Hartman Group: Don’t downplay the online threat

Could traditional supermarkets disappear in 20 years?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Hartman Group: Don’t downplay the online threat

Related tags Supermarket Retailing

As the immediate shock of the Amazon Whole Foods deal wears off, and spooked retailers are reassured that just 1% of US food and beverage retail sales are generated online,* they would be wise to remember that not all growth curves are linear, says Hartman Group, which says steady food ecommerce growth in the next 10 years could be followed by 10 years of truly explosive growth.

Writing in the latest edition of Hartbeat Exec, entitled The Future of Ecommerce in Modern Food Culture​, ​Hartman Group CEO Laurie Demeritt explained: “The biggest immediate question in front of us regarding the future growth in online food shopping is: Are ecommerce food sales growing linearly or non-linearly?”

If it’s the latter, she said, industry stakeholders should be taking the online threat significantly more seriously. By the end of the 1950s, for example, she said, the impact of the modern self-service supermarket was “still minimal​.” A couple of decades later, and it had completely transformed the food retail landscape, catching many by surprise.

What if the supermarket could itself be superseded by more convenient forms of shopping in 20 years, as consumers increasingly shop for food online, asked Demeritt:  “We do not see many people in the retail ecosystem taking this as seriously as they probably should.”

American food shopping habits are changing

One thing we do know is that there is an increasing disconnect between the mainline retail ecosystem of thousands of large stores designed for extended 45-60-minute pantry stock-up trips, and the way many Americans are now shopping and meal planning (on the cuff), she said.

“The behavioral workaround for most shoppers is simply to shop the perimeter and/or perimeter end caps of the oversized stores they enter… According to IRI’s latest data, 64% of American grocery trips are now quick trips focused on rapid shopping time for a limited basket/cart full of items. Only 11% of trips are for big pantry stockups. And quick trips bring in the largest share of dollars today, something that’s very new compared to 10 years ago.

“As increased urban and suburban population densities further exacerbate rush hour traffic in top markets, the time inefficiency of brick and mortar shopping, even 2-3 miles from home, is becoming noticeably irritating to more and more shoppers, along with the oversized stores.”

If online platforms can cater to this growing trend towards small basket purchasing combining fresh and shelf-stable groceries, they offer significant advantages over bricks and mortar operations, she said. What could be more convenient than placing an online order during your lunch break at work and collecting it on the way home, or ordering what you’ll need for the following night’s dinner when you have a spare moment before bedtime?

The online shopping experience

As for the online shopping experience, while the virtual (potentially limitless) shelf presents new challenges, it can also be far more efficient, she argued. Instead of spending the bulk of their time physically navigating the store or waiting in line at the checkout, online shoppers can re-order their favorite items, add a few tweaks here and there and check out in moments.

Time saved on unproductive waiting and instore navigation can in turn be spent on comparing products, researching new brands, and interacting with brand owners through contextual information that isn’t available in bricks and mortar stores, where all you can really look at is the package itself and staff rarely have any product expertise, she added.

“Online grocery is both the cause and the beneficiary of a spreading cultural belief that better things can be done with our time than physically retrieving our groceries from brick and mortar locations.”

And should pantry shopping ultimately collapse in favor of just-in-time meal shopping, she observed, conventional supermarkets could “more or less vanish within 20 years, replaced by fresh specialists, continued club sales, and online sales.”

*Euromonitor, Hartman Group analysis, The Future of Ecommerce in Modern Food Culture​,​ September 2017

What's for dinner tonight?

Interested in navigating the direct to consumer meal kit/delivery space? And what about healthy vending?

Checkout our awesome line up of speakers at FOOD VISION USA 2017​ ​, featuring execs from Chef'd, Terra's Kitchen, Sun Basket, PeaPod and Farmer's Fridge. 

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