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Online grocery shopping becomes fastest-growing sector in US retail

Joe Taschler and Sarah Hauer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on

Published in Science & Technology News

MILWAUKEE -- Because of people like Sarah Fracek -- and some who aren't at all like her -- a retail sector that once seemed nearly immune to the internet's economic disruption has become an increasingly digital thing.

Fracek does almost all of her grocery shopping online.

"I hate going into a grocery store," said Fracek, who doesn't mind spending a few extra dollars to have someone else assemble her grocery order and either deliver it or have it ready for her to pick up.

"I'm working super late, and I really value the time that I have that's 'me' time," she said.

A tech-savvy, time-starved population, led by people like Fracek in the 18-35 age group, has catapulted digital grocery shopping into the fastest-growing segment in U.S. retail.

"This is no longer something to just keep an eye on," said the Food Marketing Institute, a retail food trade group based in Arlington, Va. "It's happening, and it's habituating very large numbers of people very quickly to online-only providers and to the online channel for groceries."

The organization has been surveying trends in the industry for 40 years. Its latest survey, released this month, describes growth the likes of which it doesn't ever expect to see again: In 2017, 43 percent of millennials surveyed said they shop online for groceries at least occasionally -- a 50 percent jump from 2016, with much of the growth coming among those who say they shop for groceries online "either fairly often or all the time."

The phenomenon is not necessarily bad for conventional grocery stores, which are moving quickly and aggressively into the digital marketplace.

Milwaukee-based Sendik's Food Markets introduced online grocery service in the fall of 2015.

"Research will tell you it is the fastest-growing form of all retail by leaps and bounds, far surpassing electronics and all other components of the online space," said Mark Birmingham, vice president of administration and development at the company.

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