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Should you buy your Christmas groceries online or instore?

Do you brave the crowds at your local supermarket, or is online shopping the key to nailing the big Christmas grocery shop?

should you buy your christmas groceries online or in store
Last updated: 07 December 2020
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There's no doubt that 2020 has been a tumultuous year, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing the way we socialise, work and even how we shop. 

But in the midst of all the change, there are some things we can rely on to stay the same – as Christmas approaches, grocery store shelves will be stacked with fruit-filled pastries and legs of ham and Mariah Carey's 'All I Want for Christmas is You' will be played on a continuous loop at shopping centres across the nation.

As Christmas Day edges closer, you may be wondering whether to brave the crowds at the grocery store or try grocery shopping online.

Online shopping on the rise in 2020

More people than ever have made the choice to shop online in 2020, with numbers soaring in March as consumers made efforts to comply with the newly introduced social distancing regulations. 

In April, 5.2 million Australians shopped online, an increase of 31% on the previous year. And although COVID-19 restrictions have now eased, levels of online shopping have remained high, with online sales now making up more than 10% of total sales in Australia.

Coles recorded an 18% increase in online orders over the past financial year, while Woolworths' online sales from July–September 2020 grew by 100% on the previous year

While Australians have traditionally been a little reluctant to buy their groceries online, this year has seen more people make the switch. Coles recorded an 18% increase in online orders over the past financial year, while Woolworths' online sales from July–September 2020 grew by 100% on the previous year.

A recent CHOICE Twitter poll found that over a third (39%) of respondents were more likely to buy their Christmas groceries online this year due to Coronavirus. A similar post on Facebook produced mixed responses, but many people said that they were likely to do some of their shopping online, and buy fresh produce in store.

So, with more consumers than ever likely to turn to online shopping this festive season, we break down the pros and cons of doing the big Christmas grocery shop online versus instore. 

fresh produce in store

Being able to select your own fresh produce is one of the pros of buying groceries instore.

Pros and cons of shopping in store

Pros

Hand-picked produce

Our online grocery delivery reviews found that produce included in online orders is usually in good condition with an appropriate level of ripeness. But you simply can't beat instore shopping when it comes to choosing the perfect produce for your special Christmas recipes, especially if you require fruit or vegetables in very specific quantities or sizes.

It may also be wise to buy meat and seafood instore to ensure they stay adequately chilled – nobody wants to give their guests food poisoning on Christmas day. 

More options

If you're looking for a one-stop grocery shop online, you'll probably have to stick to the big brands like Coles, Woolworths and Harris Farm. If you're shopping instore, you might pick up cheaper Christmas groceries at Aldi, or you might choose to support smaller local businesses this festive season instead.

Cons

The crowds

Even under normal circumstances, the heaving crowds at shopping centres and supermarkets around Christmas time are the stuff of nightmares for many, but add in a global pandemic and shopping instore becomes even less appealing. It will likely be difficult to practice social distancing during particularly busy periods over the festive season. 

If you're shopping instore, try to avoid Christmas Eve and the last weekend before Christmas (19 and 20 December), which is notoriously busy. If you're shopping at Woolworths you can also use their new Q-tracker tool which shows you how busy your local store is in real time, so you can avoid busy periods.

Impulse buys

Supermarkets are cleverly designed to hijack our senses and manipulate our behaviour to encourage impulse buys and overspending. Even the most disciplined shoppers can find themselves grabbing an extra trinket or Christmas chocolate on their way to the checkout.

laptop showing online shopping website

The desire to avoid crowded shops at Christmas makes online shopping an attractive option.

Pros and cons of shopping online

Pros

Speed, convenience and safety

Filling your cart online could save you time navigating the congested aisles of your local supermarket. Plus, anyone with young kids, no car or limited mobility may also find online shopping much more convenient. There's also no doubt that it's easier to practice social distancing when you shop online, with both Coles and Woolworths now offering contactless pick-up.

And if you're planning a celebration on Boxing Day, you can now receive fresh groceries from Coles without having to rub shoulders with the eager shoppers scouring the sales.

"This year for the first time we will also be offering home delivery on Boxing Day", says  Coles online general manager Karen Donaldson. "Last year we trialled this service from a small number of stores. Customer feedback was so positive we have decided to roll it out nationally."

