Because of COVID-19 fears or maybe just a detestation of grocery shopping, many of us have stopped roaming through the aisles of our neighborhood grocery store. Instead, we’ve been placing online orders for pickup or delivery, often from our local grocery stores via delivery apps.
But sometimes we order from digital grocery stores (think FreshDirect) that never even had aisles in the first place. You simply open an app, select your groceries and wait for them to arrive on your doorstep after they’ve been sorted out in a warehouse. The pandemic and stay-at-home orders created an increased demand for the already growing sector of digital grocery stores, and their popularity is still on the rise. From those that offer premium-brand health food for a monthly fee to those that promise to repurpose oddly shaped or unattractive produce, there seems to be an option for just about every type of shopper.
Should you switch to a digital grocery store?
“Convenience is king, but in this day and age, so is safety, and digital grocery shopping allows both,” Saundra Latham, senior staff writer at Cheapism.com, a personal finance and money saving site, told HuffPost. But is it possible to achieve the trifecta of convenience, safety and fair prices? It depends on how well you’re paying attention, she said.
“With a digital grocer, you can be more purposeful about what you’re buying,” she said.” You have time to look in the pantry to make sure you don’t already have something in your pantry, or look up a recipe so you don’t forget a certain ingredient. You can also resist impulse buys, which helps out both your wallet and your waistline.”
“Most people don’t love to grocery shop,” Steve Caine, a partner at Bain & Company with expertise in the sector, told HuffPost. “Digitally native e-commerce grocery models give people an opportunity to outsource the portion of that experience that they least enjoy, while still maintain choice and feel they are getting a good price. People especially love factors like convenience and curation, which is when you’re offered recommendations that fit your lifestyle, or that allow you to easily assemble all the ingredients necessary to cook a certain recipe.”
The advantages of a more focused approach were echoed by Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings expert. “I love the limited options that exist in the digital grocery store, because there aren’t all those physical temptations that are set up by marketing experts just to get you to buy,” she told HuffPost. “When you realize that 50% of people’s in-person purchases at brick-and-mortar grocery stores are impulse buys, you can see how a digital shopping experience might save you money.”
One way to save, Latham suggested, is to look for free trials or coupon codes. “Just a quick Google search is usually enough to find any that are valid,” she said. Woroch also suggested using a credit card that offers cash back on grocery purchases. “Go to cardrates.com and you’ll see all the offerings in one place,” she said. “Or consider linking your credit card to Dosh, a free cashback app that has grocery options.”
Get To Know These Digital Grocers
Amazon Fresh is available in most major U.S. cities, Berlin, Hamburg, London, Munich, Tokyo, Singapore and India. In some regions, Prime members get free one- or two-hour delivery. Items come from Amazon’s own gargantuan inventory, which includes Whole Foods 365 branded items. There are plans to roll out physical grocery stores, and two have opened in Los Angeles, but the service is still online-only everywhere else.
FreshDirect sells meat, fish, produce and specialty items to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., covering seven states in the Northeast. Unlimited free delivery is available with a $129 DeliveryPass subscription. “The cost pays for itself if customers order more than once a month,” chief merchandising officer Scott Crawford told HuffPost. Bargain shoppers, take note: Visit the site on Thursdays, when new deals are posted.
Thrive Market is a members-only online grocer with an annual membership fee of $59.95. Every paid Thrive Market membership is matched with a free one for a low-income family, student, teacher, veteran or first responder. Selling pantry staples and frozen foods (no produce or refrigerated foods), the company delivers to any location in the United States. “We’re on a mission to make healthy living easily affordable for every American family,” co-founder and CEO Nick Green told HuffPost. “Our members save an average of $32 on every order.”
Grub Market touts itself as “the most affordable farm-to-table food delivery service,” selling organic produce and natural products throughout California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Texas and Washington. “We source from the growers themselves and sell directly to customers,” Grub Market’s founder, president and CEO Mike Xu told HuffPost. “Our prices are generally 20% to 50% lower than prices from brick-and-mortar stores.”
