31% of U.S. households have used an online grocery delivery or pickup service during the past month, a survey finds. And 26% of those surveyed say they’re using a specific online grocery service for the first time.

Stay-at-home directives in numerous states and municipalities allow consumers to leave their homes to buy groceries. But rather than risk pushing a cart through a store, a growing number of people are making grocery orders online.

A March 23-25 consumer survey from food marketing and sales consulting firm Brick Meets Click and online order fulfillment platform ShopperKit finds 31% of U.S. households have used an online grocery delivery or pickup service during the past month. That percentage represents a total of about 39.5 million households. The number of households now ordering groceries online is up 145.3% compared with a Brick Meets Click survey in August 2019, which found 16.1 million, or 13% of households, bought groceries online that month.

The survey also found 26% of the online grocery shoppers surveyed (or the equivalent of 10.3 million U.S. households) said they are using a specific online grocery service for the first time. This rate of new users jumps to 39% for shoppers 60 years and older.

“The COVID-19 health crisis has clearly fueled a tremendous surge in demand in the very near term,” says Bill Bishop, chief architect at Brick Meets Click. Some households will not stick with online grocery pickup or delivery services after the crisis is over, but others will, he says.

In the March survey, 43% of respondents said they are either extremely likely or very likely to stick with online grocery buying. That represents a significant shift for the grocery sector, Bishop says. Also, 30% of households that haven’t bought groceries online during the past month are extremely likely or very likely to place an online grocery order with a home delivery or store pickup service in the next three months if the crisis continues, the survey found.

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The March survey found the number of online grocery orders placed for pickup or delivery surged 193% versus August 2019 levels. And the average number of monthly orders per household grew 19% compared with August 2019.

The March 23-25 survey was conducted online and included 1,601 adults, 18 years and older, who participated in the household’s grocery shopping. Results were adjusted based internet usage among U.S. adults, 18 years and older, according to the Pew Research Center, to account for the non-response bias associated with online surveys. The August 2019 results were based on a similar methodology that included a sample of 2,485 adults completed Aug. 21-23, 2019.

Delivery delays for grocery orders

“The surge in demand is stressing all aspects of [grocery store] operations, whether online or in the store,” says David Bishop, a partner at Brick Meets Click says.

At the retailers with which the firm works, delays in delivering online orders are pervasive, and it’s not uncommon for customers to wait 3 to 7 days unless they opt to visit the store, he says. Also, the quantity of out-of-stock items has skyrocketed, mainly because of panic-buying, he says.

“This issue is not specific to online as the vast majority of orders are still fulfilled at the store. However, to manage the demand spike, some retailers are now only selling certain high-demand products in the store,” David Bishop says.

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Erik Rosenstrauch, president and CEO of retail marketing agency Fuel Partnerships, says the COVID-19 crisis stressed the grocery retail business in ways nobody expected. “They weren’t ready for people to wipe out the shelves,” he says.

Online-only retailers, such as Amazon.com Inc. (No. 1 in the 2019 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000), will likely continue to struggle with fulfillment as the COVID-19 crisis continues, Rosenstrauch says. Some manufacturers of consumer packaged goods—the kinds of products sold in grocery stores—are prioritizing shipments to bricks-and-mortar locations, he says. By shipping to stores first, manufacturers can get products into the hands of consumers more quickly and also decrease the number of times other people touch items before consumers receive them, Rosenstrauch says.

Grocery retailers saw large website traffic spikes during the 28-day period from Feb. 25 through March 23. Traffic increased 84.5% for the week of March 15-21 compared with the week of March 1-7, according to aggregate data from web measuring firm SimilarWeb Ltd. for the 20 grocery/fresh food retailers Digital Commerce 360 tracks in its Top 1000 database. March 16 had the most substantial spike in online traffic.

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