The Evolution of Grocery Shopping


Grocery shopping definitely isn’t what it used to be. When I was a kid in the early 80’s, my mother would toss my brother and I into our family minivan and we’d drive to our local grocery store for the weekly stock-up trip. She would have her coupons and ads in hand, ready to save and take advantage of weekly sales. She usually shopped on auto-pilot and rarely veered from the list. She was budget conscious yet brand loyal. She purchased many of the brands my grandmother used because they were trusted, familiar and nostalgic. I never noticed her (or any other shoppers around us, for that matter) paying especially close attention to things like package labels, ingredients, colorings or additives. And when she would make her way to the checkout line, my mother would pay by writing a paper check made out to the supermarket, finally recording it in her balance ledger before we left. Maybe, if my brother and I were well behaved, we earned a gumball from the machine on our way out.

As much as I don’t like to date myself, this sounds pretty antiquated – doesn’t it? The landscape of grocery shopping has evolved by leaps and bounds since I was a child. It goes without saying that the “pay-by-paper-check” times are (mostly) behind us, and that no checkout line is equipped without a credit card machine, most recently with a chip reader. Today’s grocery stores also have express checkout lines for shoppers popping in for a quick trip, reinforcing that shopping behaviors extend beyond the weekly stock up trip. Consumer habits have changed.

I now walk the grocery aisles with my own children in tow (but no family minivan yet) and the brands are shouting at us from the shelves, begging for consideration to try or switch or save. Words and trends like superfood, organic, antioxidants, non GMO, gluten free, probiotics, Whole 30 and vegan are seen on product packaging and shelf signage throughout the store. Brands now promote sweepstakes, partnerships or exclusive offers, asking shoppers to scan a code or go online. Consider the fact that in the mid ‘70’s, the typical grocery store featured less than 9,000 products. Today, that number is closer to 45,000 different items. There are more brand choices (and brand messages) than ever.

Or you know what? Modern times allow us to skip the long (or express) checkout all together. Many retailers are now embracing online grocery shopping, including grocery giants like Whole Foods and Walmart. Recent studies show that about 23% of American households are now choosing and buying their groceries online, according to a 2017 study by the Food Marketing Institute and Nielsen. Still, many shoppers are resistant to such tech-savvy buying patterns simply because of their desire to see, touch and engage with the product or brand in-person – especially when it comes to produce or meat products. And what would modern times be without Amazon swooping in to save the day by delivering a unique solution for long checkout lines with their Amazon Go “Just Walk Out” technology.

The retail evolution over the past 3 decades is astounding. As I reflect back on my mother’s grocery trips and how different my shopper buying patterns are, I can’t help but wonder if those were simpler times. Shoppers today have many more options and much more at their fingertips, including the click of a digital button to endless product options to skipping the checkout line all together. While more convenient, with that comes a sometimes-dizzying world filled with multiple options, brand messages and buzzwords across categories. How does a brand or product break through the clutter? We’ll save that for the next episode.