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Will the Internet Change Grocery Shopping As We Know it?

With the introduction of Instacart and Amazon Fresh, companies across the globe are stepping up to compete with a corner of the industry they once had little influence in—grocery shopping. Grocery shopping as we know it, thanks to the internet, is changing. From prepared meal delivery kits, to ordering your entire grocery list online and picking up from your local store, it's the biggest change to how we get food since the early 1900s.

History of Grocery Stores

While food was once the product of hunting and gathering, the more modern model has customers simply purchasing groceries from stores. But even the idea of a centralized grocery store didn't exist until the 1900s.

First, there were independent stores, each with a product specialty like fishmongers, butchers, and bakers. A customer would have to go to multiple stores to complete their shopping trip. This included mom-and-pop corner grocery stores that collected some items, and were the "size of a large living room," NPR reports.

They were laid out completely unlike today's supermarkets. Where today's supermarkets are well-known for their milk-in-the-back design to entice customers to buy more, customers of early grocery stores stood at the front counter and waited. The customer handed a shopping list, usually with the weights of each item needed, to a store clerk. The clerk would then measure out the items, bag the order up, and the customer would pay. Still, they did not sell meat or bread.

A&P

In 1912, this changed when the first A&P store opened. Manufacturers sold directly to the store, meaning more items. They took only cash, did not deliver, and had no telephone — all staples of mom-and-pop stores. There was only one clerk, and items offered were only those considered fast-movers, to limit inventory that stayed on shelves. What they did have, however, was lower costs. By the 1930s, they even sold meat and dairy.

Piggly Wiggly

The modern supermarket, however, did not quite evolve out of A&P. Instead, in 1916, the first Piggly Wiggly opened. Unlike the other stores, there were no clerks to hand a grocery list. It was the first self-serve grocery store. This became the norm, and has persisted as the main way to shop for groceries until just a few years ago.

Warehouse Shopping

The next step, after self-serve grocery stores, was the warehouse model. This model, perfected by warehouse clubs like Costco — opened as Price Club in 1976 — and Sam's Club, involves buying in bulk to take advantage of wholesale pricing. The first was opened by A&P in 1971, called the Warehouse Economy Outlet. The stores themselves are arguably not "pretty" as they were warehouses, with industrial shelving acting as the aisles and holding inventory. It's also common for warehouse clubs to require a yearly membership fee, unlike typical grocery stores.

How is Grocery Shopping Changing?

Ordering Groceries Online

With the power of the internet, shopping is beginning to come full circle. If you use grocery pickup, you choose items online, head over to your chain store, park in a specific spot, and either hit a buzzer or call in on your cell phone. A clerk will come out with your order, and put your bags in the trunk of your car. It's not dissimilar to how grocery shopping was done a century ago, though a bit updated for the modern era, and you are better able to choose brands.

Some stores are even offering home delivery. Both of these options make for an easy grocery shopping experience. It also offers you an easier opportunity to shop around and make price comparisons, especially between brands, and you can shop from the comfort of your own couch. Grocery price lookup could be the difference between choosing one store over another, or even looking elsewhere for a meal, like a fast food joint.

Amazon Fresh

Amazon has added another fun factor to the world of online grocery shopping: drones. While it's not all that different from stores delivering your order in a van, it's definitely high-tech and flashy. Amazon also offers a simple delivery and pickup service for Prime members, called Amazon Fresh. Only available in select cities and for an extra cost, Fresh acts just like a grocery store — plus it has items from Whole Foods, owned by Amazon. They aren't alone, as companies like InstaCart offer similar services.

Meal Kits

Although ordering groceries online has made shopping more convenient, grocery stores still have a new source of competition: entire meals, broken down to ingredients, delivered to your door. With meal delivery kits, grocery stores are feeling the pressure. Not only do customers no longer have to head out to do their shopping, unlike with grocery delivery services, customers don't even have to plan the meal. It's all portioned out for them, with all the necessary ingredients, and comes with simple-to-follow instructions. While it's slower than heading to a fast food joint, they are also, typically, fairly healthy meals. There's been a marketing blitz for prepared meal kits, as well: if you listen to major podcasts, it's likely you've heard an ad for one.

Grocery stores are not taking meal kit companies lying down. Walmart, for example, is now offering its own meal kits at 250 locations while Kroger released its own kits, first tested in Cincinnati. Whole Foods created displays offering a recipe with all the raw ingredients ready to grab. Plus, they partnered with Salted for ready-to-go boxes that have a shelf life of two weeks — longer than Walmart and Kroger's offerings.

How is Access to Groceries Changing?

What does all of this mean? Is grocery shopping experiencing the same level as change as what A&P and Piggly Wiggly introduced? Yes and no. Let's break it down.

Prepared meal delivery can mean more access to different foods for people who live in rural areas, saving them from long trips to grocery stores. Meal kits at grocery stores means less time finding ingredients, consolidating their overall time spent on the trip.

New Meal Recipes

For all shoppers, meal kits, whether from a physical store or an online service, offer new recipes, which the customer may not have otherwise tried to make. It's generally faster than taking the time to independently gather the ingredients throughout the store.

As mentioned, there's also the exposure to new recipes, new ingredients, or simply a new spin on an old favorite. It can make cooking fun, and get you out of a recipe slump, sparking new ideas thanks to the variety of meals offered.

Meal-based Nutrition

These kits also allow people the option of having access to a nutritious meal, without an extensive amount of time or effort. With grocery pickup, you only need spend time picking out items online, and make a quick trip to the store to pick up the items. It's easy to look up a recipe, and then plan for it within seconds. With prepared meal delivery, that's already done. All that's left is making the meal.

It's also important to note that different companies will offer different preferences. You might be able to get a keto-friendly meal kit from one, while another offers paleo or dairy-free. Most offer vegan options, as well.

Environmental Impact

For all of of the delivery methods, whether it's a load of groceries or a prepared meal kit, the actual shipping harms the environment. In mid-2017, Blue Apron only had three distribution centers. They plan on opening two more by the end of 2018. Still, this means that there will only be distribution centers in New Jersey, California, and Texas. While they started selling meal kits at a few select Costco locations, it still means there's a lot of shipping involved.

On the bright side, meal kit makers are trying to be more eco-friendly with packaging. While ingredients are often packaged individually, the kits will come with instructions on how to recycle each piece. While there is still work to be done, it's a step in the right direction.

Reducing Food Waste

Meal kits, thanks to being already portioned out, are helping to cut down on food waste. In a warehouse club, you might buy more than you need, because that's the only option, even if it is cheaper than buying less. Meal kits are already measured out. You aren't likely to throw out the extra vegetables if they are already meant for a single meal with instructions on how to use them.

Is Grocery Shopping Changing?

How we shop for groceries has indeed experienced a bit of a shift thanks to the internet, but not nearly as large as what happened when A&P and Piggly Wiggly were introduced. Meal kit delivery still only represents a fraction of the food industry. CNBC puts meal kits as $1.5 billion of a $800 billion grocery industry.

In-store kits will help those looking to make a quick trip to the store, but also are unlikely to change consumer's grocery buying habits entirely. The extra cost associated with grocery delivery or pickup might put off those trying to save money instead of time.

The internet, and prepared meal delivery services, are changing the landscape of how we buy groceries. But it's not a total conversion, as in the early 1900s. Instead, it's simply opening up more options, rather than replacing.

People shopping for groceries at a grocery store

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