As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape consumer behavior, online grocery shopping has surged in popularity. In the United States, sales from online food retail are projected to grow from 9.5% of total food commerce in 2020 to a substantial 20.5% by 2026. This significant shift in how we shop for groceries has not only transformed the way we purchase food but has also given rise to the importance of consumer reviews in influencing buying decisions.
Recent research, led by Ran Xu, an assistant professor of allied health sciences in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, sheds light on the intriguing link between online grocery reviews and nutritional expectations. Published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the study primarily focuses on Amazon Fresh, Amazon’s grocery delivery service.
According to Xu, one of the key factors driving negative reviews on Amazon Fresh is the disparity between a product’s expected and actual nutritional value. She explains, “No matter whether it’s a ‘good’ surprise or a ‘bad’ surprise, people tend to write negative reviews. People, in general, don’t like surprises, especially when considering the nutritional value of the food.”
The study was a collaborative effort between Xu and researchers from the State University of New York at Oswego, California State University Dominguez Hills, and Duquesne University.
Yiru Wang, an assistant professor of marketing specializing in consumer behavior and the lead author of the paper, compiled a comprehensive dataset of Amazon Fresh reviews. Xu, with her interest in consumer health, joined the project to investigate the relationship between nutritional information and consumer sentiment.
The researchers utilized the Supporting Wellness at Pantries (SWAP) system to categorize food items based on their actual nutritional value. This stoplight nutrition ranking system classifies foods as green (healthiest), yellow, or red (least healthy) based on levels of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
“A growing number of food banks and food pantries are already adopting this system because it is very easy to use and can be easily understood by consumers,” Xu notes.
In their analysis, the researchers had two independent coders label the same food items as green, yellow, or red based on their expected nutritional value. They then examined how the alignment (or misalignment) between the actual and expected nutritional value affected the content and sentiment of consumer reviews.
The study revealed that when consumers anticipated a food item to be healthy, their reviews often emphasized the product’s nutritional value. Conversely, when consumers expected a food to be unhealthy, their reviews tended to focus on taste or packaging.
The most significant driver of negative reviews was the discrepancy between expectations and reality. Xu explains, “When there is a mismatch between people’s expectation of the healthiness and the actual healthiness of the product, people tend to write more negative reviews. The review is most negative when there is a negative mismatch, meaning the product I got is much less healthy than I expected.”
Interestingly, even a “good” surprise could lead to negative reviews. When consumers sought an indulgent, unhealthy treat but found that the product was healthier than expected, they often expressed dissatisfaction in their reviews.
Another noteworthy finding was that consumers struggled to accurately identify which foods were healthy or unhealthy. Participants correctly identified “green” products about two-thirds of the time but accurately identified “red” products less than 50% of the time. This suggests that many consumers may not be adept at recognizing unhealthy foods, possibly due to the often buried or hard-to-access nutritional information on online grocery shopping sites.
The implications of these findings are significant for both consumers and companies. Negative reviews can have a substantial impact on sales, and the study suggests that companies should aim to provide accurate information about the healthiness of food products. Xu proposes that companies could make nutritional information more accessible or adopt a system like the stoplight system used in the research to minimize the gap between expectations and reality.
“We think these easy approaches can reduce the mismatch between expectations and reality, which will reduce negative sentiment and will be good for the company as well,” Xu emphasizes. “On the consumer side, it will increase the consumer’s nutritional awareness and help people make healthier choices – hopefully.”
As the online grocery shopping landscape continues to evolve, this study underscores the importance of transparency and accurate nutritional information in shaping consumer choices and reviews.