The supermarket of the future may be smaller and fresher

Besides fueling the growth of online grocery shopping and delivery services, the coronavirus pandemic also may transform supermarkets, where Americans spend more than $700 billion a year. Purdue economist Jayson Lusk envisions that supermarkets, typically nearly an acre in size, will become smaller and put focus more on foods that shoppers want to select for themselves.

“Fresh fruit and vegetables, meats and those things that many of us want to see and pick out with our own hands and look at with our own eyes,” said Lusk on Tuesday in describing a potential longer-term change in grocery shopping. “All the rest of the store, it’s a little more homogeneous, more packaged and processed, that stuff we may increasingly rely on Amazon or direct delivery types of services.”

If online grocers can supply the basics, “that could be a boon for Main Street-style local shopping” that offers more attentive service on the high-priced or specialized items on the shopping list, wrote Ian Bogost in The Atlantic last week. “The worrying future is more likely, however. Big-box retailers could tighten their grip even further.”

In either of the post-pandemic outcomes posited by Bogost, online shopping and delivery would account for a larger share of grocery sales than beforehand. A year ago, the supermarket industry forecast that Americans would spend $100 billion a year, or $850 per household, to buy groceries online by 2022 or 2024. Stay-at-home orders have accelerated the shift. The chief executive of a company that promotes digital shopping estimated that online groceries, 3 percent of sales before the pandemic, will reach “the double digits” as a result of it.

For the moment, the majority of shoppers are going to the store rather than the Web, said Supermarket News. In a Harris Interactive/Toluna survey, 70 percent said they went to the supermarket for their groceries. Sixty percent of participants in the survey said they were unable to buy products because of shortages and 47 percent said they paid more than the normally would for an item.

There are more than 38,000 supermarkets in the country and they stock, on average, 33,000 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group.

During a farmdoc Daily Live webinar, Lusk said there is plenty of food in America although shoppers may not be able to find the item or quantity that they want. Americans went on a grocery shopping spree in late March as the scope of the coronavirus became apparent. Pork sales doubled in the week ending March 22, for example, and sales of beef, pork and chicken are running from 30 to 40 percent higher than in April 2019.

“The supply chain did a pretty remarkable job dealing with the incredible disruption, by and large,” said Lusk.