June/July 2024 Issue

Online Food Shopping Tech: The Future of Grocery Shopping
By Alexandria Hardy, RDN, LDN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 26 No. 6 P. 8

A Conversation About Convenience and Accessibility

Digital food retail services like food delivery apps, meal kits, and online grocery shopping are more easily accessible and highly utilized in today’s busy culture. Total grocery sales are projected to top $1.601 trillion in the United States in 2024, and digital grocery sales comprise an estimated 13.7% of that figure.1

Grocery shopping has morphed from a solely brick-and-mortar activity into a virtual hybrid, with click-and-collect and delivery options available to consumers at the tap of their phones. Click-and-collect refers to shopping online with consumer pick-up (in-store, curbside, etc) while delivery indicates consumer ordering followed by home drop-off.

It’s currently estimated that over 50% of American consumers utilize the click-and-collect option; Gen Z, millennials, and families are the most likely to shop digitally.1 Many stores also accept food assistance benefits, which increases the number of consumers who can take advantage of these services. As more stores offer virtual shopping and delivery options, potential transportation and cost barriers are reduced to bring services to a more diverse and vulnerable population.

One of the main factors that motivates consumers to use online food shopping is convenience. Drive Research found that while overall digital grocery sales didn’t see growth year over year, grocery store e-commerce sites experienced a significant increase. This suggests that while people may not be buying more groceries online overall, they’re choosing specific grocery stores’ websites for digital purchases. It could be due to factors like convenience, trust in a particular brand, or the overall user experience of those sites.2

The use of these platforms allows consumers easier access to information, enabling them to compare prices, brands, and nutrient content. As the number of stores providing online food shopping expands, areas with limited food access may benefit as barriers to availability and transportation are reduced.3

Yet, research shows that consumers aged 55 and older, low-income groups, and individuals who live in rural areas are less likely to take advantage of online food shopping technology due to financial, transportation, or tech limitations.3

These limitations include not having consistent internet access or a device that supports online ordering, being unable to afford the additional fees incurred when online food shopping, and lacking public or private transportation to the store for a curbside pick-up. Consumers who lack a vehicle but have access to a bus system or ride share might also be limited in the quantity they can purchase and transport at one time. Other vulnerable populations that could benefit from access to online food shopping include people with disabilities and racially and ethnically diverse groups, who may be more prone to experience food injustices; this was magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic.4 These barriers could potentially divide communities digitally by their inequitable access to resources as added fees and reliable transportation aren’t simple barriers to overcome.3,4 While these demographics could benefit the most, the services are currently not as accommodating for all populations and more innovations and policy changes may need to take place.

Healthful Food Access
Some regions, however, are making it a little easier for these vulnerable populations to access online food shopping. A Virtual Supermarket program was piloted in Baltimore, which allowed individuals who received SNAP benefits to use them to shop online for groceries.5 The initiative increased the food available for purchase and fostered a sense of community while decreasing transportation barriers, which was cited as the most significant obstacle to purchasing healthful food.5 Nearly 93% of the program participants stated that the program made it easier to obtain nutrient-dense foods.

According to the National Council on Aging, SNAP electronic benefits transfer (EBT) is accepted for online grocery delivery/pick-up by many national chains like Amazon, Walmart, Target, Aldi, H-E-B, Albertsons, Hy-Vee, Kroger, Safeway, Stop & Shop, and ShopRite.6 Many of these stores require a minimum purchase and may charge a service or delivery fee that cannot be covered by SNAP benefits.6

Instacart and DoorDash also accept EBT. SNAP’s Online Purchasing Pilot initiated in 2019 illustrated how useful these services were during the COVID-19 pandemic.4 More research and collaborations are needed to tackle policy change, but this is a promising model that integrates online food shopping technology to expand food access.5

Food Costs
There are a few hidden costs in the online food shopping landscape. Nearly all retailers add fees, with 38% adding multiple fees to each order and 50% requiring a minimum dollar amount to complete the order.7 If a third-party shopper is involved (eg, Instacart), items are often marked up to cover the cost.

Most retailers charge a delivery fee or a membership (Shipt for Target, Walmart Plus for Walmart) to utilize delivery service, though in-store pick-up is often free; a service fee or tip are also potential charges. For impulse shoppers, these additional charges may be worthwhile if they are less tempted to digitally “grab and add” to their shopping cart like they might at a brick-and-mortar store.

