Online grocery shopping was a convenience before the COVID-19 pandemic; for many, it has now become the norm. But what if, as you prepare to put that frozen pizza or six-pack of soda in your online cart, your store’s website offered you some healthier options? A new study suggests that some shoppers can be encouraged to eat a little better if they are presented with a healthier food option while shopping online.

Today about half of consumers choose online shopping over masking up, cleaning hands regularly and distancing themselves from other shoppers. Online grocery sales have increased by an estimated 300 percent since the beginning of the pandemic and reached over $7 billion in sales in June of 2020.

How would you feel about being offered a healthier option as you put groceries in your online shopping cart?

Nudging shoppers to make healthier choices as they shop online could result in healthier foods in homes and improve the diets of many people.

British researchers conducted an experiment to see if online grocery shopping technology could be used to nudge consumers toward healthier substitutes and improve their diets. Nudges are techniques that encourage a consumer to consider other choices that they might not have asked for or even considered.

Nine hundred people were given a shopping list with 12 items on it to be used on a simulated online shopping website for the study. If they put a high-calorie food in their online cart, they were presented with three alternatives they could swap for their original, less healthy choice. Alternatives contained at least 24 fewer calories per 3.5 ounces and cost about the same.

Participants accepted roughly one out of every eight of the swaps they were offered. As a result of the substitutions they accepted, their shopping carts contained an average of about 30 fewer calories, a modest amount; but since only 28 percent of the shoppers accepted a swap, a pretty solid improvement. Clearly, some shoppers didn’t always agree to the alternative choices, but some people were open to the nudge.

The kind of alternative presented didn’t seem to make a difference. Sometimes lower calorie alternatives were presented as healthier; sometimes they were promoted as a less expensive alternative; and sometimes they were framed as popular with others facing the same choice. A shopper’s income level didn’t seem to make a difference either.

How would you feel about a healthier option being presented as you chose groceries to put in your virtual shopping cart? Would you see it as an invasion of your privacy, or would you be open to the information?

The study is published in PLoS One.