Are you a creature of habit in the grocery store, buying many of the same products every time? Do you find it hard to eat healthy? And are you upset about rising grocery prices?

Well, just try doing all of your grocery shopping online – and those problems could be even worse.

A new study says buying groceries online can make us less likely to try anything new, less likely to buy fresh vegetables, and more likely to pay too much.

Browsing the Aisles or Browsing the App? How Online Grocery Shopping is Changing What We Buy” is due to appear in an upcoming edition of the journal Marketing Science. In it, a trio of researchers from Cornell University share their findings about the hidden drawbacks that come with online shopping convenience.

Many drawbacks are readily apparent to anyone who’s ever purchased groceries online – in-store promotions don’t always apply, you can’t use paper coupons, you might get weird substitutions if your first choices aren’t available. But the researchers in this study have identified some other potential drawbacks – for shoppers, retailers and brands alike – that might not immediately come to mind.

Like “consumer inertia.”

“If a product isn’t in a person’s cart by their first five or six online orders, it’s very unlikely that the product will ever make it in,” study coauthor Sai Chand Chintala said in a statement. And that inertia can have an impact on our health, and our wallets.


The study examined three years’ worth of grocery purchases from more than 4,000 individuals to find out what groceries they typically bought, in store and online. The researchers found that online shopping orders are 27% more similar to each other, week to week, containing more of the very same items than in-store transactions.

“If we don’t pay attention,” coauthor Jura Liaukonyte said, “we might fall into an echo filter bubble of repeatedly buying the same items online.” That could be bad not only in terms of variety, but affordability – because once brands have our loyalty, they can start tinkering with their prices. Grocery inertia “could make us less sensitive to price changes and limit product discovery, enhancing the pricing power of existing brands,” Liaukonyte warned.

The phenomenon could also make it difficult for new brands to break into the market and make their way into shoppers’ online carts. So the study suggests advertising and promotions like discounts and coupons could be key in determining what gets purchased and what gets ignored by these shopping creatures of habit.

“Brands need to rethink their online product introduction methods,” coauthor Nathan Yang said. “Promotional activities,” the study points out, “will become increasingly important.”

Aside from a lack of variety and potentially higher prices, the other drawback the researchers identify among online grocery shoppers is the lack of healthy produce items in their virtual baskets. Online shoppers purchased 13% fewer fresh vegetables compared with their in-store counterparts. Of course, we don’t know if online shoppers are avoiding vegetables altogether, or just avoiding purchasing them online – many people prefer to pick out their own produce in person, after all. “If customers are purchasing fewer fresh produce items online because of concerns about the quality,” the study reads, in-store personal shoppers could be better trained “to pick higher quality produce or select better replacements in the event of stockouts.”

The good news in all of this, is that online grocery shoppers are less susceptible to impulse buys, and their shopping baskets therefore contain 7% fewer candy items, baked goods, chips and other unhealthy snacks than in-store shoppers. So sticking to your regular grocery list isn’t always a bad thing.

In the end, no one is denying that buying groceries online is more convenient. But beware: if you get into a rut, buying the same things no matter the price and foregoing healthy items like fresh vegetables – that convenience may end up coming at a cost.

Image source: Instacart

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