Hungry Harvest offers no-contact doorstep delivery in Virginia, Maryland, the Detroit metro area, greater Philadelphia, southern New Jersey, northern Delaware, south Florida, Charlotte and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. “What makes us different is the way we work in each area we serve,” founder and CEO Evan Lutz told HuffPost. “All our produce is hand-selected and hand-delivered by a team of local drivers, and every delivery saves at least 10 pounds of produce from going to waste.”
Imperfect Foods aims to help its customers “save time, save money and save the planet,” associate creative director Reilly Brock told HuffPost. “Our inventory includes items that would have gone to waste otherwise, and we pass along significant savings for many items.” He pointed out that 43% of U.S. food waste happens in homes. “Buying surplus staples or ‘ugly’ produce is just the beginning when it comes to taking a meaningful bite out of food waste as a country,” he said. Imperfect Foods currently serves about 80% of the U.S. population.
Misfits Market describes itself as a mission-driven, affordable online grocer for excess-inventory fresh produce, cooking supplies and pantry staples. “We create food access, not food waste,” founder and CEO Abhi Ramesh told HuffPost. “All of the produce in our base subscription box is 100% organic and non-GMO. Most other online retailers charge a premium for this, but we sell at 40% off grocery store prices, with no membership or service fees.” The company delivers to 36 states and Washington, D.C., servicing both rural and urban areas.
How People Are Shopping — And Saving
Many people are adding a periodic order of digital groceries to the items they’re picking up curbside or inside their favorite market. While they’re certainly getting a more convenient experience, is it a cheaper one? Some of that depends on your own shopping style — and perhaps your level of restraint.
Cindy Ravn of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, has checked out most of the major services. She cautions her fellow online grocery shoppers: “If you tend to overspend while shopping online, you could do the same thing when you’re buying food.”
Pat Tanumihardja of Springfield, Virginia, first started using Imperfect Foods a couple years ago to do her part to fight food waste by eating ugly produce. Now, however, she sticks to their pantry items and proteins. “I’ve received damaged and rotten items from them before, and I’ve found their fresh produce was just not up to my standards,” she told HuffPost. Her tip for saving money? “I leave my items in the checkout basket for a while and come back to them. This way, I weed out the stuff I don’t really need.”
Shelby Vittek of Jersey City, New Jersey, is another Imperfect Food customer. “I started using them this summer,” she told HuffPost. “I wanted to reduce grocery costs, make fewer visits to stores and do my part in the fight against food waste.” She said that flipping through the online offerings has made her a more adventurous eater. “Sometimes I’ll see something that’s unique or different from what I usually buy, but I’ll give that ingredient a try, if the price is reasonable, especially since I know I’m saving that item from being tossed.”
Some digital grocers have even found ways to offer samples to customers, sort of like that lady with the hot pizza squares on Saturday afternoons at Costco. Lauren Rednour of Orange County, California, has used several of the different services, but especially likes the lagniappes offered by Thrive Market, the membership-model digital grocer. “I love how they sometimes offer free samples with a stated minimum purchase. It’s introduced me to some great products I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.”
Even online grocers’ limited selection can be a plus for some shoppers. Lisa Johnson of Minneapolis, Minnesota, told HuffPost: “I feel that with a ‘just enough’ inventory, I make better shopping choices when I don’t have an endless number of products to choose from.”
Will grocery shopping soon be a digital-only experience?
“The typical grocery store experience — waiting in line, searching for parking, getting everything home — was always a hassle,” said Misfit Market’s Ramesh. “We think it’s something fewer people will return to in 2021. While grocery stores are limited by unpredictable demand and finite shelf space, we can be flexible and very supplier-friendly to offer our customers better deals.” Grub Market’s Xu echoed his sentiment: “The industry will continue to become more digital, because it offers customers and growers a better way of doing business.”
If you’d like to see how digital groceries could fit in your life, Caine suggested spending some time getting to know the top players, then trying out a few to get a feel for how they work and what role they could play in your life. “There are advantages to digital relationships like these, when you can easily build a basket based on what you bought last time, and when the grocer can begin to curate items especially for you,” he said.