns. “Online shoppers might worry that frozen desserts will melt before pickup,” and avoid ordering them as a result. Or a static picture of a dessert or snack online might be “less vivid” and therefore less tempting than seeing it in person.

In a study published last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest advocacy group accused online grocery retailers of specifically promoting unhealthy foods, offering more ad space, bigger discounts and even sponsored search results that pushed less-healthy items. “Online grocery platforms are generally undermining Americans’ efforts to eat well,” the study declared.

But maybe online shoppers are savvier than that. “Encouragingly, our results suggest that online grocery shopping is associated with reduced spending on several unhealthy items,” Zatz said. “However, we’ll want to monitor shopping patterns to make sure sophisticated online marketing tactics, like personalized pop-up ads, don’t override that.”

So if you want to eat healthier, you might want to do more of your grocery shopping online. If you want to save money, you might do better to shop in store. And if you want to do both? Well, that might be the subject for another study.

Image source: Walmart


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