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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

InternetDecember 20, 2021

Supermarkets already know what you’re eating for Christmas

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Covid has made online supermarket shopping much more popular, and that includes the Christmas feast. What does this trend mean for how we eat and what we buy? Shanti Mathias explores for IRL

A frenzy by the olive oil. Half hour queues at checkout. All the best flavours of chips gone. The week before Christmas is not the most enjoyable time to go grocery shopping. It might be easier to sit in the peace of your own home, cruise the silent digital aisles, click, enter your card details, click, and have your berries, cream, and haloumi delivered to your house.

Over the last five years, online supermarket shopping has been increasingly popular in Aotearoa, a trend accelerated by the pandemic, says Paul Bartlett. As head of customer products at Foodstuffs, the cooperative that runs the Pak ‘n’ Save and New World supermarket chains, he has the (not literal) receipts. “People tried [online shopping] for the first time because of Covid, it was simple and easy and convenient, and it’s become a regular behaviour.” 

For a customer – that is, a customer living in an area with delivery – online shopping offers all kinds of efficiencies. “You can shop on the bus,” says Dave Brem, head of customer experience for Foodstuffs. He says that busy people are the target audience for online shopping delivery, while those who live in rural areas prefer click and collect. While online shopping also works well for those with disabilities or people who are self-isolating from Covid, “it’s suburban commuter lands that are the target audience, New Zealand’s enormous middle class,” says Carel Bezuidenhout, a senior lecturer in supply chain management at Massey University. 

“People want products that are traditional with a luxury twist,” says Foodstuffs about their new line of Christmas desserts. (Photo: supplied)

As a customer, online shopping probably saves you time, whether your groceries are delivered or you collect them at the store; you’re not having to pace actual aisles to figure out if polenta is in the “pasta” or “international” section. Should this efficiency translate into prices? “The retailer is not paying for displaying and checkout and maintaining shelf spaces, so there should be a discount,” says Bezuidenhout. The rising popularity of online shopping and ‘dark stores’, online distribution supermarkets that customers cannot enter, may mean that online groceries could eventually be cheaper.

Compared to international prices, supermarket food in New Zealand is expensive, which hits people with low incomes hardest; everyone needs to eat. Food prices in New Zealand have risen 55% in the last two decades. One reason given for this is a lack of competition: Foodstuffs and Woolworths, which own Countdown, are the only major players in New Zealand’s supermarket industry. Will these two corporations continue to dominate, or could online shopping offer some competition? 

“For a new entrant to come into the market without physical space, it will be very challenging to make a massive dent [in the market],” says Bezuidenhout. New Zealand’s geography and infrastructure contributes to the high price of food and lack of diverse market; having two islands, limited rail lines, and mountain ranges, as well as lots of kai being imported, drives up cost. 

At a local level, though, online ordering may provide options that supermarkets cannot. Chloe Fong hopes so; earlier this year, she quit her technology job working on the Covid tracer app to found This Local Piggy, an online delivery site partnering not with supermarkets, but with local delis, greengrocers, and Asian stores to deliver more niche ingredients. 

“People like to see their groceries before they order, which generates waste from a sustainability point of view,” she says. By directly picking up food herself – at the moment, the operation is essentially just her and her car – she protects avocados and apples from death by squeezing. A different income stream advantages the stores she works with, and means that customers can get food from local businesses delivered more easily. 

Fong has noticed that small independent sellers can’t compete with the range of products available in the supermarket. Online, though, this doesn’t have to be true; “we’re trying to join independent sellers to have the range and be able to compete in that sense.” She’s particularly interested in ingredients that supermarkets don’t stock, like the products in Asian stores. “Supermarkets don’t cater to people of diversity – and Auckland is a super diverse city,” she says. 

While This Local Piggy still has high food prices – Fong says the service is currently designed for a “foodie” crowd – the focus on local, seasonal and low-packaging food means a more carbon-friendly alternative to supermarkets. 

Chloe Fong quit her tech job to found an independent online alternative to big supermarkets. (Photo: supplied)

Having options for purchasing local groceries is important, as food is responsible for up to a third of carbon emissions worldwide. That table groaning with a Christmas feast – and all the leftovers you have to scrape into the compost bin afterwards – is part of that. 

