September 01, 2022

Americans prefer in-store grocery shopping, according to study

Americans prefer in-store grocery shopping, according to study

By: Sydney Sheffield

A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign looked at how American food-buying behaviors have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers also examined how these behaviors changed through the development of vaccines and as case numbers fluctuated.

The researchers used survey responses in September 2020, December 2020, and March 2021, time periods at which the initial panic buying and stockpiling early in the pandemic were over. In September 2020, new COVID-19 case rates were relatively low, but there were concerns about cases rising in the winter and uncertainty about the timing of vaccines. In December 2020, the country was experiencing its first large surge in cases and the first vaccines were becoming available to certain people. In March 2021, cases were falling, with the expectation that widespread vaccine deployment would continue the downward trend.

"We wanted to understand what happened when people were on the other side of the panic mindset and see how people were behaving. Once people started to become familiar with the new normal, how was food buying changing?" Brenna Ellison, a former Illinois professor of agricultural and consumer economics who is now at Purdue University and worked on the study said.

Eight food-acquisition activities were analyzed, in-person grocery shopping, online grocery shopping, ordering from a meal kit service, indoor restaurant dining, outdoor restaurant dining, ordering takeout from a restaurant, visiting a food bank, and visiting a farmer's market. According to the results, in-person grocery shopping remained extremely common throughout the pandemic, even as online grocery shopping increased. Additionally, more than 90% of people reported shopping in person across the three time periods.

"People like looking at the meat, they like looking at the produce, they like seeing what's in season. Those are things we aren't very good at replicating online," said Assistant Professor Melissa Ocepek, one of the study’s authors. "In addition to food acquisition and the restaurant and grocery industry, this also tells us how people behave in a time of crisis. It helps us prepare for the next crisis.” 

The authors say they plan to use the survey data to answer other questions about food acquisition, including more specific ways in which shopping behavior has changed. “Everybody has feelings about grocery shopping. It creates a really great environment to understand so much else about our culture and society," Ocepek says.

Read the study, featured in Plos One here.