Only a fraction of shoppers buy groceries online, but that's growing. Here's how to save money and eat right.
Americans buy everything from cleaning supplies to furniture online, but why not groceries? For whatever reason, only 3 percent of grocery shopping was virtual last year, according to research by a retail consulting firm called Brick Meets Click.
But the company predicts those numbers could rise to 11 percent by 2023, and new shopping options are popping up all the time. For example, Amazon.com expanded its fresh food delivery service to two additional cities in 2013. The company also recently launched the PrimePantry service, which delivers dry goods nationwide to Amazon Prime members.
So what’s holding people back? We looked into it — and tried it for ourselves…
While your local grocery store may stock everything from produce to cleaning supplies, what you can buy online depends heavily on where you live.
“Online grocery shopping is pretty available if you live close to a major city,” says Erin Konrad, content developer for CouponPal, a website that tracks coupons and promotional deals for grocery and retail stores. “You just have to locate one that delivers near you.”
For example, Peapod services select cities in the northeast as well as Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. AmazonFresh, a subsidiary of Amazon.com, will deliver to Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Other sites like Delivery.com will deliver select groceries and restaurant meals in other major U.S. cities.
But if you don’t live near a metro area, you might be out of luck.
“If you live in a rural area, it’s still pretty unlikely you’ll be able to get fresh food delivered to you” unless you’re willing to pay large delivery fees, Konrad says.
If you can’t get fresh produce and meat, you can still pick up pantry staples, cleaning supplies, and other household necessities online. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can stock up through PrimePantry nationwide. Other sites like Walmart.com also sell a limited selection of foods and household products online.
Locally, grocery stores compete with each other to offer the best sales and bring in the most customers, and online retailers may not be that different. “Prices are pretty comparable with grocery stores,” Konrad says.
However, your location (or what you’re buying) may increase costs. “Food prices vary across the country, so you could end up paying more for specific items that need to be shipped farther,” she says.
Delivery fees will also add to your costs, but maybe not as much as you think.
For example, in Connecticut, Peapod requires a $60 minimum for delivery. Shipping costs $9.95 for purchases under $100 and $6.95 for purchases more than $100. AmazonFresh offers free delivery for orders more than $35, but requires a $300 annual membership (which includes an Amazon Prime Membership).
For pantry staples, sites like Walmart.com ship through UPS, FedEx, and USPS based on weight. PrimePantry costs $5.95 per flat-rate box.
Getting a good deal
If you’re an avid double-coupon-day shopper, you might be unhappy with online grocery sites. “It’s rare for retailers to accept manufacturer’s coupons,” Konrad says. Instead, most sites will offer their own coupons and promotions, which can still add up to good discounts.
If you’re one of those people who agonizes over 90 percent or 93 percent lean hamburger and digs through the milk cooler to find the newest bottles, buying fresh produce online may be tricky. After all, someone else is going to be choosing your dinner.
It may not be a total loss.
“Although you miss the hands-on approach to picking out your own products, most companies offer a satisfaction guarantee — so you know you’ll receive products up to your standards,” Konrad says.
So while you may not be picking out the perfect grapefruit, you won’t be stuck with outdated milk or rotting vegetables, either.
The personal test
As an Amazon Prime member, I tried to buy groceries online through PrimePantry.
You’re given a virtual flat rate box. It fills automatically with everything you add, so you’ll always know how much space you have left. I was surprised at how much you can cram into a box.
For example, a 10-ounce bag of Seattle’s Best Coffee added 1.06 percent to my box. A 17-ounce box of Honey Nut Cheerios added 2.8 percent, and a 12-count package of Charmin’ Ultra Soft added 12.8 percent.
Prices were fairly in line with my local grocery store — cereal, coffee, and salad dressing were the same price I’d pay in person. Plus, Amazon has specific coupons and let me add those items automatically to my cart. However, you’ll have to pay tax in some states.
Shipping was fast. For $5.95 (plus the annual cost of my Prime membership) I had about a week’s worth of dry goods at my door within two days.
The selection was decent. So far, the service doesn’t have a wide range of dog food or treats, and a few products I love were missing. But if you like name-brand items, you won’t be disappointed.
Overall, it was nice to stock up my pantry and household supplies while I was watching TV at home, and the $5.95 was worth saving me a trip to the store for those items. But I wouldn’t say shopping online could replace the grocery store entirely. At least, not yet.