Do you shop for groceries online?

17 March 2021

If you do, then every time you shop you are exposed to large volumes of food and drink promotions. The problem is that many of these promotions are for unhealthy food and alcohol. This blog presents the main findings from our recent survey of food and drink promotions in an online retail environment and offers suggestions on how to reduce their contribution to the obesogenic environment.

If you have a shopping list of around 30 items and you go online to do your grocery shop, you are likely to see around 500 promotions while you do that. About a hundred of those are likely to be for unhealthy food and drink and further 50 for alcohol. Moreover, if we’re anywhere close to Christmas you can count on these numbers being much higher. Does such an environment support our health?

Throughout the last year the news has reported the rapidly growing trend to shop for groceries online. It is now clear that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this trend far beyond the pre-pandemic projections. There have been many significant changes in this area and the all-important current stats and trends are summarized in our recently released factsheet.

In order to ensure online grocery shopping addresses the need to improve our diet in Scotland, we need to have more information on it.  At the end of 2020, we looked at current evidence to better understand the context and types of food and drink promotions in an online retail environment. We found that price promotions online stimulated sales and that individually customised price promotions, which are based on shopper characteristics, could increase retailers’ profits both in physical retail stores and online. Unfortunately, we found little evidence on non-monetary promotions online. Non-monetary promotions are any promotions that do not involve price, for example display of a product on the main grocery page or at a checkout.

In order to understand more about food and drink promotions during online grocery shopping, we conducted a survey. It is the first Scotland-based analysis of food and drink promotions in an online retail environment. The survey was conducted in all online supermarkets that delivered shopping in mainland Scotland in March 2020, which was 6 retailers in total. We used two shopping lists (standard and healthy) to collect data on food and drink promotions. We collected data at two time points in 2020: in March just before the first COVID-19 lockdown and then again at the end of November / beginning of December.

Types of promotions

An average shopping event had 510 promotions, of which 61% were non-monetary and 39% were price promotions. Temporary price reduction was the most frequently employed type of price promotions (57% of price promotions). The most frequently employed non-monetary promotions were at the stage of selecting items (on product landing pages and in the search results).  However, for both price promotions and non-monetary promotions, there were considerable variations between the supermarkets.


Looking at the differences between the supermarkets, it becomes clear that different combinations of promotions must work, and therefore changing these proportions may not necessarily result in the loss of sales. This observation should inform development of any restrictions to promotion of food and drink high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), suggesting that all types of promotion should be restricted to avoid replacement with non-restricted promotion types. An example of a retailer who stopped multibuys, a type of price promotion, is Sainsbury’s. The fact that they don’t use multibuys does not stop them from offering large numbers of other promotions.

What is being promoted?

Around a fifth of promotions were for discretionary products and around a tenth for alcohol. Among the most often promoted discretionary products were confectionery, crisps, ice-cream and dairy desserts, and soft drinks; however, there were marked differences between the supermarkets.

According to Food Standards Scotland, 20% of calories we consume comes from discretionary food and drink. Discretionary products are listed on the image above. They are products that we do not need in our diet because they have little nutritional value (vitamins, minerals, fibre etc.) but are high in calories. Such a push to sell discretionary products is a problem in our current food environment and impacts on our population’s health: the majority of adults in Scotland are affected by either overweight or obesity. We do not need to be nudged to purchase and consume any more of these products, that in the long term can only harm our health further.

Seasonal promotions

There was a clear seasonal trend for food and drink promotions with more offered in November/December than in March 2020. The trend was stronger for discretionary products and for alcohol than for food and drink in general.

This was not the first time such a trend was observed. Food Standards Scotland, using data from 2013-2015, showed around 10% increase in calories purchased between October and December compared to the rest of the year. The uplift was much higher in the purchase of some discretionary food categories, reaching 100% over the festive season (confectionery, cakes and pastries). What is most relevant to this survey, is the finding that the pattern of total purchase mirrored the pattern of promotions, particularly for the discretionary foods. It is therefore likely that the pattern of purchase (which we did not measure) in 2020 also matched the pattern of promotions.

Online vs. in-store for non-monetary promotions

This survey and another survey of in-store promotions that we conducted in January 2020, indicate that non-monetary promotions are used more often in an online retail environment than in physical stores. Also, slightly different types of non-monetary promotions are used in those two environments.

Below is a comparison of numbers and types of non-monetary promotions seen during an average shopping trip online and in-store. A likely reason for these differences is the nature of shopping online – an online shopper cannot see physical shelves full of products. Without non-monetary promotions online, a shopper would see only the products they search or browse for.

The findings presented above suggest that non-monetary promotions online should be seriously considered in any plans to restrict promotion of unhealthy food and drink. Additionally, the names of those promotions should be established. Checkout location, for example, is easy to understand because it directly corresponds to location in physical stores and everyone has seen products displayed at checkouts. However, ‘selecting items’ is more difficult to relate to, especially for those who do not shop online. We chose the ‘selecting items’ name because it reflected stage of the shopping event during which promotions were displayed. Our ‘selecting items’ included promotions displayed at individual products’ landing pages and in search results because two supermarkets used this technique (displaying promoted items before the searched product options in search results). However, the UK Government in their newly announced promotion restrictions included location on landing pages for food categories, not on landing pages for individual products. The question is, however, how many online shoppers use a landing page for food category and/or how many use the search tool in order to find a product.

Personalised promotions - a friend of a foe?

Unfortunately, the current survey did not give us clear answers to this question. Trying to answer it we used two shopping baskets – healthy and standard – to see whether different promotions are offered depending on the contents of the basket. We expected that a smaller proportion of discretionary product promotions and alcohol promotions may be offered when shopping for the healthy basket items compared to the standard basket items. However, we saw no indication of this for discretionary food and drink and only small effect for alcohol.

The reason why we expected more alcohol and discretionary products promotions for the standard basket (that included discretionary and alcohol items) was an assumption that the supermarkets would be likely to promote items in which a shopper showed interest by selecting them into the basket. We made such assumption because our evidence overview found that individually customised price promotions, which are based on shopper characteristics, could increase retailers’ profits both in physical retail stores and online. Perhaps such customised promotions strategy is not fully effective for a first-time online customer, which was the case here. We set up new shopping accounts, that had no shopping history, to be able to compare supermarkets.

Further research should be conducted to see if such promotion personalisation is being used and understand the extent of it. There is a risk that such personalisation may reinforce both good shopping habits for those that normally purchase healthy food and drink, and bad shopping habits for those that normally purchase food and drink of low nutritional quality.


Our survey collected a relatively large amount of data on online grocery promotions at two time points in 2020. It revealed what types of food and drink promotions are used online and highlighted the different context of online retail compared to physical stores. It also showed that discretionary products as well as alcohol are actively promoted in online retail just like in-store. The main implications of these findings are for the development of HFSS product promotion restrictions: (1) restrict as many types of HFSS promotions as possible and (2) do not allow any seasonal exemptions. Furthermore, non-monetary promotions online should be better understood and uniform names of their types should be established to allow monitoring and comparisons. Finally, the importance of addressing the issue of HFSS promotions in online retail will only grow with increasing popularity of shopping for groceries online.


Read our survey of promotions online

Read our survey of in-store promotions

Read our updated factsheet on shopping for groceries online