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Local grocers jump into online shopping

MaMa Jean's and Harter House expect growing e-commerce option to exist far beyond pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic is the central contributor to a steady rise in consumers utilizing online grocery shopping, Springfield grocers say.

Local grocery stores are quickly adopting e-commerce amid record-breaking national numbers – $7.2 billion in online grocery sales in June and 45.6 million households using delivery and pickup services, according to a survey conducted by strategic advisory firm Brick Meets Click and digital commerce provider Mercatus Technologies Inc. The June sales number is a 9% increase over May.

MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market LLC and Harter House Supermarket are both new to the online grocery scene. But their timing was fortuitous, as both started just prior to the pandemic. MaMa Jean’s went online in January, while several Harter House shops debuted the service in February.

“We knew that people were going to be all about convenience,” MaMa Jean’s co-owner Susie Farbin said. “March was just so strange for any grocery store. You hardly had time to breathe.”

MaMa Jean’s invested roughly $6,000 for an e-commerce platform from Rochester, N.Y.-based Freshop. Farbin said the move paid near immediate dividends.

March store sales rose 28% over the same month last year, Farbin said. April was even bigger, with combined store sales of roughly $1.7 million. Of that total, around 9% – nearly $144,000 – was generated by online grocery sales, she said.

The pandemic prompted MaMa Jean’s to quickly expand its new online service.

In March, the online pickup or delivery option was only offered at the grocer’s 3530 E. Sunshine St. store. But the huge response – which Farbin said included as many as nine staff members fulfilling online orders simultaneously – resulted in the service being added in April at the 1110 E. Republic Road store.

Good timing
Tobin Elliott, manager of Harter House’s 1500 E. Republic Road store, said it was good timing the grocery chain added online shopping before Springfield’s stay-at-home order went in effect.

“It was a great time to launch it, and we got lucky with it,” Elliott said, adding those weeks in February and March gave staff and customers time to learn the e-commerce platform.

Harter House, which also uses Freshop, has made the service available at its stores in Hollister, Kimberling City and Nixa, as well. Much like MaMa Jean’s experienced, Elliott said there was heavy demand online and in-store for groceries at Harter House in March.

“We had some people ordering $1,200 worth of groceries. That takes a while to shop for,” he said, adding the store has four employees dedicated to online orders.

Customers reserve time slots for grocery pickup or delivery, Elliott said, noting Harter House is typically processing two to four online orders per hour.

“It’s slowed down a little bit since people are getting out and about more, but we still have a lot every day,” he said, declining to disclose sales totals. “If we didn’t have that option, people would be shopping somewhere else.”

The June survey from Brick Meets Click and Mercatus reported order frequency grew to 1.9 orders per month for active U.S. households, up from May’s 1.7 monthly orders. Total online orders jumped 15.6% to 85 million in June from 73.5 million in May.

Consumer demands
While MaMa Jean’s and Harter House are newcomers to the online grocery marketplace, West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee Inc. is a veteran of the service. The company, which operates a store at 1720 W. Battlefield Road, has provided the option since 2015, said spokesperson Christina Gayman.

Orders through its Hy-Vee Aisles Online service have grown each year since then, Gayman said, declining to disclose company or Springfield store sales figures.

“COVID-19 has certainly ramped up people’s interest in online grocery shopping,” she said, adding the pandemic motivated many first-time online shoppers. “I do know it’s a very popular service in Springfield.”

Online grocery activity slowed at MaMa Jean’s in June, Farbin said, as it only made up about 3% of store sales. But it was still enough to help put company sales at 5.5% over June 2019, an increase of around $78,000.

“It’s still very busy, but it’s definitely more of a manageable pace right now. I expect it to spike again this fall,” she said, noting cold and flu season will return as schools are back in session. “I’m not sure it’ll hit 9%, but I’m sure at least 5% or 6% of sales will be curbside.”

Farbin said people shopping online miss out on the in-store customer service component, such as asking questions about a product. However, COVID-19 is influencing people’s comfort levels when it comes to shopping, she said.

“It’s basically whatever makes them feel the safest to shop,” Farbin said.

Gayman agreed.

“We want our customers to be comfortable,” she said, noting the company has in-store safety guidelines, such as a one person per cart rule to avoid multiple family members shopping at once and plexiglass installed at checkout counters. “We understand that’s different for everyone.”

Farbin and Harter House’s Elliott said even though the grocery chains have only used online shopping for a few months, both are convinced it’s here to stay – pandemic or not. “A lot of people are happy we started doing it because the younger generation, that’s how they shop now,” Elliott said. “It’s not going away for anybody.”


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