Do online grocers have a transparency problem?

Photo: Getty Images/LightFieldStudios
Nov 02, 2020

Just over half (53 percent) of shoppers buying groceries online find it either challenging or extremely challenging to make sure a product meets their diet and wellness goals, according to recent research from Label Insight and FMI, the food industry association.

The survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers who shopped in-store and online for groceries the month prior found only 18 percent never run into challenges.

The majority of those who have adopted online grocery shopping (64 percent) were highly focused on buying products for diets or other health-related programs, either for themselves or other household members.

“Given how the grocery landscape has evolved due to COVID-19, customer expectations have reached new heights, especially when it comes to their focus on health and wellness,” said Tim Whiting, VP, marketing at Label Insight, in a statement.

A new university study from researchers analyzing 12 grocery store websites likewise found shortcomings in online information, including that 15 percent of the sites were missing the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient statement required on product packaging.

Other findings of the study:

  • The legibility of nutrition facts panels and ingredient statements varied drastically, with some being ranked as having “exceptional legibility” and others having “poor legibility.” 
  • Most stores offered the ability to filter search results by a nutrition-related food category, such as a search for gluten-free foods.
  • No stores offered the ability to sort search results by a specific nutrition element, such as the milligrams of sodium per serving or per item.

Further research is planned on which nutrition information on online grocery shopping sites is lacking and the potential reasons for the gaps and their possible solutions.

A lack of uniformity online seems to be one challenge as some grocery sites attempt to mimic the experience of reading circulars and others do not. Fulfilling information needs beyond nutritional content is also necessary. A YouGov survey from last year found the most important factor when grocery shopping (offline and online) was cost, cited by 88 percent; followed in the top-five by ease of preparation, 76 percent; speed of preparation, 68 percent; fat content, 66 percent; and where it is sourced from, also 66 percent.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is finding nutrition and other information about food items still much easier in-store than online? Do you see challenges accessing online content as more of a learning curve for shoppers or will it require an overhaul of many grocery websites?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Switching stores is easier than ever, and laggards will continue to lose share if website functionality doesn’t make the grade. "
"There is no excuse not to provide the information in an easy-to-find and easy-to-understand format."
"In a nutshell – make the manufacturers do the lift and ensure your ordering platform can auto-populate the customer interface."

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22 Comments on "Do online grocers have a transparency problem?"

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Neil Saunders

Good online grocers do two things to help with this. First, they allow consumers to see good resolution images of all labels on the product. Second, they classify their products so consumers can quickly search by classifications like gluten free, and they show this information in the product narrative. Sadly, a lot of retailers are not that good at consistently giving this level of detail.

Paula Rosenblum

I feel like if people really want to know, they can look it up elsewhere. There are apps that have all this information. I have used myfitnesspal for years.

I am much more concerned about inventory accuracy and getting what I ask for than I am about ordering things I eat all the time.

I somehow think this is a tempest in a teapot.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
2 years 2 months ago

There certainly is a transparency problem for online grocery. Product information on ingredients and sourcing is lacking for a lot of products and it is a monumental project to correct due to the sheer volume of products to update. Ideally, all consumable products should have complete ingredient profiles and websites should allow consumers to filter out products that don’t meet their dietary profile restrictions. We have a ways to go, but right now grocers are more concerned about solving the transparency of inventory accuracy and profitable fulfillment for online orders.

Zel Bianco

Finding images of nutrition information that should be displayed very clearly should not be so difficult for customers. Shoppers should also be able to search by nutrition, ingredients and other information that may be vital. Just being able to search for gluten free is just not going to cut it. This seems like some retailers took the cheap way out and did not plan and test their sites to be user friendly. “Consumer focus,” which we all harp on, needs to go beyond talk. It needs to be implemented all the way to the actual website user experience.

Brett Busconi
2 years 2 months ago

I do feel that it remains easier in-store to find this type of information, however online with the way that the interfaces work it is really a matter of seconds on any item for the more well set up systems. You can zoom in on the product’s nutrition label that you would look at in the store and see it quite well — it just takes a bit longer.
Just like everything else, the companies which make things the easiest will rise and the ones who make things more difficult will fall.

The larger issue, to me, remains the consistency of the pickers. Who substitutes a normal bread item in place of a gluten-free selection which they either cannot locate it in the store or find it to be out of stock? How can some pickers, in good conscience, put strawberries which look already beyond the point of being edible into a basket?
They exist.

We need to develop technology to connect the picker in-store better with the shopper at home.

