Understanding Digital 'Center Store' Shopping Habits

More grocery shoppers buy pasta online than poultry, but most don't shop online exclusively

Online grocery categories can be divided into two camps: perishable items like meat, dairy and produce and the so-called center store products—peanut butter, tomato sauce, dishwashing detergent—that have longer shelf lives. 

While supermarket sites might lump these items together, online retailers often make distinctions a la Amazon Fresh vs. Amazon Prime Pantry and Jet.com and its fresh food subcategory that's available in select ZIP codes. Fresh food often has delivery surcharges because milk and eggs need to arrive same-day and can't be shipped using typical postal channels. 

Because of this, consumer packaged goods (CPG) are closer to traditional ecommerce products that shoppers are familiar with, so it would stand to reason that online grocery shoppers are more comfortable buying these items compared with perishables. 

Field Agent surveyed US online grocery shoppers in August 2018 after they made a minimum $30 purchase either for delivery or pickup and found exactly this. Fully 63% had bought center store groceries during that shopping session. Dairy and eggs (38%), meat (29%) and fresh produce (29%) had lower purchase levels. 

This pattern also held in "The eMarketer Ecommerce Insights Survey" conducted by Bizrate Insights in July 2018. The most commonly bought grocery items purchased online by US internet users were candy and snacks (17.5%) and dry food goods (17.2%). Fresh meat and poultry (9.0%) and seafood and fish (4.1%) were less popular. 

When asked by Field Agent which categories were easiest to shop for online/in-app, 49% cited center store groceries. Only 5% said meat was easiest to shop for digitally. Center store groceries also had the largest number of shoppers saying that they bought more online than they would have in-store (19%). The top reasons given were because center store groceries are easier to shop for online (58%), they saw items they wouldn't have in-store (23%) and that the prices online were better (19%). 

But it doesn't appear that center store groceries are being bought online at the same rate as in-store. There was a gap when comparing behavior between online and in-store grocery shoppers. For example, toilet paper was the leading product bought by all shoppers, but there was a 22-percentage-point difference between in-store and online. 

This was true for regularly used items like laundry detergent to less frequently bought items like canned tuna. Most online CPG shoppers don't exclusively buy these products digitally. 

It's rare for online buyers to purchase digitally all the time, so there is still room for retailers to employ initiatives to increase frequency. Field Agent asked online grocery shoppers which tactics would be "very effective" in motivating them to buy more center store items online. Accepting manufacturer coupons was No. 1, cited by 49% of respondents. Offering prices available in a retailer's weekly ad was next (34%), followed by  and a section on the website showcasing deals (34%).