Environmental Impact
The environmental impact of online food shopping is surprisingly positive, according to research published on the Social Science Research Network from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania Research Series.8 The research looked at the grocery supply chain prior to the advent of online food shopping and compared it with the current food landscape with a focus on food waste and transportation emissions.8

The researchers’ model predicts an 8% to 41% reduction in carbon emissions in cities utilizing online grocery shopping, largely due to the fact that many households who use online shopping live further away from the stores they’re purchasing from.8
Online shopping may allow for larger purchases in a single delivery vs multiple trips to the store for fewer items. Food waste is an important variable to note, as the study authors emphasized that purchasing too much food, regardless of the method, will yield unwanted food waste emissions.8

The cities most likely to see the biggest overall emissions benefit are those with a wealthy and financially stable population who don’t often shop in brick-and-mortar stores.8 Grocery stores must also be able to forecast supply and demand effectively to prevent unwanted food waste on their end.

Nutrition Education and Food Technology
Food shopping technology is also developing inside the kitchen. Common kitchen appliances like ovens, refrigerators, and cooktops are all available in a smart format to ease consumer tasks in the kitchen. Technology functionality aids grocery procurement by automating inventory and creating grocery lists; consumers may find this tech integration useful as they plan meals.9

RDs should familiarize themselves with existing food shopping technology and stay abreast of changes, as they may find that clients with limited time, a greater physical distance from brick-and-mortar locations, and larger budgets use online food shopping technology more frequently. Clients may seek support from RDs to help incorporate these platforms into their routines and make food procurement and preparation as simple as possible.

Research shows that digital food retail services are a compelling way to provide nutrition education as consumers may be more open to receiving digital education when it comes in the format of a “choose this, not that.”3 A study published in Nutrients
examined consumers shopping in an online grocery simulation for different grain foods.10

When presented with a fiber-focused point-of-decision prompt, consumers responded by choosing products with an additional 1.5 g/fiber per serving, which translates into a 10% increase in overall fiber consumption.10 This is still an emerging area of research, but this study suggests there’s space for dietitians to partner with food manufacturers to craft nutrition messages and point-of-decision prompts to guide consumers to more nutrient-dense options.

Bottom Line
There are many challenges in the food industry due to evolving consumer expectations, particularly as they relate to technology. Existing online platforms must adapt and evolve to meet consumer needs as virtual grocery shopping impacts store revenue and consumer food choices. The digitalized food environment is a multifaceted system with the ability to positively impact the purchasing, preparation, and consumption of food.3

— Alexandria Hardy, RDN, LDN, is a nutrition educator and the owner of Pennsylvania Nutrition Services, an insurance-based private practice located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


1. Guide to digital grocery: what it is and what it means for retail brands and advertisers. EMarketer website. https://www.emarketer.com/insights/digital-grocery-industry/. Published February 7, 2024. Accessed April 13, 2024.

2. Grocery store statistics: where, when, & how much people grocery shop. Drive Research website. https://www.driveresearch.com/market-research-company-blog/grocery-store-statistics-where-when-how-much-people-grocery-shop/. Updated April 27, 2023. Accessed April 13, 2024.

3. Fernandez MA, Raine KD. Digital food retail: public health opportunities. Nutrients. 2021;13(11):3789.

4. Vedovato GM, Ali SH, Lowery CM, Trude ACB. Giving families a voice for equitable healthy food access in the wake of online grocery shopping. Nutrients. 2022;14(20):4377.

5. Lagisetty P, Flamm L, Rak S, Landgraf J, Heisler M, Forman J. A multi-stakeholder evaluation of the Baltimore City virtual supermarket program. BMC Public Health. 2017;17:837.

6. SNAP for older adults: shat stores accept EBT for online grocery delivery and pickup? National Council on Aging website. https://www.ncoa.org/article/what-stores-accept-ebt-for-online-grocery-delivery-and-pickup. Updated January 16, 2024. Accessed April 17, 2024.

7. Headrick G, Khandpur N, Perez C, et al. Content analysis of online grocery retail policies and practices affecting healthy food access. J Nutr Educ Behave. 2022;54(3):219-229.

8. Astashkina E, Belavina E, Marinesi S. The environmental impact of the advent of online grocery retailing. SSRN website. https://ssrn.com/abstract=3358664. Published April 3, 2019.

9. Howarth J. 9 key food and beverage industry trends (2024-2027). Exploding Topics website. https://explodingtopics.com/blog/food-trends. Published March 11, 2024. Accessed April 12, 2024.

10. Arslain K, Gustafson CR, Rose DJ. Point-of-decision prompts increase dietary fiber content of consumers’ food choices in an online grocery shopping simulation. Nutrients. 2020;12(11):3487.