4 ways to make the most of online grocery shopping

February 9, 2011

A woman shops at a Sam's Club store, a division of Wal-Mart Stores, in Bentonville, Arkansas June 4, 2009.  REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi Shopping at your local grocery store can be tiring: the lines, heavy bags, travel there and back. That’s why so many Americans are clicking a button to have it delivered fresh to their door.

More than 13 million U.S. consumers visited an online grocery site in July 2009, according to Nielsen. The same report predicted the percentage of online U.S. food and beverage sales would at least double by 2013. Big-name retailers are now getting in on the act. So is it time to throw away the grocery cart?

Finding the right online retailer
This depends on two things: where you live and what type of food you want. Up until recently, most online grocers have been regional players. Established names include Peapod (Midwest and East Coast), Netgrocer (lowest shipping rates on East Coast), Albertsons (West Coast) and FreshDirect (New York area). Almost all provide a range of products – meat, fruit and vegetables – similar to your local supermarket.

If you don’t live in one of those areas, don’t fret. Amazon is piloting AmazonFresh in the Seattle area, while Wal-Mart is testing in select places. The game is different if you stick to stocking your cupboard with non-perishables. Here Amazon.com, MyBrands and ShopFoodEx are all nationwide options for staple replenishments.

Comparison shopping is also a must. Here is where online grocery shopping has the edge. Pricegrabber is one site you can use to find the best deal on individual products.

Making your life easierSimone Sneed is pictured in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Handout
Simone Sneed, 26, started grocery shopping online four months ago. Initially skeptical, she now orders between $75 and $100 from FreshDirect every two weeks.

For Sneed, a fundraiser for an advocacy organization in New York, the number one advantage is convenience. “It really does save you a lot of time,’ she says. “I work 40 to 50 hours per week. I don’t have time for a long trip to shop, and nor do I want to.

Even if you don’t order online for your everyday shopping, it can come in handy if you are planning a large celebration. When Sneed held a Christmas party for friends, she found having the order delivered to her door to be invaluable. “I ordered a ridiculous amount of food,” she says. “It made life a lot simpler.”

There are other advantages, too. Not only do you save on time and transportation costs, but shopping online can actually make you less likely to impulse buy, owing to the fact that you can see the total price you’re racking up at any given moment.

Lisa Mody, 37, a middle-school Spanish teacher, gets online groceries delivered weekly. She says it’s helped her both with portion control and avoiding unhealthy snacks. “I love grocery shopping, picking up fruit, seeing the food in front of me,” she says. “But the reality of living in NYC is long hours. I couldn’t maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Shopping online also allows you to add or remove items quickly to your cart and, perhaps most useful, many online grocers save your previous shopping list to make the process quicker. If you’re of a less-disciplined ilk, that can help curb those aisle-grazing urges.

Overcoming the sticking points
That said, online groceries can work out to be more expensive for everyday items. And the real stinger is delivery fees that, in this writer’s analysis of five online grocers, ranged between minimums of $6 and $10 dollars. Luckily, there are ways to mitigate the cost, depending on the retailer. For example, if you sign up to Amazon.com Subscribe & Save, you get free deliveries on eligible items.

Another issue is that in the hustle and bustle of time-pressured deliveries, the odd item is likely to arrive damaged or broken, particularly eggs. Deliveries can also take a while. Online grocers tend to give you timeslots for delivery, and if all are already taken in a day, you may have to wait until the next.

The flip side is that online grocers are working hard for your business and often deliver from early morning to late at night, to suit your timetable.

How to save while you shop
When it comes to online grocery shopping, use a shopping list to curtail whimsical expenditures. “It’s the same as when you are hungry and go to your local store,” says Sneed, “You have to have a list and stick to it.”

Then there is bulk buying, which tends to be the cheapest option of all. Kira Botkin, 27, a clinical research coordinator in Columbus, Ohio, orders potato chips, cookies and snacks from Amazon.com about once a month, usually in large quantities. “They are actually designed for vending machines,” she says. “So per piece, they are much more inexpensive.”

But beware. If you make a wrong choice, you’ll have it tenfold. It’s a pitfall to which Botkin can attest. “I once bought a 72-pack of chips but I didn’t like them,” she says. “So I gave 50 little bags of chips to my boyfriend’s brother.”

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