I was fascinated by this article in The Conversation by Anya Samek, who's Associate Professor (Research) of Economics, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. In it, she explores whether the dynamic of pre-ordering food delivery (versus impulse shopping at the grocery store, where last-minute impulse buys and stress abound) can empower consumers to make healthier choices.
In her own words, here's the hypothesis:
When grocery pre-ordering services like Instacart and Peapod first emerged, I was sure they would fix my self-control problems at the supermarket. Pre-ordering my family’s food and having it delivered seemed like a great way to avoid impulse purchases... Can pre-ordering groceries help shoppers avoid making impulse purchases and make healthier choices instead? I teamed up with University of California, San Diego economists Charles Sprenger and Sally Sadoff to find out.
The experiment she decides to try to test out the theory?
We partnered with grocery stores in Los Angeles and Chicago to collect data on the impact of pre-ordering groceries. To keep things simple, we initially offered about 400 customers the
choice of 10 free foods from a set of 20. Some of the foods on offer were clearly healthy – apples, carrots and the like. Others were obviously not – greasy potato chips, sugary candy bars and so on. Half of the customers taking part in our studies were Chicagoans and half were Angelenos. To recruit, we set up tables in a busy section of the stores, asking passersby to complete a short questionnaire and select their free food.
"....we created experimental conditions and asked people to choose among them if they wanted something free by pre-ordering it a week ahead. When we delivered the food a week later, we surprised customers with the chance to change their order because we wanted to compare the food
people would order for their future self versus the the food they wanted right away. Based on prevailing economic theories, we hypothesized that people would swap healthier foods for less healthy foods. And that’s exactly what happened. About 40% of the customers taking part in our study made at least one exchange. The foods most people ended up with were higher in calories, fat and added sugar than their pre-ordered foods. For instance, they might swap out a red pepper for a
bag of Doritos or an orange for a Snickers bar. These findings suggest that many people are “dynamically inconsistent” – the choice they pick for their future self is different from the choice they pick when they get to eat the food immediately. And, they are inconsistent in the predicted direction – they’re much more likely to swap out the pepper for the Doritos than the other way around."
How can we encourage healthier choices? Did pre-ordering have an effect at all? It seems it did have SOME positive effect, just not as much as hoped:
In my view, the answer, however, is not to deny people the freedom to change orders. Instead, a better strategy would be finding ways to nudge people into pre-ordering who might otherwise not consider it. They might be the ones who need it the most. Nudges could take the form of informing shoppers about the benefits of choosing to pre-order. It could also take the form of incentives or
perks associated with pre-ordering.
Personally I used to use a meal-delivery service called SunBasket last year to help me remember to cook meals at home, and it was very helpful to get me in the habit of planning ahead and remembering to get a variety of fresh, healthy ingredients. While I'm not a SunBasket subscriber right now, just getting in the mindset of thinking of mealplanning in a holistic and healthy way was super-helpful - which may be some of what Professor Samek describes.
Do you use a grocery delivery or meal planning service to increase your likelihood of eating healthy meals and avoiding the frozen pizza aisle? Why or why not?