Grocery Shopping for the 21st Century: Man Versus Machine

May 6, 2015 Updated: October 8, 2018

Digital technology is about to take over a new territory: grocery shopping. Or rather, a new global survey shows the extent to which the domination’s already happening.

A recent Nielsen survey found that a full quarter of respondents it surveyed across the world, said they order groceries online. Another 55 percent said they are willing to try online grocery shopping in the future. These are huge numbers.

Today, ordering online to get products delivered to your home is just one of many e-commerce options. There’s also ordering products for in-store pick-up or pick-up at some other location, buying from virtual supermarkets, and signing up for subscription services that automatically replenish your order at specified time periods.

For their survey, Nielsen asked 30,000 participants from 60 countries about their online shopping habits.

Not surprisingly, millennials (currently aged 21 to 34) and Generation Z (aged 15 to 20)—who grew up with the advent of personal computers and the Internet—embraced online grocery shopping the most out of all age groups. Ordering online for home delivery was the most commonly used option, with 30 percent of millennials and 28 percent of Gen Z using it respectively.

Other options could also become popular as countries adopt the technology for it. For example, 58 percent of people said they were willing to try out virtual stores.

The British grocery chain Tesco launched the first virtual supermarket in the subway systems of South Korea in 2011. Images of grocery items are displayed on the subway walls, along with a QR code. Subway-goers scan the code with their smartphones to add the item to their online shopping cart. Tesco then packs up their order and delivers the goods straight to their door.

Since Tesco’s invention, other companies have developed similar models. Australian grocery chain Woolworths launched their virtual market in 2012, and Canadian e-commerce company followed suit the same year, opening North America’s first virtual market in a downtown Toronto commuter hub.

Consumers in Asia-Pacific were the most digitally inclined: more than a third of respondents said they used online delivery services to do grocery shopping, with China leading the pack (46 percent have used online ordering).

Willingness to try out online shopping was highest in the Asia-Pacific region too (60 percent on average), followed by Latin America (60 percent), Africa and the Middle East (59 percent), North America (52 percent), and Europe (45 percent).

Nielsen provided several hypotheses for why the Asia-Pacific led the world in online grocery shopping: “the region’s rapid urbanization and high population density make the home delivery model economically viable, particularly when coupled with low labor costs, as has been the case in China,” says the report.

In addition, the increasing number of smartphone users and growing concerns over food safety have led Chinese consumers to turn their attention to purchasing goods online.

Human Interaction

Despite all the digital innovation, the Nielsen report concluded that people still prefer the experience of shopping in person.

Although online shopping is enticing for having products right at your fingertips, in-store shopping is still more convenient for urgent purchases—without having to pay shipping fees. In addition, the experience of smelling, touching, seeing, and sample-tasting fresh food products cannot be replicated virtually, the report said.

Neither can human interaction be replaced digitally. Across the world, 61 percent of those surveyed said they found going to the grocery store an enjoyable and engaging experience, while 57 percent felt grocery shopping is a fun activity for the family.

Perhaps for these reasons, the most popular grocery items that people said they intended to purchase online were stock-up basic necessities like body wash, toothpaste, and laundry detergent. People were less intent on buying perishable goods like produce.

Grocery stores can keep up with technology while still providing the thrill of shopping to consumers. Nielsen found that many survey respondents already use online coupons and online shopping lists from retailers, while a large percentage (50 to 70 percent, depending on the geographic region) are willing to try out store mobile apps or use in-store WiFi, in-store computers, and QR codes to get more information about store products.

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