A customer uses a phone to shop for food online.

Designing online grocery stores to support those striving to eat healthy for weight loss

Professor Lisa Harnack led the study that identified three features online grocery stores could include, such as a "healthy shopping" preference, to support customers.

Charlie Plain | July 13, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (07/13/21) — With the rapid growth in online grocery shopping, researchers in the School of Public Health (SPH) sought to identify design features online grocery stores should consider to support the increasing number of Americans striving to eat healthy for weight loss. Their findings were recently published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

Lisa Harnack in a white shirt in front of a window.
Study lead author and Professor Lisa Harnack.

The study is the first to use a customer-centric approach to generate ideas for features that may be included in online grocery shopping marketplaces to support healthy food choices for weight loss. 

The researchers first interviewed a set of adults eating healthy for weight loss to learn about their shopping habits with a focus on their nutrition-related needs. The interviews with study participants made it clear that consumers struggle to plan, purchase and prepare meals that are tasty, nutritious, easy to cook and affordable. Based on those initial findings, the research team identified four features online grocery stores could include to support shoppers. They also asked study participants for their thoughts about each online shopping feature.

The study found the online grocery store features that most study participants liked include:

  • A “healthy shopping” preference setting that would allow them to set their personal preferences for the types of foods they want to purchase in limited amounts (e.g., sugary foods, salty foods, etc.) and the types of foods they want to purchase in plentiful amounts (e.g., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.). These preferences would lead to a tailored online shopping experience that would minimize the display and advertising of foods the shopper prefers to limit while maximizing the visibility of foods they want to purchase in plentiful amounts. 
  • A healthy meal planning tool that would provide meal ideas and recipes tailored to their family’s taste, nutrition, convenience and price preferences. 
  • A nutrition cart tool that would rate the nutrition quality of the shopping cart and provide recommendations for how to improve the quality (e.g., swap lightly salted or unsalted peanuts for regular salted peanuts).

The study findings suggest that grocers may want to consider incorporating the shopping features into their online grocery stores to support Americans with the goal of eating healthier for weight loss.

“We’d love to partner with a grocer to develop and evaluate the features we identified,” said study lead and SPH Professor Lisa Harnack. “We also want to carry out interviews with more groups of consumers to gain a broader and more inclusive understanding of needs and solutions.”

The study was funded by the JB Hawley Research Award.

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