Why doesn’t everyone use online grocery?

I answered this question on Quora, where I enjoy answering questions from time to time.  One came up recently wondering why people still go to the supermarket when one could just order via one of the online grocers that has popped up in recent times.

The question:

Why do many people still go regularly to the supermarket when they could save time ordering grocery online & getting it delivered to their home?

Thinking about it… they could save money for the gas too if they regularly use their car to do the shopping. Is it a matter of customer experience? How buying grocery offline is better than doing it online? Is it a matter of habit, & people need to get used to it as we got used to buy books online?

I’ve heard this line of reasoning from friends who are close to the tech industry and think it’s obvious that everyone will glom on to the latest innovation.  (I once heard some aspiring tech innovators suggest that children’s’ toys and games could be made irrelevant if they could just make iPad apps that were good enough.)

My answer, as I wrote on Quora:

A glance at Instacart’s Service Areas would make one think that they have already locked up coverage across much of the U.S., but it’s far from the case. I crunched some numbers quickly against metro area population counts, and Instacart serve maybe 25–30% of the population. It might even be less if I wasn’t as generous in some of my counting.

If you add some other providers like Google Express, Peapod, Amazon Fresh, FreshDirect, etc into the mix, they may bump up overall coverage to something higher, but it’s far from a majority of the U.S. population.

But if we focus just on those who can order groceries online, there’s other good reasons to avoid online grocery shopping.

  1. It’s too expensive. Instacart marks up prices from some supermarkets by an amount they don’t disclose, plus sometimes a delivery charge of $4–6 — or more with “busy” pricing — plus tip. And you can’t take advantage of coupons or in-store sale prices. Amazon Fresh costs $300/year for a subscription, on top of the price you pay for food. I think the online services will always be at least a little more expensive, as they need to cover the cost of their operations.
  2. It’s not fast enough. When we ran out of diapers for my daughter the other night, no one could get them to me fast enough. I needed to simply get in the car and go to the store.
  3. It’s inflexible. When the services are busy, you might have to specify the delivery window many hours (or even a day) in advance. That means you have to be home to accept the delivery or take the risk that your groceries might spoil. If something comes up at work and I can’t get home on time, I’m in trouble.
  4. You can’t choose the bunch of bananas you want. Someone else is doing the shopping for you. So the bananas might be too green. Does the chicken look spoiled? Is that melon just ripe enough? And some services, like Google Express, don’t even deliver perishable items yet.
  5. It can be hard to find stuff. I was trying to find a certain flavor of ice cream that Iknow is carried by a store, and it just wasn’t coming up on a search. If I had been in the store, I would have known exactly how to find that item. In fact, I possibly could have driven to the store near my house and actually bought the darn ice cream and been back home in the time it took me to figure this out.
  6. Services make mistakes. Once I ordered a pint of strawberries from an online grocery service. For some reason, they delivered 16 ounces worth of strawberry yogurt. Not quite the same. So I then had to make a trip to the store to buy strawberries. And do something with the yogurt I didn’t want. Some people don’t want to deal with these annoyances and would rather just do things themselves.
  7. Some people like to shop. Even though it’s not rational or efficient, some people enjoy going to the store and browsing.

But, like Joshua Herzig-Marx says, there is no doubt there has been success in online grocery and some real shifting in the industry. I’ve found online grocery to be incredibly helpful when I’ve been crunched for time — and especially when my daughter was an infant and it was tough to leave the house. While I think there will be more migration in the years ahead, there’s always going to be a place for traditional bricks & mortar grocery shopping.