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Pandemic forces possible ‘permanent consumer shift’ to grocery delivery

A shopper leaves a grocery store with food packed in a paper bag during the coronavirus outbreak in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

As stay-at-home orders in Washington state and across the country stretch on in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, there’s been a pivotal shift in consumer behavior. Online grocery delivery services are soaring in popularity as people are trying to avoid leaving the house.

Whether you’ve tried online grocery shopping or are more “old school” like KIRO Nights host Aaron Mason, the coronavirus outbreak is certainly changing how we’re getting food to our houses.

“This pandemic has basically forced a lot of people to buy groceries online, and it’s resulted in what some analysts are calling a ‘permanent consumer shift,'” said Taylor Soper, managing editor at GeekWire.

According to a recent survey by RBC Capital of 1,500 shoppers, 42 percent said they use online grocery shopping at least once a week, up from 22 percent in 2018, Soper said. While the use of these services has been trending upward already, it grew dramatically because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Instacart, one of the same-day grocery delivery and pick-up services that partners with retailer partners like QFC, Safeway, and PCC, has seen a meteoric rise in users.

“Instacart has said that they were expecting this type of growth in two to four years, and they’ve seen it happen in two to four weeks,” Soper said.

The main issue customers using these services are running into now is there’s often a long wait time for delivery because there’s simply not enough workers.

“Instacart actually said that they’re going to hire an additional 300,000 shoppers over the next three months to keep up with demand,” Soper said. ” … Now on the worker’s side, it’s a whole other topic to dive into because these are fairly low-wage jobs. And right now, if you’re a shopper working for one of these services, you’re kind of putting yourself at risk by going in these grocery stores and hanging outside all day, and driving around, making these deliveries.”

Instacart has since made a few changes in response to shopper pushback, including providing hand sanitizer and masks for its workers.

As with Uber and similar companies, there is an ongoing debate of having these workers as contractors, or treating them as employees with benefits.

“If you’re following what was happening with Amazon and the factory worker in New York that got fired for speaking out and protesting, unionization is at the core of that and how Amazon really doesn’t want their warehouse workers unionized,” Soper said. “With the grocery deliveries, it’s a similar conversation in that now these workers are in demand, they have a little more say to demand some of these benefits.”

With an increased demand, these companies may have to give up some things in order to keep their workers.

Before the rise of these services, when the shift to online shopping first happened, there were certain things people never expected they’d buy off the internet, including groceries. During the pandemic, as people try to limit trips out of the house, they seem to be getting used to the idea of buying food online.

“Personally, I’ve actually never done online grocery because I want to go to the store and, you know, pick my produce, pick my meat and fish,” Soper said. “But … a lot of people, they’re realizing the extra conveniences of not actually having to go to the store and just having it show up on your doorstep.”

KIRO Nights host Mike Lewis said he’s used online grocery shopping, but always reasoned that going to the store is cheaper or at least comparable in price. However, with the increased demand and deals offered to customers, the expense argument is really not a factor anymore.

“When you get the price comparable, you add the convenience, online grocery really seems, in a lot of ways, like a better option than going to the store,” Soper said.

Even after the pandemic, when the economy reopens, we may see these shifts in consumer behavior based on habits made during our quarantines, whether it’s permanently using online grocery shopping or changing how we dine out.

“This is crazy to think about, but when are we going to be able to go back to restaurants? How many people can go into the restaurant? Are to-go orders going to be the new way we dine at our favorite restaurants?” Soper posited.

“So it’s not just grocery delivery, but restaurants and how we order from them and how that’s all changed. It’s such a wild, wild world right now, … but we have to eat three times a day and how that gets to us, and how it gets to our houses is definitely being impacted,” Soper added.

If you’re interested in trying online grocery delivery, many companies offer free delivery at a certain price threshold. You can also purchase an Instacart membership where you pay a monthly or annual fee and receive certain member benefits, or be an Amazon prime member and receive free delivery.

How to get groceries without leaving your home

The big question is: What happens after the outbreak settles down?

“Are people just going to stop using these services and go to the grocery store?” Soper asked. “I would think not. I mean, when you have the convenience, and you look at the price and it’s similar, I think that is why these analysts are saying this is part of a permanent consumer shift.”

Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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