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Social Technology Changes Food Shopping

Doesn’t it seem like a lifetime ago that “savvy” grocery shoppers trudged behind shopping carts armed with folders full of carefully arranged coupons, a calculator for tallying up purchases and the weekly circular spread out as they navigated the aisles and perimeters of grocery stores? Unlike many grocers, today’s consumers have evolved into a new breed of shopper, pre-shopping at home and then in the store, using a wide array of apps, devices and social media tools to perform any number of tasks: list making, coupon retrieval, recipe confirmation, barcode query, conversations with family members, opinion seeking. With social technologies and mobile devices, shopping for food has changed forever: at the intersection of these changes lies the holy grail of food shopping needs, where formerly disparate tasks like coupons, lists and meal ideas converge to forge a new frontier for shoppers today.

Just five years ago, with sponsorship from an in-store kiosk provider, The Hartman Group conducted a series of online forums for grocery shoppers asking questions that sought to determine which tasks and technologies shoppers hoped they’d be able to use in the near future to make their grocery shopping trips more relevant. Overwhelmingly, consumers claim they want to be able to take grocery lists from home and, while shopping in-store, have access to online coupons, product descriptions, recipes and maybe friends and families—in other words, they wanted everything in one convenient place.

Flash forward to today and our latest report, Clicks & Cravings: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture, which finds that shoppers are engaging in exactly these behaviors and more. Consider that, in general, social technology changes how we shop and our shopping experience because:

  • We do “research” before trying or buying
  • We use social media to mitigate risk and be sure we’re getting the best value and making the most informed decisions
  • We assess opinions from review websites, online forums and personal networks. We base decisions on the number of stars, reviews and caliber of comments
  • We also rant or rave after we’ve eaten and shopped
  • We add our experiences and opinions to the user-generated review process when we’re really upset or really impressed
  • Overall, social technology has become part of the pre-shop and post-shop experiences

Related to these observations, when consumers were asked to think back on in-store behaviors in the past month:

  • 40% said they called someone in their household to ask about items they needed while shopping
  • 29% said they texted someone in their household to ask about needed items while shopping
  • 18% said they consulted a shopping list maintained online or on their phone
  • 16% used a smartphone to find or consult a recipe
  • 13% used a smartphone app to search for an online coupon

While some of these numbers seem low, remember that these are shoppers doing these things in stores as opposed to the safety of their table at home and, perhaps more importantly, most shoppers are still getting used to various applications and uses available on their smartphones—thus, these are newly emerging behaviors. When asked in which ways they had used the Internet, mobile phones or other online tools at home prior to shopping, 47% of shoppers said they searched for online/digital coupons and specials and 42% searched online recipes to “figure out what I needed,” indicating that online and social media behaviors are more common pre-shop.

Of interest, too, is that use of social media and online devices doesn’t end once a shopping trip is complete; as documented in our previous Hartbeat on “Social Media as Mealtime Companion” (April 26, 2012), consumers are also using technology both while cooking and then while eating meals, or after.


Shopping for food has forever changed with the advent of mobile devices, apps and the emerging intersection of shoppers having the ability to consult lists, recipes and coupons and a variety of social technology platforms—all while dialing or texting home.

To remain relevant to changing shoppers today, retailers must consider where their social technology communications will intersect with shoppers across ever-increasingly complex path-to-purchase experiences.

Above all, consumers tell us they wish they could put their smartphones to better use in-store:

“I wish all the coupons could be right there on my phone as soon as I walk in the door. Usually, by the time I remember, it’s too late.” – Bari, Seattle

“Stores should have apps for sale items. So, if a cut of meat is on sale, I can get a simple recipe as I walk by. Then I would buy it.” – Leigh, Seattle



Culture Technology/Social Media


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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