Chuck Ehredt
These findings hearken back to decades where some retailers provided excellent customer service, while others are lacking and some simply allow customers to resolve issues via self-service. Remember the friendly store clerk who could answer nearly any question about any product? Prior to mandatory packaging and ingredient disclosures, this was just about the only way to gain some confidence in what was being purchased. It also built trust and loyalty with customers. Shopping digitally for ingredients should be easier since all the information could be indexed and cross-referenced, but it appears that not all providers have invested enough to make this magic a reality. Perhaps the rush to get products online during the COVID-19 situation is an excuse for not providing complete details, but over time this lack of transparency must be resolved, or those customers who care about the detail will shop with those who offer maximum transparency. The free market tends to resolve this type of issue that arises in a period of transition by people voting on the best services and value… Read more »
Suresh Chaganti

Even on Amazon, most of the label information is based on user generated content. There is a tremendous opportunity to fill this gap and stand out. There are standards already in place, and companies like LabelInsight are working in this area.

Gary Sankary

Personally I have been able to find nutrition information about products from the online grocers I shop. Typically it’s two or three clicks deep, but it is there. It’s also really easy to read. Even more helpful is being able to filter items by dietary requirements. That is a real win for consumers.

Jeff Weidauer

Online shopping is here to stay and will be a significant factor for growth – this isn’t a temporary change. But the online experience has to be well-sorted and allow the shopper to get all of the required info – switching stores is easier than ever, and laggards will continue to lose share if website functionality doesn’t make the grade. The fact that no stores offer the ability to search by an attribute or ingredient shows how much work there is to be done.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Does this sound just a little whiny to anyone else? I just looked at Kroger, Publix, Walmart, Whole Foods, Target, and Sprouts – all the stores you can shop online in the Atlanta suburbs. They all have nutrition labels and ingredients that are perfectly legible. So no, in some places this is not an issue. And if you had difficulty, the solution is really simple – go to the grocery store instead.

A store chooses to load this information online as a service to its customers. They don’t have to do this and the study’s authors should not be making the assumption that not doing so is a failing. I can’t find low-sodium items easily online and I can’t find them easily in a store – it takes some work the first time, some memory the next time.

We don’t need this stuff spoon-fed to us (sorry about that pun – it’s Monday).

Brandon Rael

Trust and transparency are paramount to an outstanding online grocery shopping experience. The leading grocery retailers have a vibrant, scalable, detailed, and comprehensive online assortment, that includes high resolution photos, confirmed shopper reviews, detailed nutritional information, and viable alternatives when the item is out of stock.

A digital-first grocery experience is here to stay. With the changing consumer behaviors and preferences around nutrition, health, and wellness, trust and transparency should be a top priority to keep and retain your loyal customers, who have multiple options at their fingertips.

Excellence in execution requires a comprehensive infrastructure that is integrated with the perpetual inventory systems. This will enable the consumer to feel confident that their BOPIS or home delivery order will meet their expectations.

Bethany Allee

When you’re in the store, you can flip over the box/bag/carton and quickly obtain the nutritional information. With COVID-19, many grocery retailers have struggled to keep up with product photography and information through online ordering portals. It reminds me of the late 1990s when online bookselling started to take off. Part of why books took off online first is because the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) made it easy for online retailers (such as — Amazon) to pull consistent photography, pricing parameters, and abstracts. Grocers can follow this method of success for mass-marketed products, by requiring manufacturers to input more product info and photography when registering the UPC. Smaller production items are typically run by companies who are struggling to get their product photo and nutrition info out there. In a nutshell – make the manufacturers do the lift and ensure your ordering platform can auto-populate the customer interface.

Lisa Goller

This is a communication issue among companies and consumers, and e-grocery has an edge.

In stores, health information is limited to the product label and packaging. Online grocery offers far more space to offer more detailed product information, including sodium per serving.

It’s not the sexiest topic in retail, but data standards matter for uniformity.

Modernizing industry standards for omnichannel grocery would improve the efficiency of data-sharing among retailers, suppliers and consumers.

Several European countries have embraced the Nutri-score labeling standard. It helps consumers make informed choices by using a consistent, straightforward way to share nutritional information.

Also, standards for product images could help to ensure clear, legible nutrition fact panels.

Raj B. Shroff

In my experience, it’s similar across in-store and online. However finding information should undoubtedly be easier online. Filters should be available but the way CPG provides assets is probably not conducive to easy structuring of individual line items. I think a search function and better data structure on grocers’ ends should solve any find-ability issues.

