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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: 16 December 2021
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There's no doubt that 2021 has been a tumultuous year, with COVID-19 and lockdowns continuing to affect the way we socialise, work and even how we shop. 

But 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

Australians have traditionally been a little reluctant to buy their groceries online, but the effects of COVID-19 has boosted its popularity. IbisWorld reports an expected 46.2% jump in revenue from online grocery shopping in 2020-2021.

And a recent Coles' survey of 7500 Australians found that almost half of Australians will do more of their Christmas food shopping online this year. 

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 (18 and 19 December), which is notoriously busy. If you're shopping at Woolworths you can also use their 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.

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 Woolies 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.

A Woolworths spokesperson says they're confident in their stock supply for Christmas, but also recommends people get in early where possible. 

"Our advice to all customers is to also plan their celebrations in advance. If there is something you've got an eye on, jump in early and purchase it the next time you shop if it can be stored for longer."

Coles is also urging customers to book timeslots early, and both supermarkets say they've boosted the number of pick up and delivery windows available for the festive period.

Customers at both Coles and Woolworths can also choose whether to receive a suitable substitution if a product they order is out of stock. 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 simply might miss out.

"While we'll do everything we can to make sure your favourite Christmas products are in stock, customers should consider selecting a window a couple of days before Christmas to ensure everything they need is available," adds the Woolworths spokesperson.

Ordering in advance

If you're not into planning ahead, online shopping probably isn't the best option for you. 

Last orders for Woolworths online must be in by 23 December (unless sold out) for delivery or pick up on Christmas Eve. Order by 6pm (local time) for next morning and 11pm (local time) for next afternoon pick up or delivery.

"Customers who live in or are travelling to resort areas for Christmas are encouraged to place their order a couple of days in advance if they need a specific window," says a Woolworths spokesperson.

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 17.

"We encourage customers to order their must-have Christmas items by 17 December to ensure they receive it in time before Christmas Day," says a Coles spokesperson. 

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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