Online groceries remain a tough sell

A new survey shows that just 1% of consumers use the Internet as their main grocery source.

By MSN Money Partner Jun 10, 2014 3:45PM
Credit: © Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
Caption: An Amazon Fresh delivery van in Los AngelesBy Krystina Gustafson, CNBC

Online shopping has encroached on bricks-and-mortar stores in nearly every aspect. But for one type of retailer, the physical store has so far emerged relatively unscathed.

Although major companies such as Amazon (AMZN) and Wal-Mart (WMT) are experimenting with online grocery ordering and delivery, a new study from PwC found that only 1 percent of consumers said online shopping is their primary way to purchase groceries. That's despite the fact that the vast majority of the 1,000-plus respondents have access to the option.

The findings make the segment an outlier in a web-centric consumer base, which is expected to drive online retail sales to $294 billion in 2014 and account for 9 percent of all U.S. sales, according to Forrester Research.

"Although online retail shopping is on the rise, it's not yet the go-to for grocery shoppers, now or in the near future," PwC said in the report, released Tuesday. "There's still a major obstacle to overcome: Touching the product isn't possible online."

While this drawback to web shopping extends beyond grocery, it's been particularly troublesome for a category in which consumers like to closely examine items such as fresh produce. According to Forrester, grocery accounts for only a minuscule 2.2 percent of online sales.

But Steven Barr, PwC's U.S. retail & consumer practice leader, said there are a few factors that could give the segment a boost down the road.

"When the major retailers start to mass adopt a concept, then that certainly acts as an accelerator for changing consumer behavior," Barr said. "However, we've been tracking a number of macroeconomic 'megatrends' that we see slowly reshaping the grocery landscape. Specifically, the changing technology landscape, increased urbanization and changing demographics create the perfect recipe for online grocery retail."

Consumers' preference for traditional grocery experiences isn't limited to online. According to PwC's report, 83 percent of shoppers prefer to buy groceries at traditional grocery stores.

That's despite increasing pressure from Wal-Mart, which announced earlier this year that it's expanding its organic food offerings, and is testing grocery delivery in San Jose, Calif., and Denver, Colo.

The Denver market also allows shoppers to order their groceries online and pick up orders in-store without leaving their vehicles. Although Wal-Mart doesn't break out the sales for this program, spokesman Ravi Jariwala said more than 80 percent of shoppers in Denver who have used the service are repeat customers.

"More and more customers are beginning to choose pickup," Jariwala said. "We're trying to provide customers more choice."

Target (TGT) is also putting pressure on the sector, saying in its most recent earnings call that it too will make certain non-perishable groceries available for in-store pickup. Wal-Mart's grocery segment made up 56 percent of its domestic sales last year, while food and pet supplies accounted for 21 percent of Target's U.S. sales.

Despite a slew of new competitors and costs associated with food inflation, a recent report from IBISWorld found that grocery store sales are expected to rise about 1 percent to $574.1 billion in 2014.

Part of the segment's anticipated growth can be attributed to a rebounding consumer, who is more willing to spend more on pricier foods than during the recession, and an influx of shoppers who live in urban areas and prefer smaller, more frequent trips, IBISWorld said. The latter makes them more likely to skip out on wholesale clubs and supercenters.

Still, that's not to say shoppers are completely satisfied with their grocery store visits. PwC's report found customers' top complaints include long lines, crowded stores and unhelpful workers. They also want more from their grocer's coupons and rewards programs, including custom coupons catered to their previous purchases and rewards for purchasing healthy foods.

And while they haven't yet taken to online ordering, consumers still want there to be a high-tech component to their grocery visits. These include in-store kiosks or robust mobile apps, which could include recipes or nutritional facts. FreshDirect, for example, which delivers groceries in the New York City and Philadelphia areas, allows customers to create shopping lists to expedite the online shopping process.

"While online channels may not become a common way to buy groceries in the near future, technology will still play a major role in the evolving grocery experience," said Sabina Saksena, managing director in PwC's U.S. retail and consumer practice. "Grocers that innovate and build on their digital channels to meet this demand will be most successful."

