What We’re Buying and Where: Breaking Down Purchase Habits in the Grocery Category

Dec 11, 2019

We’ve all done it. We’ve wandered the aisles with our lists, we’ve poked and prodded the produce, we’ve pondered boxes and labels, and we’ve gone home hopefully satisfied with what we purchased (except for the ice cream that melted in the car).  

Grocery shopping is one of those universally necessary and unavoidable activities and is yet a decidedly personal experience for each of us. What we buy, how much we buy, why we choose the brands and products we do, and where we shop comes in as many variations as there are cereal brands on the shelves.  

But even in the wild grocery frontier — where choice and variety rule the day, and where new, more convenient, more personalized ways to acquire our food and sundries continue to make inroads into our lives — there are still some patterns and consistencies to be found.  

Our previous research sought to uncover the purchase habits of consumers in the grocery category. Here are a few of our interesting findings.  

Where grocery consumers shop 

Aside from the fact that you can have groceries delivered to your door now, it turns out that in-person grocery shopping is still a thing. A recent study showed that most consumers (84%) “like to inspect and pick out their own products” while some (60%) simply “favor the atmosphere and experience of shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.” 

This favorability toward in-person grocery shopping tracks with our research as well. We found the primary channel for grocery shopping is usually a supermarket, so that hasn’t changed much. But some consumers do choose other outlets like mass merchandisers or club stores as their primary grocery provider. Here’s how the numbers shake out:  

  • 50% – supermarket 
  • 29% – mass merchandiser (e.g., Walmart, Target) 
  • 11% – club store (e.g., Sam’s Club, Costco, BJ’s) 
  • 7% – natural food store (e.g., Whole Foods, Vitamin Cottage) 
  • 2% – online grocery retailer 
  • 1% – other 

To get even more specific, here are the stores where consumers are predominantly shopping within those channels: 

  • 69% – Walmart Supercenter 
  • 55% – Kroger 
  • 37% – Sam’s Club 
  • 36% – Costco 
  • 33% – Whole Foods 
  • 26% – Trader Joe’s 
  • 24% – Safeway 
  • 21% – Albertsons 

What grocery consumers buy  

Grocery stores today are probably quite a bit different than your grandparents’ Processed Food-o-Rama, but depending on who you ask, maybe that’s okay.  

Take the organic category, for example. Organic has firmly anchored itself in the shopping public, with organic food sales at $45 billion in the United States and up to $97 billion worldwide, according to some of the latest data.  

Our research found that among organic food purchasers, the following organic food items are purchased most frequently: 

  • 69% – seafood 
  • 66% – canned goods 
  • 65% – fresh produce 
  • 61% – fruit, dairy, bakery, or soup items 
  • 57% – deli 
  • 56% – beans 
  • 50% – meat 
  • 42% – snacks 
  • 22% – baby food 

Let’s get back to that other trend we hinted about: online grocery shopping. 

Like other retail categories, the grocery category has undergone its own e-commerce calibration. And while shopping in person for groceries may still be widely preferred, at least for now, it’s predicted that in the next few years 70% of Americans will be doing at least some grocery shopping online.  

In the mean time, our research showed that men, millennials, consumers living in urban conditions, and consumers with children are the ones taking advantage of the convenience of e-commerce. They currently purchase a greater variety of the following grocery food items online: 

  • 83% – dry food 
  • 74% – canned goods 
  • 53% – bread or bakery items 
  • 48% – frozen food 
  • 41% – fresh fruit, vegetables 
  • 40% – dairy products 
  • 39% – fresh meat 

Which food categories are growing  

Growing in sales, that is — not in a high-tech greenhouse. Our research showed that the bottled beverage and snack food categories — especially fresh and high-protein foods for the latter — are gaining in popularity at grocery stores. 

Here are the most popular bottled beverages purchased:  

  • 82% – fruit juice 
  • 79% – tea-based drinks 
  • 74% – iced tea 
  • 50% – coconut water 
  • 48% – energy drinks 
  • 29% – kombucha 

 And here are the most popular snack foods purchased: 

  • 96% – fresh fruit 
  • 95% – cereal or granola bars 
  • 92% – crackers, cheese 
  • 90% – fresh vegetables 
  • 89% – dairy milk 
  • 87% – cookies 
  • 86% – fruit snacks 
  • 76% – juice boxes 
  • 68% – applesauce 
  • 48% – protein or nutrition bars 
  • 44% – dried fruit 
  • 13% – soy milk 

While it’s fun to look at the numbers and situate ourselves within the findings, the data does shed valuable light for consumer insights teams, product developers, and marketers on where the grocery category may be headed. Keeping up with shifts in both the market and consumer expectations has to involve a good understanding of purchasing habits and the attitudes and motivations behind them. 

Check out this case study to see how Nestlé leveraged agile market research to drastically reduce their innovation cycle time and get their new product to market faster.

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© 2019 GutCheck is a registered trademark of Brainyak, Inc. All rights reserved.