Heidi Stander buys groceries about once a week but can’t recall the last time she went to the supermarket.
The Pikesville resident pulls up the Instacart app on her phone instead and orders chicken, frozen food, corn on the cob and other necessities from Wegmans and picks a delivery time. Stander, who also orders food from Amazon, likes the convenience, selection and same-day delivery.
“I’m comfortable with relying on someone else to do the shopping for me," said Stander, a retiree who said she doesn’t miss hunting for a parking spot or navigating long aisles. "I really like not going to the food store.”
Stander is part of a small but growing minority among American shoppers. In an age when consumers expect to find almost anything they want online, most people have yet to buy groceries that way. They still drive to the store, wander the aisles, examine the produce and line up to check out. Online sales account for just over 3 percent of the $700 billion grocery industry, some estimates show.
But that could be on the cusp of changing. Some analysts and grocery store executives expect a breakout year for online grocery sales, which could reach about $30 billion nationally and nearly double in the next four years, according to the Boston-based research firm Mercator Advisory Group.
“It feels like there’s a real tipping point at this time and this year," said Gregg Dorazio, director of e-commerce at Giant Food. "It feels like online grocery has really caught fire.”
As consumers grow more and more accustomed to ordering goods online, particularly from retail giants like Amazon, traditional grocers are feeling competitive pressure to keep up. Many supermarket chains are investing heavily in warehouse technology, including robotics, marketing, transaction systems and delivery logistics. Most are tapping into the growth of third-party delivery services as they strive to find the best ways to deliver perishable food to consumers’ homes in a way that satisfies picky customers used to selecting their own produce and cuts of meat.
Availability of products and delivery fees varies from store to store. Some stores offer free delivery with an annual membership fee or minimum order, while others charge a range of fees, typically less than $10, based on how quickly the customer wants it. Shoppers can browse the same departments as in stores for everything from Cheerios to carrots to fresh salmon fillet and T-bone steak. And grocers have devised options for leaving perishables if no one is home — for instance, Giant Food’s Peapod gives customers a “PodBag” to leave at their doors that keeps food cold or frozen.
In the Baltimore area, retailers such as Aldi, Giant Food, Target, The Fresh Market, Wegmans, Weis Markets and others have launched or expanded online delivery or curbside pickup in the past year. Discount grocer Aldi teamed up last fall with Instacart, which shops for customers and then delivers in as little as one hour from grocers nationwide, including Graul’s Market, ShopRite and Sprouts Farmers Market, among others locally.
The Fresh Market began same-day home delivery in May in the Baltimore area, expanding its partnership with Instacart to all 161 stores nationally, including those in Annapolis, Pikesville and Towson. After partnering with Instacart for delivery in 2017, Wegmans rolled out curbside pickup at five Maryland stores in April.
Many retailers are scrambling to keep up with Amazon, which purchased Whole Foods in August 2017, giving it a store base for its online grocery expansion.
“Amazon changed the landscape, and everyone is doing their best to launch an e-commerce platform,” said Ron Bonacci, vice president of advertising & marketing at Weis. "Everyone decided you better have that ability for your consumer.”
The Pennsylvania retailer, growing in the Baltimore area, has rapidly expanded from four stores with curbside pickup two years ago to 177 with delivery and curbside service. In July, the Weis 2 Go service launched in 61 additional stores throughout its seven-state market area. Customers can use the store’s website or app or the delivery subscription service Shipt.
“We knew we had to be responsive in this competitive environment," Bonacci said.
Weis expects online sales to “grow exponentially as consumers adopt it as a new way of life,” he said, likely doubling and tripling from the current 1 percent of its business.
Some growth will be driven by the shopping habits of millennials, who tend to be tech-savvy and view online shopping as efficient and a way to reduce car trips and help the environment, said Jeremy Diamond of Diamond Marketing Group, a Baltimore-based food retailing consultant.
“Grocers have to evolve and change with the times,” Diamond said. “You have to stay relevant. If the bigger players are doing it, then you sort of have to offer what the others are offering.”
He believes online sales will grow, but slowly, and only take a small amount of market share.
“I don’t think the grocers have it down pat yet" in terms of offering the same quality of fresh food and produce for delivery as they do in stores, he said. "That’s part of why it hasn’t grown as fast as everyone thought.”
Several customers shopping at Whole Foods in Mount Washington on Wednesday, including Linda Rosenthal, an artist who works part time from home in Homeland, said they never buy groceries online.
“I like coming and touching,” she said.
Rosenthal called grocery shopping part of her daily routine. “This is part of my neighborhood, and I come here all the time, so it’s not unusual for me to be here once a day just to pick up whatever," she said.
While Rosenthal represents the majority of U.S. consumers in her attitude toward grocery shopping, more and more people will gravitate to the online channel in coming years, Mercator Advisory said in its report. The firm expects web-based grocery sales to reach about $50 billion in the next four years as most retailers now have systems in place to take online orders.
“It’s expensive for them, but it’s a competitive feature that they must offer because U.S. consumers like the convenience and the immediacy," said Raymond Pucci, director of merchant services for Mercator.
In a survey the Food Marketing Institute released in June, consumers said they found the online experience at least equal to supermarkets in areas such as value, product freshness and customer service.
Seven grocers now account for 80 percent of the online business, according to Mercator. They include Amazon/Whole Foods, with more than a third; Kroger; Walmart; and Ahold Delhaize, which owns Giant, Peapod and Food Lion and accounted for 5 percent of the sales. Costco, FreshDirect and Albertsons round out the list.
Giant delivers through Peapod by Giant, owned by the retailer’s parent company, as well as from its stores through Instacart. Peapod started Baltimore area delivery in the summer of 2004 and now offers home delivery in 169 Maryland ZIP codes.
"The consumer adoption is really starting to take hold, " Giant’s Dorazio said. “It was almost a matter of time before the same demand for convenience and speed and ease came to groceries as well.”
Giant has found that customers who shop both in stores and online tend to spend more overall, Dorazio said.
“We are doing everything to help get behind and fuel that growth," he said, including spending heavily on warehouses, trucks and advertising. The store is aggressively expanding curbside pickup, which will be available at 100 Giant stores by the end of the year. "We want to be front and center in that online business.”
As online shopping picks up steam, it won’t necessarily mean fewer stores, but it could mean smaller stores, Weis’ Bonacci said.
“I believe the stores are going to shrink for the future and be more convenience-based," with pickup centers, he said.
Brett Felter, a 38-year-old attorney who lives in Baltimore’s Locust Point neighborhood, got on board with online grocery shopping in its infancy. He has been ordering from Safeway’s website for the past decade.
“I found it really easy, and it seemed to be cost-efficient,” said Felter, who first gave online grocery buying a try after he started using a wheelchair and was looking for alternatives to in-store shopping. That was long before the days of Grubhub and Uber eats.
He stuck with Safeway because the store offers delivery in as little as an hour and it’s free when he spends at least $150. If an item is out of stock, the system offers him replacement options such as a different size product in the same brand or the same size product in a different brand.
Sometimes, he’s found, it’s best to click on “no substitutes,” such as the time sugar-free off-brand “Oreos” came in place of Berger Cookies.
And sometimes, “produce is a coin flip," he said. “You’re not always sure what you’re going to get.”
But snafus have been relatively rare, he said. One time he received somebody else’s items mixed in with his own — 12 varieties and sizes of chicken noodle soup. The store told him to keep the cans.
“I’ve never had a really negative experience,” he said.