We show that consumers choose relatively fewer vices when shopping for groceries online (vs. offline) because the symbolic product presentation of the online channel decreases the products’ vividness, which in turn diminishes consumers’ desire to seek instant gratification and ultimately leads them to purchase fewer vices.
Noting the increasing prevalence of online grocery shopping, we explored if and why consumers’ purchases would differ according to the shopping channel they use (online vs. offline). Prior research mostly builds on forced, binary choice tasks. This makes it difficult to apply results to real-world grocery purchase decisions. In addition, extant literature typically uses comparisons between a product presentation that can provide immediate, full sensory information and one that provides only partial sensory information. Thus, the extent to which differences in the degree of sensory distance have similar effects is not clear.
We conduct a series of studies to test our main hypothesis that consumers’ shopping baskets will contain relatively fewer vices when they shop in an online environment compared with an offline environment.
In Study 1, we draw from a customer database of a large European retailer and compare the same consumers’ online purchases with their offline purchases. (Who = customers)
Study 2 is a lab experiment in which we compare online with offline purchases, but control for confounds such as differential exposures to grocery products (Who = students who participate in return for a small monetary compensation).
Study 3 is a lab experiment in which we test whether the product presentation mode exerts a main effect on the relative purchases of vices, regardless of the shopping environment (Who = students who participate in return for partial course credit).
Study 4 is a lab experiment with real choices in which we test the underlying process (“vividness” and “immediate gratification”). (Who = students who participate in return for a small monetary compensation).
Figure: Serial Mediation Model
We investigate how food choices made online differ from food choices made in a traditional brick-and-mortar store and find that consumers choose relatively fewer vices in the online shopping environment. We are able to determine that this shopping channel effect arises because online channels present products symbolically while brick-and-mortar stores present them physically. The symbolic presentation mode of the online channel decreases the products’ vividness, which in turn diminishes consumers’ desire to seek instant gratification. This, in turn, leads them to purchase fewer vice procucts.
Our findings suggest that simply changing the shopping channel used to buy groceries can aid consumers in making better food choices. As a result, we recommend that public policy makers encourage and even incentivize consumers to shop online. Nudging consumers toward online grocery shopping also represents a golden opportunity for retailers to bolster their brand image and counteract the criticisms that large retail chains contribute to obesity rates. Our findings are relevant to market researchers as well, who often try to gauge consumers’ attitudes via surveys, which essentially rely on symbolic presentations (e.g., pictures, descriptions). Our results suggest that consumers’ product attitudes might be slightly different when acquired while physically encountering real products.
Questions for the Classroom
Do you think that consumers will purchase fewer or more vices online than offline?
What could lead consumers to buy fewer vices online?
How can you nudge consumers towards healthier food choices?
Elke Huyghe, Julie Verstraeten, Maggie Geuens, and Anneleen Van Kerckhove (2017), "Clicks as a Healthy Alternative to Bricks: How Online Grocery Shopping Reduces Vice Purchases," Journal of Marketing Research, 54 (1), 61-74.
Elke Huyghe is a postdoctoral researcher, Ghent University (e-mail: Elke.Huyghe@UGent.be).
Julie Verstraeten is a doctoral candidate, Ghent University (e-mail: Julie.Verstraeten@UGent.be).
Maggie Geuens is Professor of Marketing, Ghent University, and Research Fellow, Vlerick Business School (e-mail: Maggie.Geuens@UGent.be).
Anneleen Van Kerckhove is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Ghent University (e-mail: Anneleen.VanKerckhove@UGent.be).