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Online Grocery Shopping: What You Need to Know

Online grocery shopping can be a convenient time-saver for families of all sizes. Learn about online grocery shopping and how it works.

By Kristina Russo | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

6 Min Read | February 14, 2020 in Money



Many more people are shopping for groceries online because it’s a time-saving convenience.

A number of website tools and features might help you save money when you shop for groceries online.

Delivery fees and other charges can add up, but there are ways to avoid them.

I’ve been grocery shopping online for over a decade. As my family has grown, I’ve found it to be a helpful convenience, a time saver, and a lifeline whenever going to the grocery store wasn’t an option. Recently, many people have jumped onto the virtual shopping wagon with me: 31% of U.S. households used online grocery services in February/March 2020, more than double the number from August 2019.1


Allow me to share what I’ve learned about how online grocery shopping works. I bet even those of you who say you need to touch, see, or even sniff your produce and protein purchases will see why conservative forecasters expect the number of online grocery shoppers to increase by another 60% in the next four years.2


Three Types of Online Grocery ‘Stores’

I discovered that there are three types of online grocery services, which differ in their delivery methods, product availability, and fees:

  • Brick-and-mortar surrogates: These are the websites connected to brick-and-mortar grocery stores and warehouses, usually national retailers. You shop online, select a delivery time, pay a delivery fee, and receive your groceries at your doorstep. A slightly different version, “click and collect,” lets you pick up your order instead of having it delivered.
  • “Pure play” online grocers: These online grocery stores fulfill and deliver online orders from distribution centers that are not open to the public. Large online-only retailers fall into this category.
  • Third-party grocery platforms: These services provide an interface for online shopping that lets you select and shop from your own participating local stores. A personal shopper shops for your order and delivers it to you at a specified time.


How to Grocery Shop Online

So how do you actually “shop” for groceries online? I’ve found that the actual shopping process is similar among the different types of online grocery stores. 


Usually, you must first create an account with all the typical profile information you’d provide for any online shopping. With third-party platforms, you also have the option of selecting one or more participating local stores for each particular order. 


Then you start selecting items. Each grocery website has different tabs or drop downs for all of the typical departments within a grocery store: produce, pantry, dairy, frozen, health and beauty, household items, etc. Clicking around is similar to walking the aisles – when you select an item, you put it in your “cart” and move on. You may be asked to select a weight, or even a preparation – e.g., thickness for deli meat or vacuum sealing for butchered meat.


Ready to check out? Choose a delivery method – pick up or to your door – and time. Delivery schedules are based on your zip code, and are divided into time slots – say, 2-hour windows. Some services allow very precise delivery time selection and can be as quick as the same day, while others must be selected in advance, maybe a week or more. To pay, use your credit card or debit card – then just sit back until your delivery time. In fact, if unattended delivery is an option, you won’t even need to be home.


6 Benefits of Online Grocery Shopping

For me, the magic of online grocery shopping comes from these digital features:

  • Item memory: Your purchased items are stored in your account, which makes reordering whole lists or individual items a breeze. Some sites will remind you about your frequently purchased items in case you “forgot” to order them before checking out.
  • Item comparison: “Sorting” features make comparison shopping – based on things like unit price, product size, or sale items – quick and easy.
  • Filtering: Looking for specific characteristics? Filters offer quick targeting if you want particular items like your favorite brand, organic, value packs, gluten free, low carb, etc.
  • Spotlights: Online grocers take traditional printed weekly advertisements to a new level by highlighting items that are new or on sale and enhancing them with customer ratings and suggested recipes or pairings.
  • Coupon integration: Prompts for digital promotions like “buy one, get one free” may automatically pop up when you add an eligible item to your cart. If you have a digital wallet for online manufacturer coupons, you can add them to your account and they will automatically be matched to your cart items at checkout. And if you’re a paper coupon clipper, many sites have a method for utilizing them as well.
  • Updating orders: Typically you’ll have the ability to update an order as often as necessary between the checkout and delivery time cutoff. This is great for my standing Friday delivery of items I order regularly. During the week, I can update my cart if I run out of something, need an additional ingredient for a new recipe, or someone in my family gets a certain craving.

How Much Does It Cost to Shop Online for Groceries?

Let’s face it: All this convenience comes at a price. Delivery fees, service fees, or markups on item prices compared to in-store prices are common costs of online grocery shopping. So it’s important to know what your service charges to avoid surprises at checkout. Most services have thresholds for minimum orders and while tipping isn’t required, it may be appropriate.


That being said, you can often minimize the extra costs of online grocery shopping with coupon codes, loyalty programs, referrals, free trials, or subscriptions.3 


If you become an online grocery “frequent flyer,” you will likely find that a subscription plan makes economic sense. Subscription packages, which differ by grocer, provide a combination of unlimited free delivery, discounts for repeat or automated purchases, and access to other assorted special perks, for about $100 a year.4


Does Online Grocery Shopping Save Money?

Your particular shopping habits will determine whether online grocery shopping saves money or costs you extra. Tools that make it easier to manage item costs – combined with automated access to coupons/promotions, the ability to easily see your running total in a virtual cart, and the reduced likelihood of impulse buying – can help you save money.5 And don’t forget to consider indirect savings, like lower transportation costs and the value of your time.


The Takeaway

More people are grocery shopping online than ever before, and the industry is expanding to meet the demand. Determining which online grocery shopping service works best for you is largely a matter of personal preference, based on how you shop combined with the service’s fee structure. However, most shoppers agree that saving time plus the convenience of home delivery are key benefits that attract and retain them.

Kristina Russo

Kristina Russo is a CPA and MBA with over 20 years of business experience in firms of all sizes and across several industries, including media and publishing, entertainment, retail, and manufacturing.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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