More from CNBC

Jun 10, 2014 6:07PM
MSN......How about some real issues for the folks to comment on!!!  Like, Hillary, poor poor Hillary and Bill were broke when the left the whitehouse, lol broke according to her lifestyle, broke for the average American is no food, no housing, no money for gas.   Poor Hillary is trying to identify herself  with the average hardworking American, can't be done.  Hillary is anything but the average hardworking American!!!
Jun 11, 2014 12:35PM

Maggie...I was thinking more along the lines of having a Woman show up at the door....

waaaaahoooo !!

Jun 10, 2014 6:12PM
What they fail to understand is that grocery shopping is more than just buying groceries. It is a social and cultural experience many people seek out. 

My favorite memories were going to the grocery store with my mom. This was important because she worked so much and this was the only time I got to see her for quality time. We would just shop and talk and eat food from the deli. 

Many other countries also shop on a daily bases (unlike the US) because they like fresh food and like to socialize with their people outside the home. Shopping online removes this value.
Jun 10, 2014 5:24PM

Five years ago I had knee surgery that prevented me from walking or driving much for two months.  Since I live alone and don't have family near, I turned to our local grocery store's online ordering and delivery service.  While it wasn't cheap ($25 delivery fee over and above the cost of groceries) and it was somewhat tedious going through all the 'virtual aisles' on the website to find the products I needed, it was still a really useful convenience during a tough time.


It's hard to imagine using such a service, though, when I'm healthy and on the go.  I prefer brick and mortar for groceries because it's important to me to pick out my own meat and produce.  I like it the way I like it and don't have to just accept what someone else picks out for me.  I can also take advantage of sales, ask questions of the butcher, and pick things up fresh the day I need them.  No advance planning, no sitting in front of the computer for an hour painstakingly entering one item at a time.  No disappointment when my order arrives and some of the key player items in my receipt plan where not included because they were out of stock and no alternatives were chosen.  No having an alternative chosen for me that wasn't useful to me, etc.


I do a lot of my shopping online, but I honestly don't think I'll ever buy groceries or furniture or cars online.  Some things just need to be examined in person first.

Jun 10, 2014 6:29PM
Albertsons offered this service 10 years ago. I used it for several months during an illness and was very happy with it. At that time the charge was $10, which was quite reasonable. I found no issue with either the produce or the meat. When they pack your order, they give you the best quality, because they don't want complaints and have to redeliver something in a second trip, which they will do if there is a problem. Once you develop and save an online shopping list, it is easy to just modify that a little each time you shop. I would do this again, if the cost was minimal.
Jun 10, 2014 5:53PM
Our local grocer, Buehlers, provides an online ordering system with no additional charge.  I personally like to look at what I am purchasing; however, if you are ill or cannot go out for groceries such as in the case of the elderly, this is a nice service.  Our Buehlers is the best grocery store ever!  It is involved in the community and the large retailers cannot touch this local icon!  If Norman Rockwell would have a grocery store in his world of art - it would be this grocer!  Such a great store!
Jun 11, 2014 8:40AM
I prefer to go shopping myself so that I am may chose for myself what it is I want. Relying on others to do so you may miss out on a better bargain, better quality, etc. The rate the online 'shopping' in many arenas is growing we will soon be able to not even leave the house to have everything we want...groceries, movies, toys, books, computers, etc. A double edged sword in my honest opinion.
Jun 10, 2014 11:19PM
Most of us feel uncomfortable having a stranger picking food products for us whose quality can vary like produce, meat, fish, etc.  And since we pick it ourselves, its easier to pick up the rest of the products - not to mention finding unexpected sales. Today I stopped in a store just because it's the only one in miles I know that carries Lay's Roasted Garlic Potato Chips.  While there I found excellent "easy peel" jumbo shrimp for a great price.
Jun 10, 2014 6:28PM
Blah blah blah, the EXACT same thing was said about all online sales, that no one would want them because they actually want to "touch" the product.  All you idiot "reporters" were proven wrong.
Jun 11, 2014 12:33PM
Will they be dropping eggs from those drones...???
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