Walmart, Amazon.com and startup Instacart Inc. are all reaping the rewards of consumers getting groceries delivered. Some ecommerce prognosticators say the online grocery industry has finally hit an inflection point promised for decades.

(Bloomberg)—Bonnie Russolillo is one of millions of Americans forced by the pandemic to buy groceries online. The experience was better than she expected—the broccoli crowns were perfect and she was mostly pleased with the substitutions for out-of-stock items.

But here’s the bad news for companies that have spent billions building web supermarkets: Russolillo and shoppers like her prefer to walk the aisles themselves. “If I feel it’s safe, I’d much rather do my own shopping,” says Russolillo, who is 62 and lives on Long Island. “It’s much different than going online and looking at pictures.”

Online grocery sales surged 200%

Online grocery sales have surged as much as 200% this year, according to Earnest Research, part of a broader boom in home cooking now that thousands of restaurants are closed. The $840 billion grocery industry has been one of the few bright spots amid a pandemic that has infected about 1.7 million Americans, killed almost 100,000 and crushed the economy. Walmart Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and startup Instacart Inc. are all reaping the rewards, and some ecommerce prognosticators say the online grocery industry has finally hit an inflection point promised for decades.

But how much of that spending shift will stick is guesswork. It’s difficult to predict lasting behavior changes from a fear-fueled surge—growth peaked more than a month ago. Problems with online food shopping also persist. The operations are expensive to run, and limits on capacity and inventory abound right now with supply chains upended. The shopping experience can be clunky and confusing, especially for older consumers. And one thing the pandemic hasn’t changed is that Americans still like to squeeze their cantaloupes and eyeball their rib-eyes.

Russolillo and her husband Ray learned the hard way that ordering produce online is a lot trickier than buying a box of cereal or a bag of dog food. “The picture showed a bunch of bananas. So we ordered what we thought was one bunch of bananas,” Ray says. “The delivery came and we got one banana. Who buys just one banana?”

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Walmart fastest growth in 20 years

In the pandemic’s early days it seemed as though buying online groceries would become routine—or at least pick up a sizable number of converts. “The customer demand we expected over the next two-to-four years has happened in the last two-to-four weeks,” Instacart Chief Executive Officer Apoorva Mehta said in early April, a time when most Americans were under strict stay-at-home orders. Visits to Walmart’s online grocery site that month soared more than fourfold, according to data tracker SimilarWeb, fueling the retailer’s fastest quarterly sales growth in almost 20 years.

But even in cities hardest hit by the pandemic, more than 7 in 10 people have continued to visit stores for groceries and other essentials, according to surveys by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. In states with more relaxed restrictions, the figure is more than 8 in 10. Over one-third of shoppers say they’ll decrease their use of web groceries or stop ordering food online altogether when shelter-in-place restrictions ease in their area, according to a survey conducted for Bloomberg by Civic Science.

“We’ve already hit the high water mark and people are getting back to some normal habits,” says Kurt Jetta, founder of research firm TABS Analytics, who has been studying the grocery industry for 25 years. “People really like going to the grocery store.”

Some still don’t trust online grocery shopping

Consider Stacy Yore in Boca Raton, Florida. To call her a discerning grocery shopper would be an understatement. She likes her bananas on the small side with just a touch of green. She knows marbling enhances steak’s flavor, but prefers to pick out a lean cut herself for health reasons. And grapes, don’t get Yore started: “They have to be a particular shade of yellowish green. If they’re just green they’re sour but if they’re yellowish green they’re ripe and sweet and delicious.”

Despite the pandemic and the needs of her aging mother, she still goes to the store because she doesn’t trust Amazon, Instacart or Walmart to get it right. “If someone brought me something that wasn’t ripe I would not be happy,” Yore says.

She’s not alone. Among those who use online grocery pickup services, only half include produce in their orders primarily due to concerns over quality, according to Field Agent, an industry researcher. Fresh food is the thing that consumers are most likely to buy in physical stores exclusively once the pandemic subsides, according to research from Evercore ISI. Items like bottled water, pet food and other bulky, non-perishable household staples have better prospects online, due to the hassle of lugging them out of stores

Groceries are a critical battleground in the retail wars. Walmart (No. 3 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 500)started out selling only general merchandise but embraced groceries to lure shoppers into its stores regularly. Amazon (No. 1) has pushed into grocery over the past decade as a way to reach the delivery frequency needed to offset the billions it spends on shipping.

The pandemic poured rocket fuel on grocery delivery as stores curtailed hours and customer counts, and who cares when the truck shows up if we’re home all day? Even the founder of notorious dot-com flame-out Webvan is now back for another stab at the business.

Limited demand and the high cost of last-mile delivery serve as the main obstacles for successful online grocery ventures. It works in densely populated cities like New York because couriers there can make multiple deliveries per hour. The suburbs are much trickier, and volume is key to bringing the costs down.

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Walmart, the nation’s biggest grocer, has largely avoided the unfavorable economics of home delivery by focusing on curbside pickup, now available at more than 3,600 of its 4,750 U.S. stores. The free service appeals to suburban and rural consumers because they can schedule it when convenient, rather than being beholden to a random delivery window.

Despite Amazon’s dominance in ecommerce, fresh food is the one area where Walmart maintains a clear edge over its rival. More than half of purchases made on Walmart’s website were groceries in the first quarter, according to researcher M Science, up from 38% at the end of last year. Indeed, Walmart has been so successful with groceries that profit margins have suffered, so the company recently merged its food-shopping app with the main app so customers can put a few higher-margin non-food items in their carts next to the bananas and bread.

Economic uncertainty looming

As retailers jostle, the next few months will be critical in assessing the lasting effects of the pandemic on shopping habits. Recent data is muddied by the stockpiling of late March and early April, as well as government stimulus checks that buttressed consumer spending as millions of jobs evaporated. Signs of strain are emerging: Shoppers used credit cards to pay for 46% of grocery transactions in April, up from 27% in December, suggesting people have less money to pay for basic needs, says Ted Rossman, an analyst at Bankrate.com.

The key question is the same as when Webvan went bust 20 years ago: Will there be sufficient demand to justify the costs?

“What drove the rapid increase in online grocery’s penetration? It was fear—fear of catching the virus,” says David Bishop, a partner at retail sales and marketing firm Brick Meets Click. “Anyone who is rooting for online to stay at this rate, unfortunately, is rooting for the virus.”

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