On the advice of her daughter, Carolyn Keish signed up for weekly grocery deliveries through Peapod.com, an online retailer that brings necessities right to her home. The delivery person even unloads the items straight to her kitchen so she doesn’t have to worry about picking up heavy bottles of juice and iced tea.

The service has been a life-changer for Keish, who was weary of walking through long aisles with two bad knees and a cane. “It’s hard for me to go into a grocery store, pack the car, and carry [the groceries] into the house,” she explains.

She also doesn’t have to worry about the severe winter weather in her Wisconsin hometown, alleviating fears of slipping and falling in the snow and ice.

Peapod is one of the strongholds of online grocery and food delivery services, established in 1989. But, the past few years have seen a major growth in websites that offer the convenience of buying staples from a laptop or phone. A survey by Brick Meet Click, released in March of this year, finds that one in five shoppers in the United States buys groceries over the Internet and two in five have at some point.

Randy Evins, senior principal of IVE Food and Drug at SAP Retail, which provides software for retailers, maintains there are three reasons for people to turn to the Internet for food needs: “to get a specific product they cannot easily find in a store they frequent; for added convenience; or for subscription-based services that help ensure regularly used products are always on hand.”

While these innovations are a blessing for older consumers like Keish, who is in her 60s and looking for an easier way to go about her tasks, they’ve especially been embraced by younger customers who crave alternatives to standing in a line after a long day of work or caring for children.

“The sweet spot [is] young families,” says Barry Clogan, senior vice president of business consulting services at MyWebGrocer, which helps retailers with product dissemination, among other things. “It’s that flexibility and convenience that customers want. That’s where you get loyal customers.”

Because big names have introduced lines such as Amazon Fresh and Google Express, which transport anything from quinoa to bananas overnight, smaller companies have had to up their game in the past few years so that they don’t go the way of Circuit City and Borders. They must stay competitive or risk becoming extinct. The advent of companies like Instacart, especially, which promises goods in an hour with the help of personal shoppers that are at your beck and call, has kept big box chains on their toes. Even mom-and-pops understand the importance of a web presence.

“Customers expect to engage with a brand whatever way they want,” Clogan expounds. “If you don’t engage with them online, you lose a certain amount of loyalty and wallet share.”

For his four-year-old daughter, sitting with her dad and choosing items on an iPad is already the norm. “She’s probably shopped more times that way than in a physical grocery store,” he adds.

Customers who are planning for a special event or experimenting with new recipes don’t have to bring hand-written lists to their local supermarkets and scramble through rows of food for ingredients they may not find; they’re able to browse potential recipes and click on items they want sent to them on one device, all while sitting on their couches, during their lunch breaks at work, or even on the train on the way home from work.

Nancy Youssef, a Chicago-based physician who works 13-hour days, simply doesn’t have the time she’d like to hit up a local shop, so if the vendors can come to her instead, she’s happy to take them up on that offer. “Sometimes I’m too exhausted on my days off to be running to these grocery stores and taking the time to cook and clean,” she says. Instacart has also come in handy when she was too ill to be able to leave the house.

Youssef has also recently embraced Blue Apron, which delivers ingredients for meals on a weekly basis. The company and its ilk are the latest iterations in online convenience that push reluctant or busy cooks to embrace the idea of a homemade dinner. Those interested sign up, choose foods they don’t want included (for those with dietary restrictions), pick how many people will be eating, and decide on the number of entrees a week they want to receive. They then are provided with fresh vegetables, meats, and spices along with step-by-step recipe cards that have pictures of the process (chopping, blanching, and sautéing) and the final product. The meals are proportioned and usually take less than an hour to prepare, and each box comes with everything necessary to whip up dinner, except for small staple items such as salt, pepper, and olive oil.

Youssef is of Egyptian descent, and her husband has an Indian background. Both were looking for alternatives to fare they had eaten their whole lives. “It’s nice to just have some new ideas,” she expands. “It’s easy, but I have learned some new techniques and new ideas about how to make food, about how to cook certain kinds of food.” The site also comes with videos for anyone who is fuzzy on a cooking technique or wants to learn more.

Samina Yousuf, a Bloomington, Illinois, resident who also wanted to expand beyond a Pakistani palate, went through a year of Blue Apron recipes. “It’s actually really fun to make the meals because they’re usually very different from what I would usually cook,” she says. Adding to the fun? The fact that she and her husband would make the meals together.

Because her family eats zabiha halal meat, she opted for a fish and vegetarian menu. While she was exposed to many recipes she wouldn’t have tried otherwise, Yousuf concedes the lack of meat is one of the reasons she is momentarily stopping deliveries.

But, like others who have signed up for Blue Apron or the newer Plated, Yousuf appreciates the expansion of her culinary palate (such as exposure to fennel, which she had never tried before), that the portion sizes are controlled, and that the meals are balanced and healthy. And, because ingredients come in exactly the helpings needed, there’s no waste.

“I had very few meals that we didn’t eat or we didn’t like,” she adds. The quality ingredients and the meted-out spice selections meant tasty, fresh cuisine. Plus, the price, for Yousuf, came to be about the same as she would have spent in any given week at a store but with less hassle.

The price is a selling point for Keish, as well, who finds Peapod rates comparable to what she would find otherwise, and the delivery cost is low enough to compensate for the convenience. She also doesn’t have to worry about being swayed by unnecessary items that come with shopping in a physical building. “You end up purchasing more than what you came for,” she says.

However, Clogan contends that online retailers can still entice consumers with new products, so they’re not losing out on that facet of face-to-face interaction. Anyone who has purchased on Amazon knows that the site will offer recommendations, and food-related merchants are no different.

The bottom line is that convenience is the key for most families who likely have both spouses working, so web grocery sales are likely to just keep expanding.

“When you’re busy at home thinking ‘how am I going to have time to go grocery shopping and cook’,” Youssef explains, “this is where the help comes in.”


Have groceries delivered to your home with the click of a few buttons.

  • Peapod
  • Amazon Fresh
  • Google Express
  • Blue Apron
  • Plated
  • Instacart

Nadia Malik holds a degree in journalism and is a former reporter for a Chicago-area newspaper. She has written for websites and publications and has also worked for several non-profit organizations.