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Food adventure: How quickly can digital start-ups disrupt food shopping?

shopping cart key on keyboardThere’s an explosion of start-ups attempting to shatter the very notion of grocery shopping by converting that habit into a practice of digitally driven, occasion-based provisioning. SpoonRocket. Munchery. Blue Apron. GrubHub. The list goes on, and everyone is following them closely in this slow-growth retail environment.

As with any retail or digital start-up – or any entrepreneurial endeavor at all, for that matter – only a fraction of the companies that wade in actually make it long-term. The fun, in the case of would-be category disruptors, is watching how it all plays out with consumers and where it takes us next.

Funnily enough, the complexity of digitally oriented food start-ups sometimes creates as many problems as it solves. In trying to save consumers time over traditional grocery shopping and restaurant ordering, they make trade-offs:

  • SpoonRocket removes choice in return for ultra-fast delivery times of fresh meals.
  • Munchery requires customers to reheat in exchange for high-end dinners.  
  • Blue Apron has people cooking fairly elaborate meals three times a week, but it locates the recipes and ingredients.

Tolerance for such trade-offs is high, especially among digital natives, and can be seen as the price of trying something new and adventurous. The first adopters are often people urban and youngish, people who do not easily accept disappointing meals but also do not want to cook regularly for themselves.

Technology is allowing that group not only to order meal kits delivered to their doorsteps, but also to participate in other food-centered experiences that were formerly the domain of food connoisseurs. They check restaurant reviews online, use smartphones to learn more about menu items before ordering and digitally share meal photos and ideas with friends.

Still, adoption is slow. Only 13% of smartphone users recently used a meal-kit or fresh-meals service, The Hartman Group found in its new report, Digital Food Life 2014. The start-ups have not gained enough traction to disrupt mainstream shopping channels – but they offer enticing alternatives in a world where consumers seek flexibility and more interesting flavors and food experiences.

Convenience stores eventually convinced us to pay more for less variety if they were always within a one-mile drive. These cultural habits do not change as quickly as some entrepreneurs might hope, and there will surely be a shake-out among digital food start-ups. But it’s fascinating to explore how consumers interact with them and hear what they want and where they’re likely to go next.

We hope you’ll join us in tracking this new food adventure. Download the report overview and order form for Digital Food Life 2014.


Consumer Demographics Consumer Package Goods Culture Retail/Shopper Insights


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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