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Online Grocery Shopping: The Next Big Thing or The Big Avoid?

On behalf of : Roary Lee

What ever happened to Webvan? Over a decade ago, Webvan was the hottest thing since sliced bread. At home, from the comfort of my favorite couch, I would go online and select all of the grocery items that I wanted. Then, I would checkout and select a delivery date and time. Like clockwork, when the scheduled time would arrive, I'd see that tan Webvan truck heading into my subdivision. All I had to do was answer the door. The driver even brought the groceries into the house!

However, the joy would last for only a couple of years (around 18 months, to be exact) as Webvan shut down all major operations and filed for bankruptcy in July 2001. Experts within the trade cite various reasons for Webvan's demise along with other failed ventures in this trade. Here are some of my thoughts:

Have consumers started to miss actually going to the grocery store? During childhood, when our siblings and I heard that our mother was going to the grocery store, we would find a way to tag along. At the store, we would meet other kids, run around the store and be blessed with candy at the checkout line. Today, in my adulthood, these principles still apply. Whether it's to get out of the house, get moderate exercise, meet people or get an in-store treat (i.e. kids' cookie club at the bakery or free samples of teriyaki chicken), in-store shopping is more personable than online shopping.

Do fresh foods need to be vetted in person? Back when we were Webvan customers, I would just click on a steak and enter the quantity. However, over the years, I have grown into a food sophisticate (read snob). When it's time to pick a steak, I need to see it in person. It needs to have the proper color and marbling. Same thing with produce - if you've ever picked up a mushy potato, kiwi fruit or tomato, then you realize the importance of texture, appearance and freshness.

Does online shopping not support impulse buying? I used to make a weekly grocery list. Today, I'm more of an impulse shopper. I figure out dinner sometime during the day, and then I shop for the ingredients when I pick up the kids. Online shopping typically requires planning ahead.

Nevertheless, online grocery shopping remains a viable industry. While US consumers seem to strongly prefer traditional grocery shopping, some European markets are experiencing significant growth due to variations from the home delivery model, for example, "click and collect." For regions that are not experiencing this growth, how do retailers reach these consumers? Furthermore, many of my colleagues, friends & family do plan their shopping lists as they are rushed for time and not as nostalgic especially when it comes to grocery shopping. Based on this, is my emotional connection to grocery shopping mainstream or unique?

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