Will online shopping for groceries persist after the pandemic?

December 21, 2021

by Hannah Younes, Robert B. Noland, and Wenwen Zhang for New Jersey Policy Lab

The pandemic altered the way we shop for food. People in the U.S. started to shop for more groceries while decreasing their consumption of take-out food. For the first time since the great recession, grocery food expenditure accounted for more than half of total food expenditures. Compared to 2019 levels, a Gallup poll found that online grocery shopping increased while in-person shopping decreased. These changes led to the following questions: How has the manner in which consumers shop for groceries changed during the pandemic? What might be driving those changes? And are those changes expected to persist after the pandemic subsides?

Based on a survey of New Jersey residents, we found that about half (53%) of respondents had never shopped for groceries online before the pandemic. About 27% of our respondents bought groceries online for the first time during the pandemic and most of them (64%) plan to continue to shop online at least some of the time once the pandemic is no longer a threat. Overall, 29% of respondents increased online grocery shopping during the pandemic, regardless of how often they had done it before. There was a decrease in shopping for groceries in person with about 33% of our sample shopping less in person, although most expect to return to pre-pandemic shopping behavior when the pandemic subsides.

Those who were unemployed had lower rates of in-person grocery shopping but no increase in online grocery shopping. People who were able to work from home were more likely to shop online for groceries during the pandemic. Those older than 50 were less likely to have increased online shopping, while those with children at home were more likely to shop more online and less in person. This suggests the need to make online shopping more accessible for older populations who are more at risk from COVID-19.

Our survey also included several questions aimed at understanding attitudes towards COVID-19, which were correlated with respondents’ likelihood of shopping online. In particular, individuals who were fearful of infection were more likely to shop online for groceries, while those who discounted the risks of COVID-19 were less likely to decrease in-person grocery shopping.

The long-lasting effects of the pandemic on grocery shopping suggest that in-person grocery shopping is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels while there will be some permanent increase in online grocery shopping. Providing systems to make online grocery shopping easier and more accessible for older people is needed, especially given their increased vulnerability to COVID-19. From a transportation perspective, it is unlikely there will be major changes in trips taken for grocery shopping, though increased deliveries may add extra trips to local roads.

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