Purchasing Food Online: The New Normal?

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Whether it’s out of convenience, an effort to save money, or a necessity to get just the thing you’re looking for, online shopping has become a staple for many. And it’s moved beyond just perusing for clothes and electronics; Americans are also searching for sustenance. In fact, 31% of Americans purchased food products online in the past six months. That works out to be 45% of online shoppers* purchasing food on the Internet.

Some, however, have a greater proclivity for online food purchasing than others. The activity is most prevalent among:

  • Millennials (36% vs. 31% of average Americans);
  • College grads (35% vs. 26% high school education or less);
  • Parents (37% vs. 28% of those without kids); and,
  • Those in an urban setting (38% vs. 30% suburban & 25% rural).

“As manufacturers continue to grapple with the challenges facing their industry around ecommerce, they must ask themselves: How does a consumer making a purchase in a grocery store differ from a consumer making a purchase online? Manufacturers will not only want to know differences in what people buy online vs. in-store; but, more importantly, how people buy online vs. in-store,” says Kathy Steinberg, director of The Harris Poll.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 1,995 U.S. adults aged 18+ surveyed online between June 17 and 21, 2016.

What’s on the menu?

Looking to what types of products are purchased, no one category of food takes the proverbial cake. There’s just an 8 point spread between the most popular and least popular product purchases, with snacks (20%) and non-alcoholic beverages (17%) at the top, and baking products and frozen foods at the bottom (12% each). 

But what is it that makes a food product a good fit for online purchasing? Americans say two main factors: something that’s non-perishable or has a long shelf life (49%), or a product that’s difficult to find in stores (48%). About 4 in 10 also say something easy to ship (39%), while 3 in 10 each say a product they don’t need right away (32%) or something they like to stock up on (31%).

When it comes to the specific brand that ends up on their doorstep, online shoppers are split on whether they only buy brands they already use (32%), are willing to try new, but familiar brands (34%), or are willing to try any brand, even those unfamiliar (34%).

Out with the old?

Not quite… Just 10% of all Americans (29% of online food shoppers) say the habit has replaced some or all of their routine grocery shopping trips. Online food purchasers are most often seeking something special that they can’t find in their grocery store (52%). Another 24% use it as a crutch to replace critical items when they’re running low.

Much like shopping in a traditional grocery store, everyone has their own method for online shopping. Virtual food shoppers are nearly split on whether they use a shopping list (51%) or simply browse (49%) for what will ultimately end up in their shopping cart. However, online browsers are more willing to try new brands (77%) than those who rely on a list (60%).


* “Online shoppers” are based on a discrete list of product categories. For the purposes of this survey, we defined “NO ONLINE SHOPPING” as those who have NOT purchased any of the product categories listed in the question; however, it is possible respondents may have purchased a product category online not listed in the question, and thus would not be classified as an online shopper.





This Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States between June 17 and 21, 2016 among 1,995 adults aged 18+. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population.  Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #48, June 29, 2016

By Allyssa Birth, Senior Research Analyst, The Harris Poll