Easier to budget

Christmas spending can easily spiral out of control, but grocery shopping online is a good way to stick to your budget. Online shoppers are less likely to make impulse buys and it's easy to see your running total and tweak your basket if necessary to keep your costs down.

Plus, if you use the 'sort by lowest unit price' filter on Coles and Woolworths online, you can quickly compare products to find the cheapest option. 

If you're really dedicated to saving money you can even fill your virtual basket at both Coles and Woolworths to see which is cheaper for you. Delivery costs vary but instore pick-up is free at Woolworths for orders over $30 and at Coles for orders over $50.

Cons

Risk of missing out

Coles and Woolworths both made headlines in 2015 when customers took to social media to complain about key Christmas items missing from their online orders

According to Karen Donaldson, "Coles Online customers can opt in to receive substitutions if a product they order is out of stock. We will do our best to substitute for something similar, pending availability."

This means there's no danger of receiving a leg of lamb instead of a leg of ham, but if an item is out of stock, you might simply miss out. 

Donaldson says the supermarket giant has been working hard to maintain stock levels during the pandemic, but as always, there are no guarantees.

"It's important that customers remember that often Coles Online picks orders from supermarkets, so if something is not available instore it won't be available online either."

Woolworths director of ecommerce, Annette Karantoni says they are confident in their stock supply for Christmas, but also advises customers to get in early where possible.

"Woolworths has a good supply of popular seasonal products like Christmas ham, but customers should try to get in early as stock of Christmas essentials is based on availability in the local area."

Ordering in advance

If you love leaving things until the very last minute, online probably isn't the best option for you. 

According to Karantoni, last orders for Woolworths online must be in by 6pm AEDT, 23 December for pick up on Christmas Eve. For home delivery, you can order by 6pm for next-day delivery and 11am for same-day delivery in selected areas. 

Coles says their delivery windows open seven days in advance, so to secure a delivery on Christmas Eve customers can start to book from December 18.

food store at christmas

Shopping instore offers better choice, but beware of giving into impulse purchases.

Christmas grocery shopping tips

CHOICE staff and members of CHOICE Community share their festive grocery shopping hacks.

1. Stock up well in advance

CHOICE customer service supervisor Guy Bennett buys a few non-perishables each week to help spread out the cost of a big Christmas shop. CHOICE Community member @Grahroll buys products on sale up to years in advance, freezing meat up to six months before the big day. 

2. Roll the dice on a Christmas Eve shop

"If you can afford to leave things until late on Christmas Eve you can pick up some bargains – half-price hams and puddings. But it's a high-stakes gamble!" – says Tracy Ellis, content editor.

3. Order extra household basics for home delivery

"Do an online order of all the boring (and heavy) household basics you use more of when the rellies drop in, like toilet paper and laundry detergent." – Marianna Longmire, commissioning editor.

4. Make the most of leftovers

"Think about what leftovers you'll have from the meal on Christmas Day and buy additional groceries to make it into tasty meals for the following days." – Uta Mihm, health insurance expert.

5. Bag a post-Christmas bargain 

CHOICE Community member @phb stocks up on items like wrapping paper, Christmas crackers and cards in the post-Christmas sales and stores them for the following year.

6. Free up your fridge space

CHOICE food journalist Rachel Clemons suggests freeing up plenty of fridge/freezer space to store your Christmas groceries, and even borrowing an extra fridge if necessary.

"If you plan to buy a frozen turkey, it needs to be defrosted safely in the fridge ahead of time, and this can take several days. You'll need that fridge space!"

7. Find a good fruit and veg supplier

"Order your produce directly from the supplier instead of from the grocery store. Their fruit and veg is sourced pretty much directly from the farm so you get better quality, fresher and longer lasting produce, and it's often comparable on price – if not cheaper." – Ashley Iredale, whitegoods content producer.

8. Support your local butcher

"Pre-order your turkey, ham or big roast pieces at the butcher well in advance to avoid missing out."  – Helen Raadts, digital producer.

9. Shop on the 23rd

CHOICE managing editor Margaret Rafferty suggests hitting the shops in the evening on 23 December.

"Your stuff is not going to be that much fresher if you wait until 24th December and that way you get it all done with virtually no crowds.

"It also means that if you get home and realise you've forgotten something you can just go for one or two things the next day, and if you live near the shops you can walk rather than drive – a life saver since parking is often the big hassle when shopping on Christmas Eve."

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