Is online grocery shopping right for you?

Online grocery shopping isn't for everyone. But the service is becoming more widespread, and if you live a certain lifestyle, it may be worth a test drive. 

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
A Safeway online shopping advertisement is shown at a Safeway store in San Francisco. For people who live in large cities, have a hard time getting to the grocery store, or already shop online frequently, online grocery shopping may be worth a try.

There are some of us who love grocery shopping. Comparing products side-by-side according to ingredients; smelling, prodding, and tapping the produce; analyzing the meat fat patterns before making a selection, and so on. But if you're the type of shopper who gets easily aggravated by time spent rolling a cart down crowded aisles, waiting in checkout lines, loading up the car, and then lugging your haul inside, you may want to send your significant other to the store instead — or you could just try out online grocery shopping.

Wouldn't it be ideal to get groceries from your favorite local supermarket, without ever having to leave the comfort of the couch? An ever-growing number of grocers know the aforementioned pains for shoppers, and are thus offering ways for customers to order their groceries online, sometimes for delivery, other times for pickup. The move from overly-lit grocery store aisles to the digital realm is both a time-saver and a peaceful alternative to the hassles of the supermarket. But is online grocery shopping for you? Here's a checklist to help you find out; if any of these apply to you and your lifestyle, then the service might be worth a test drive.

You Live in a Large City

More and more supermarkets are experimenting with allowing customers to place their orders online. For example, Peapod — owned by Royal Ahold, a large chain of stores that includes Stop & Shop and Giant, among others — offers grocery delivery in major metro areas, mostly on the East Coast, and it will expand to additional locations in 2013. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company offers online grocery shopping for many of its A&P stores (after emerging from bankruptcy earlier this year) in the Northeast tri-state area, while Safeway — the fifth largest American supermarket chain — offers grocery delivery in markets nationwide under its own brand as well as its owned stores: Vons, Randalls, and Tom Thumb.

That said, some delivery services, such as those for Hy-Vee stores, are operated by third-parties not affiliated with the actual supermarket. For this reason, they don't honor store deals, pricing, or coupon policies.

There are also online grocery services that don't have a brick-and-mortar component, like Amazon Fresh, which currently supports markets in the Seattle metro area. (Alternatively, Amazon Grocery offers items in bulk nationwide.) Other online services include Fresh Direct (available in the New York City and Philadelphia area only), as well as ShopFoodEx, Netgrocer, and a subscription-style frozen food site called Schwan's, all of which make deliveries throughout most of the U.S.

Your Grocery Shopping Is Quick and Routine

If there are regular items that your household regularly needs, especially within the nonperishable packaged goods category, then you will likely find shopping for these items online quick and painless, since you're essentially sticking to an unchanging list. Amazon takes the idea of such hassle-free shopping a step further though with its Subscribe & Save service: it offers scheduled automatic replenishment of basic items at a 5% discount. "These services take your stock-up trip and make it a no-brainer," says Liz Fogerty, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Planning at InMarketing Services, a retail shopper marketing agency.

Additionally, the more you use the service, the more you can save. Amazon recently announced that the extra discount for members with five subscriptions at a time jumps from 5% to 15% off. However, keep in mind that the prices on these items can change between shipments, and you should be aware that a special sale when you subscribe likely won't be offered on future shipments.

You Can't Get to the Store Easily

Recent research from Forrester suggests that convenience is the biggest factor in why people choose to grocery shop online. "We have seen that it's a real family solution for a busy couple with kids," says Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst at Forrester. As more and more consumers become aware of delivery and store pickup options for groceries, the service offerings have grown. That's why Peapod placed coded transit ads on Philadelphia train platforms, to encourage commuters to shop for goods in the morning and schedule a home delivery for later in the day.

You Already Love Shopping Online

If you're already a savvy online shopper, switching to online grocery shopping will be a breeze. Stores are making it easier and easier to buy their goods outside of the home including via mobile apps that allow for digital grocery shopping anytime, anywhere. Delivery routes are expanding, too, and in-store pickup options are becoming more and more common.

You're on a Budget

Have you ever headed to the market to pick up "just a few things" and walked out with arms full of groceries and no bills left in your wallet? Turns out, this is less likely to happen online. "We have found in our research that shopping online using a pre-made, stored list prevents shoppers from usual impulse buys in-store," says Fogerty. "Online grocery shopping allows you to effectively and quickly stick to your list by getting you out of the store."

Moreover, many local supermarkets still accept manufacturer coupons online, in line with store policies. However, some stores like Amazon and Walmart don't permit coupon clipping. The former has its own coupons and deals, and the latter accepts coupons in-store, but not online for groceries. "You'll have the best chance of using coupons, deals, and finding savings if you shop online at your favorite local grocery store, where you can use your loyalty card, too," says Fogerty. That said, according to Mulpuru, to date coupons have been widely underused, as price is not the main concern for many people who choose to grocery shop online.

You Can Afford the Delivery Fee

While online deals abound in most other categories, online grocery shopping is not always as cost-effective because of delivery fees and bulk purchase requirements. Some goods are sold only in large quantities, as on Amazon and Meijer, so initial orders may cost more, and you need to be aware of unit prices to be sure you are getting a good deal. That said, some merchants offer delivery subscriptions wherein the customer pays a base rate and is entitled to unlimited and free deliveries for a particular period of time.

You're Shopping for Specialty Items

This is one area where online grocery shopping really shines, says Smulpuru. If you are in the market for gluten-free, organic, kosher, or other local specialty items, online shopping is an easy way to find these goods under one roof. In addition, online grocery markets such as Relay Foods bring local farmers, food artisans, and specialty foods into the mix.

You're Willing to Try Anything Once

If you're willing to give online grocery shopping a go, you'll likely be rewarded! Most supermarkets waive the delivery free for new customers, allowing for a risk-free first order. Some sites will also offer free delivery upon reaching a minimum order. For example, Raleys in California has no service charge on orders over $100; Walmart likewise doesn't charge for shipping on orders of $45 or more (assuming the items are eligible for home delivery).

To avoid any and all fees associated with replenishing your cupboards by way of online shopping, you can always opt for in-store pickup when available. Many supermarkets even offer curb-side pick-up, meaning you don't even have to get out of your car! Talk about a time-saver.

While Fresh Direct and Peapod may be two of the most well-known store-to-door grocery services, the number of markets offering home (and office) delivery is growing. Are you an anti-grocery store shopper, already having your weekly provisions delivered at home? Or for those of you who haven't made the leap, does the convenience of shopping for groceries from anywhere entice you to try these services? Sound off in the comments below.

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