Gene Detroyer

Is this enough?:

Organic Whole Wheat (Organic Whole Wheat Flour, Organic Cracked Whole Wheat), Water, 21 Whole Grains And Seeds Mix (Organic Whole Flax Seeds, Organic Sunflower Seeds, Organic Ground Whole Flax Seeds, Organic Un-hulled Brown Sesame Seeds, Organic Triticale, Organic Pumpkin Seeds, Organic Rolled Barley, Organic Rolled Oats, Organic Rolled Rye, Organic Un-hulled Black Sesame Seeds, Organic Millet, Organic Rolled Spelt, Organic Blue Cornmeal, Organic Brown Rice Flour, Organic Yellow Cornmeal, Organic Amaranth Flour, Organic Rolled Kamut Khorasan Wheat, Organic Quinoa, Organic Buckwheat Flour, Organic Sorghum Flour, Organic Poppy Seeds), Organic Dried Cane Syrup (Sugar), Organic Wheat Gluten, Organic Oat Fiber, Organic Molasses, Sea Salt, Organic Cultured Whole Wheat, Yeast, Organic Vinegar.

That is from Whole Foods online. It looks pretty complete to me. This kind of detail makes my wife happy.

Shep Hyken

One of the reasons consumers enjoy self-service online options is it puts them in control. There is no excuse not to provide the information in an easy-to-find and easy-to-understand format. These customers are smart and want to do their research before they purchase. Make it easy for them to do so!

Ken Morris

I feel it will require an overhaul of many grocery sites. The online grocery shopping experience was in its infancy before COVID-19 hit with many sites simply acting as an extension of the store experience. There was very little thought given to the capability of gathering rich content that can be sliced and diced by their consumers to give them exactly what they want and need much more easily than the hunt and peck approach required in-store. This is a real opportunity to cement this shift to e-grocery and expand its utility for this discerning customer base.

Oliver Guy
Oliver Guy
Global Industry Architect, Microsoft Retail
2 years 2 months ago

A huge increase in online penetration for grocery over the course of 2020 has seen issues like this come into focus. Certainly shoppers have resisted grocery online for some time due to the desire to touch and feel products. Over time things will hopefully change to fix issues like this – better image management may help but I wonder also if this is an opportunity for the CPG manufacturers to attempt to provide help to grocers in this area.

Cynthia Holcomb
Online grocery shopping is pretty much awful, time consuming and frustrating, leading to abandoning the cart! And I am trying to be kind with this description. One would think the largest national grocers in this country would test the user experience. Talk about friction, obstacles abound, too many to mention. Product descriptions and nutrition info are vague and generalized. A top issue is that certain products appear available and then they are not available upon checkout. Personally, during the time of COVID-19, I have spent hours on various national grocery sites and have ended up so frustrated I abandoned my cart and drove to the store. Please let’s not talk about their apps! Store selection stuck on zip code from a previous state and city of residence with absolutely no way to change it! Does this sound frustrating? Yes! The bottom line is that grocers with all their in-store innovation as a response to COVID-19 have created a void in the market, hence a huge opportunity for one grocer to become the premier online grocer,… Read more »
Peter Charness

Online content seems to be “there,” as others have noted, maybe a click or two deeper. Where grocers could pull ahead though would be to enable meal planning that allows an individual to enter their nutritional needs (like calorie counts for us couch potatoes), allergies/gluten etc. and allow shoppers to create shopping lists that meet those needs. That would be a more useful way of creating better customer experiences.

Ananda Chakravarty

Groceries will be engaging the CPG universe and passing the task back into their supply chains to accumulate and share relevant product information. This data will become more valuable over time for customers, but still hasn’t reached a tipping point, so groceries aren’t building this into their web capabilities yet. However, the product details will eventually become available at a very granular level and most grocers will have to follow suit to meet customer expectations.

In-store FDA regulations provide a starting point, but by no means is this an advantage over the web environment. When it comes to data and information, the internet still provides electronic data, which is a step above any printed box or look up cashiers can provide. As shoppers continue to get acquainted with online product details, advantages held by the retail offline market diminish. But this doesn’t necessarily mean less sales or traffic to the store.

Brian Cluster
Yes, they do have a transparency problem. Many have failed to track and keep up with customers’ expectations of what they want to see from a product image, attribution, sustainability, and sourcing information online. In 2020 and beyond, the digital shelf is becoming more of a point of truth for consumers researching and shopping for products. Retailers need to embrace this fact and audit their data, understand what customers want, and start building a plan to close the gap on product transparency for consumers. Fortunately for retailers, there are solutions available to start with the better acquisition of data from your manufacturer partners with a much fuller set of attributes as well as quality review. Then the data needs to be managed and enriched internally and with industry standards to ensure completeness and accuracy of nutritional labels and other key attributes. Lastly, then the retailer needs to be able to share this information across channels to reach the end consumer such as retailers, eCommerce as well as their own systems to have consistent information and… Read more »
"Switching stores is easier than ever, and laggards will continue to lose share if website functionality doesn’t make the grade. "
"There is no excuse not to provide the information in an easy-to-find and easy-to-understand format."
"In a nutshell – make the manufacturers do the lift and ensure your ordering platform can auto-populate the customer interface."

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