Online grocery shopping during COVID-19: Barriers, access, and what happens next

The porch of an apartment with a welcome mat that reads “Be nice” and two bags of groceries to the right of the door. Credit: Lacey Friedly

When the COVID-19 pandemic first swept across North America and led to emergency shutdowns in the spring of 2020, the way people received food and household necessities was dramatically affected. As home orders minimized in-person travel, transit services were reduced and many stores and restaurants closed or changed operations.

Some of the gaps were filled by online retailers and delivery services. However, access to goods and services varied significantly depending on people’s age, income level and wealth.

A new multi-university study captured how households responded as local, state and federal governments imposed and lifted restrictions, closed and reopened physical branches, and e-commerce and delivery services adapted to changing circumstances.

The findings of this study are critical for emergency planning, as well as understanding the ever-changing mechanisms used to access retail and service opportunities (in person or online). The study identifies opportunities for future interventions to remove barriers to food access, which will remain relevant after the pandemic has recovered.

The research

The project was led by Kelly Clifton of Portland State University (now a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning), Kristina Currans of the University of Arizona, and Amanda Howell and Rebecca Lewis of the University of Oregon. The research team also included Paula Carder, director of PSU’s Institute on Aging, and graduate students Max Nonnamaker and Gabriella Abou-Zeid. Nonnamaker used information from the focus groups to complete his master’s degree in public health. Abou-Zeid, now a transport data specialist at ICF, wrote her master’s thesis on the adoption and use of e-messages in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which she presented at TRB 2022.

The researchers used a mixed-methods approach to evaluate the extent to which people have adapted their shopping behavior during the COVID-19 crisis and after recovery. They conducted four waves of cross-sectional online surveys of households in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, from September 2020 to November 2021. These surveys were designed to provide insights into:

  • How did people gain access to essential goods during the pandemic crisis and recovery periods?
  • What barriers have certain subgroups faced in accessing essential goods?
  • And to what extent can/can online platforms help to meet the demand?

The four waves of surveys in five states provided a unique and rich dataset documenting consumer shopping behaviour, preferences and attitudes during key phases of the pandemic, including: the first economic reopening in 2020; easing and tightening restrictions through fall and winter 2020; the emergence of the vaccine in January 2021; and the wave of cases related to the Delta variant in the summer and fall of 2021. Data from the surveys have been made public for future reference by researchers.

To supplement the study data, the researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with a subgroup of the population — older adults and friends and relatives who had helped them order online — to learn how they adapted their shopping to the needs of the population. circumstances of COVID19. Researchers chose to focus on older adults because they are more likely to have mobility barriers, COVID vulnerabilities and a lack of digital resources or knowledge.

Key findings

Findings indicate that in-store shopping is a mainstay of household supply and likely to remain so in the future. Still, many households have experimented with online shopping during the pandemic and reported that they were very satisfied with it. Even as people returned to retail stores, online shopping did not decline and instead showed a gradual increase across the four waves of the survey. Survey respondents predicted that they will continue to use online shopping at the same or higher percentage in the future.

Shoppers mainly drove to retailers to buy food, but fashion stocks have changed over the course of the pandemic. Walking, cycling, transit and ridehailing all saw an increase in use across the four waves of the survey.

The biggest constraints to the future growth of e-commerce in the food sector are the inability to inspect items for quality and delivery costs. While some barriers to online grocery shopping still exist, it’s clear that it can and will fill important gaps for people. It is a valued option in situations where people have mobility limitations, are quarantined or sick with COVID, are dealing with time constraints or shops are not easily accessible.

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When asked about barriers to food access, more people cited mobility barriers — such as not owning a vehicle or a mobility-limiting condition — than technological ones, such as access to smartphones or broadband internet. The focus groups with the elderly provided more context. Most respondents rated their digital acumen as high, and they were especially confident in their technology skills. Because they had a fixed income, their desire to minimize costs, use coupons, and store sales reinforced their preference for in-store shopping.

“Ordering online can help overcome mobility barriers. However, both our quantitative and qualitative data point to the idea that many people still want to be able to inspect food for quality and freshness, and this is not something that will be easily solved by technology. I think this points to the continued importance of ensuring we are filling mobility gaps and using all the tools available in the practitioner toolbox to boost local shops in every neighborhood.These don’t have to be big grocers, just places that have a variety offering fresh food that can complement the dry/bulk items and other household items that people more easily order online.This is undoubtedly easier said than done, but I think it’s important to always come back to this idea that technology is a tool, but not a solution in itself,” says Howell.

Implications for Practitioners

These results have implications for planning for food access in the future, including widespread emergencies such as the pandemic, as well as changes in conditions that individuals may experience.

Practitioners — whether they work in public, private or advocacy settings — need evidence and data to both identify opportunities to tailor their services to those most in need and to support funding requests that allow them to provide new or different services. “One of the biggest contributors to this work is the data itself, which records behavior across a wide range of built and social environments over the course of a year,” said Currans.

Understanding the effects of the pandemic on food access and the adoption and use of e-commerce platforms will benefit transport planners and urban planners (the results are likely to provide information on parking provision, land use, road capacity and internet connectivity), as as well as public health professionals. The popularity of online ordering but in-store pickup indicates that people appreciate the time savings, but don’t want to pay a delivery fee. Should this increase in the future, the parking requirement at these stores may decrease, because there may be shorter residence times and a higher turnover.

The research provides insights into who doesn’t have access to food resources, who adopts technology, how new behaviors blend with old, and the potential “stickiness” of these behaviors as we recover from the pandemic.

Study looks at food buying behavior during different stages of the COVID pandemic

More information:
Kelly Clifton, data from: “Consumer Responses to Home Services During the COVID-19 Crisis” and “Recovery and Access to Home Services Opportunities After COVID-19,” (2022). DOI: 10.15760/TREC_datasets.19

Provided by Portland State University

Quote: Online grocery shopping during COVID-19: Barriers, Entry and What Happens After (2022, October 18) retrieved October 18, 2022 from – access.html

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