Bezuidenhout, who studies what makes an effective supply chain, describes using a car for groceries like this: “You are driving a two or three tonne vehicle to buy bread and milk and a few other items that maybe weigh ten kilograms.” The amount of energy expended to do your shopping by car, not to mention urban congestion and expensive parking, is not particularly efficient, especially compared to the weight-optimised container ships, trains, and trucks that get your food to the supermarket. Can online ordering lower the environmental impact of food shopping?

Those who work in the sector say yes. Whether through local options like This Local Piggy or major supermarket chains, opting for online delivery can save the carbon cost of shopping in person, with a car. “Each of our online delivery trucks carries orders for up to 54 households a day … through our route optimisation work, we’d expect that our online delivery service contributes to reducing total vehicle kilometres travelled in Aotearoa,” says Sally Copland, director of brand at Countdown.  

The same goes for Foodstuffs. “A delivery van servicing multiple customers in a short window is helping take traffic off the road in urban metro areas,” says Brem. Both Countdown and Foodstuffs are electrifying their fleets to make delivery more environmentally friendly. 

To deliver effectively – the route optimisation that Copland mentions – requires data. In fact, the entire process of online shopping generates vast volumes of information about customers that corporations may not have had access to before. With online ordering, “you can see what people look at without buying, [how] long they contemplate a product,” says Bezuidenhout. Big supermarket chains “obviously analyse the living daylights out [the data]”. While supermarkets also gather information from in person shopping, online shopping makes acquiring, storing, and analysing that information even easier. 

Both Countdown and Foodstuffs have privacy policies explaining how they harvest customer data for targeted marketing and commercial insights. This is clearly explained in the Foodstuffs privacy policy, which says that customer information may be used for “data analytics, insights or data mining (including the anonymisation or aggregation of your personal information with other data to identify patterns and trends, and use the full benefit of that analysis)”. Data is also gathered through programmes like OneCard and Clubcard – these are not merely munificent means to offer discounts, but ways to gather information about shopping patterns.

At Christmas, New Zealanders return again and again to old favourites. (Photo: Getty/Aleksandr Zubkov)

Of course, this is completely normal in the e-commerce world, and the supermarket privacy policies are better than many; Brem of Foodstuffs says no data is sold to third parties, and only used internally by Foodstuffs brands and their partners. “Our focus is ensuring that any data we do collect through the ordering process is for communicating with the customer,” he adds. The effectiveness of this data collecting makes online shopping often faster and easier than going to a supermarket in-person.

As online ordering has expanded this year, supermarkets have added features built on data, such as shopping for the ingredients of a specific recipe and saving past orders so there’s no need to re-add the products you buy regularly. This helps make “the planning part of the customer journey … convenient and quicker,” says Bartlett of Foodstuffs; Countdown has similar features too. Behind the corporate-speak of “customer journeys” is the reality that the efficiency and data of online shopping may be good for customers and the environment, but ultimately these features help create profit for supermarkets. In some ways, groceries are behind clothing and utility services, where paying online has been completely normal for at least half a decade. 

While it’s worth spending time thinking about the implications of the online economy in every part of our lives from food to housing – I’d much rather do that than enter a supermarket – it’s nearly Christmas, and data can just be fun.

I ask the supermarket representatives which foods have been the most popular before Christmas. Foodstuffs data shows that in the two weeks before Christmas 2020 sales of fresh blueberries and corn on the cob were up more than 1400% percent from normal, with more than a million ears of corn sold. 

This year, with many of the Christmas delivery slots already taken, New Zealanders seem to want the same (boring) favourites.  “We’re seeing the traditional Christmas favourites trending again this year – festive favourites berries and cherries are incredibly popular and sweetcorn is looking to be our number one vege over summer,” says Countdown’s Copland. In both Foodstuffs and Countdown, sales of ham and lamb peak before Christmas, too.  

The promise of supermarkets is variety and range, and online shopping makes that even more appealing: you can choose exactly what kai you want, out of thousands of options, while sitting in your own house. But the data doesn’t lie – out of all this variety, this Christmas New Zealanders just want the same things they’ve had before.

Keep going!