Online food shopping exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Can it catch on with bodegas?

February 24, 2024

During the COVID-19 pandemic, online food shopping exploded for supermarkets, but small retailers were largely left out of the market shift. In discussing the role of small food retailers in low-income urban communities and the feasibility of online grocery shopping, the researchers uncovered several themes. However, despite their excitement at the idea of online ordering, most customers said that bodegas were so close it didn’t make sense to order online. Another concern raised was that online shopping could lead to weaker community ties. Could delivery be free for future online grocery shopping from bodegas?

In many NYC communities, bodegas are beloved staples of convenience—ubiquitous markets selling items ranging from deli sandwiches to laundry detergent. In areas bereft of supermarkets, they often serve as the only source for groceries.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, online food shopping exploded for supermarkets, but small retailers were largely left out of the market shift. As the USDA moves forward with expanding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits (SNAP) online—including for small retailers such as bodegas—nutrition and health researchers explored Bronx bodega owners’ and customers’ attitudes toward online grocery shopping. Their findings, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, show that while online shopping in bodegas has promise, community members say several barriers including cost, digital literacy, and community trust would need to be addressed.

Between May and June of 2022, the authors interviewed six bodega owners located in the South Bronx, of which four were part of an early online grocery service for bodegas (the MyBodegaOnline app) piloted in 2020. They also interviewed 25 customers from low-income neighborhoods who frequently shopped at a bodega.

"As technology becomes more prominent in government benefits for people with low income, small food businesses need to be included in the policy conversation to not leave these stores and consumers behind,” says lead author Angela Trude, an assistant professor of nutrition at NYU Steinhardt. “The SNAP online expansion is a step forward towards equity in food access, but there are challenges we need to address. For instance, we need the upcoming Farm Bill to allocate more funds for SNAP online to ensure broader outreach and enough money to cover delivery costs for small retailers."

In discussing the role of small food retailers in low-income urban communities and the feasibility of online grocery shopping, the researchers uncovered several themes.

The Role of the Bodega

1)    Bodegas as good neighbors

Owners and customers shared that bodegas offer foods and goods that reflect the cultural, social, and financial needs of the community. One customer said, “I’m Dominican. We cook every day, and we do have bodegas over there. A lot of them, which we call ‘colmado’ (convenience store) and it’s basically like I feel home.”

2)    Cost and availability of healthy foods in bodegas

While bodega owners indicated that they seek to offer fresh foods at reasonable prices, customers felt that prices for fruits and vegetables were too high and not as fresh as supermarkets.

3)    Bodegas and community health

Customers regarded the large number of processed food options as having negative effects on community health, whereas owners suggested that customers can make healthy choices in their stores but choose less healthy options.

Pros and Cons of Online Grocery Shopping for Bodegas

1)    The close proximity of bodegas

Bodega owners saw the close proximity of bodegas to their customers as an asset in terms of delivery time and cost. However, despite their excitement at the idea of online ordering, most customers said that bodegas were so close it didn’t make sense to order online.

2)    The digital divide

Owners and customers both noted that many people in the community lack digital literacy and may not have computers or smartphones, or know how to use apps.

3)    Community concerns

Customers also indicated a mistrust in having others select their groceries. Another concern raised was that online shopping could lead to weaker community ties. 

Owners and customers offered several recommendations for improving the potential and usefulness of online grocery shopping, including keeping costs low, making apps intuitive for customers and owners, and allowing for multiple types of payment options such as cash and SNAP.

“Buying groceries online from local small stores could greatly benefit communities,” says Trude. “However, there are additional questions we need to answer as this service becomes available in neighborhoods where many people have lower incomes and bodegas are ubiquitous. For instance, how far would a small retailer staff be willing to travel to deliver orders? Could delivery be free for future online grocery shopping from bodegas? We will continue to work with the community and policymakers to answer these questions and design solutions for more equity in healthy food access.”

This research was supported by the Center of Health and Rehabilitation Research at NYU Steinhardt. 

The source of this news is from New York University

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