COVID-19 has changed the way we grocery shop

UBCO research investigates post-pandemic shopping habits.

It’s winter, it’s cold and blustery outdoors, but the kitchen cupboards are bare. And new research from UBC Okanagan suggests instead of braving the cold, this year’s consumer is going to fill an online grocery cart instead.

Indeed, Dr. Mahmudur Fatmi, an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering, says online shopping habits spiked across the globe during the pandemic — mostly as a result of social distancing measures, business closures, and travel restrictions. But he also wonders if the online trend will continue.

“Prior to COVID-19, online shopping was largely done by young, well-educated, and high-income individuals,” explains Dr. Fatmi, who is the principal investigator at UBC Okanagan’s Centre for Transportation and Land Use Research (CeTLUR). “We decided to look into a crystal ball to investigate how shopping habits will evolve as a result of the increase in online activities since the pandemic began.”

The crystal ball is, in fact, an empirical analysis to understand the future of online and in-store grocery shopping and meal consumption activities post-pandemic. For example, are consumers likely to return to the pre–COVID era of more in-store shopping and eating-out activities? Or will they continue the pandemic trend by shopping and ordering meals online?

Or perhaps newer behaviours will evolve as people prefer to do both?

Dr. Fatmi wanted to explore how in-person and online activities for a particular purpose, such as grocery shopping, complement or perhaps substitute each other. To answer these questions, he used data from a transportation survey conducted between November 2020 and January 2021. He tested the effects of population demographics, their access to different travel modes, and then built environment attributes of their neighbourhoods such as land use pattern and accessibility to different destinations such as workplace and urban cores. He then compared online and in-store shopping and meal consumption activities.

It turns out, urban dwellers are more likely to do in-store grocery shopping compared to those in the suburbs. People with a driver’s licence and access to a vehicle are less likely to use an online grocery service or take-out meal ordering. The research also determined that frequent transit users are more likely to order online groceries and they mostly prefer going out for meals.

Lower-income people were found to continue in-store grocery shopping and eating out activities.

“So many things have changed with the way we lead our lives since the start of the pandemic,” Dr. Fatmi says. “Our findings suggested that the ‘new normal’ when it comes to shopping will likely look a bit different than pre-pandemic.”

“Our model showed that people who frequently order food online are also likely to dine in at the restaurants at a higher frequency, meaning they simply prepare fewer meals at home. And people who frequently purchase their groceries online are likely to visit grocery stores less frequently.”

According to Dr. Fatmi, these findings pointed to what he called complementary and substitution effects for grocery shopping and meal consumption activities.

He says the behaviour in the way people go about their day-to-day life has undoubtedly changed during the course of the pandemic and he plans to monitor whether these shifts will be permanent.

“Although these are early estimates, the findings suggest that increased online shopping might not indicate a general decrease in travel. Rather, it might increase travel demand, congestion, and associated emissions by increased passenger and freight vehicles on the road,” he explains. “It also indicates the need for better data collection and the updating of transportation planning models with the explicit incorporation of different types of online and in-person activities for developing equitable and sustainable transportation policies post-pandemic.”

The research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and was recently presented at the Transportation Research Board Conference in Washington, DC.