We still face nasty nudges in an online grocery shopping environment

17 March 2021
Online grocery shopping has increased during the recent Covid-19 pandemic and supermarkets are bombarding shoppers with promotions as they shop online.

Online grocery shopping has increased during the recent Covid-19 pandemic and supermarkets are bombarding shoppers with promotions as they shop online. Our report, released today, found that during a single shopping event shoppers are exposed to an average of 510 promotions. Of those 510, 107 are for unhealthy food and drink. However, this varies substantially between supermarkets from 188 during a Morrisons’ shop to 35 during an Iceland shop.

Obesity Action Scotland are therefore calling on the Scottish Government to ensure that action to tackle the incessant promotion of unhealthy foods during online and in-store shopping trips is prioritized immediately following the election.

This survey found that there are varying profiles of promotions between the supermarkets.  This indicates that, to be effective, any measures to tackle the promotion of unhealthy foods needs to cover as many types of promotion as possible from temporary price reductions to buy one get one free to placement at checkout.  There is also a clear seasonal increase of discretionary product promotions around Christmas, so to be truly effective we need to ensure the rules apply all year round.

Our new survey provides the first Scotland-based analysis of food and drink promotions in an online retail environment. Conducted at two time points in 2020, the survey captured online grocery retail environment just before the first COVID-19 lockdown and then was repeated at the end of the year. The survey included 6 online supermarkets (all that delivered shopping in mainland Scotland in March 2020) and used two shopping lists to collect data on food and drink promotions based on 18 separate shopping events.

The key findings were:

  1. During an average online shopping event a shopper in our survey was exposed to 510 promotions, of which 61% were non-monetary and 39% were price promotions.
  2. Around a fifth (21%) of all promotions were for discretionary (unhealthy) products and around a tenth (11%) for alcohol. Most often promoted discretionary products were confectionery, crisps, ice-cream and dairy desserts, and soft drinks.
  3. Supermarkets employed different combinations of price promotions and non-monetary promotions, demonstrating that many combinations work. This suggests that the introduction of restrictions to only some types of promotions is likely to lead to compensation with other types.
  4. There was clear seasonal trend for food and drink promotions with more in November/December than in March 2020. The trend was stronger for discretionary products and for alcohol than for food and drink in general.
  5. Temporary price reduction was the most frequently employed type of price promotion (57% of price promotions). The most frequently employed non-monetary promotion was location on product landing pages and in the search results. However, there were large variations between the supermarkets in numbers and types of promotions used.


On publishing the new survey Lorraine Tulloch, Programme Lead of Obesity Action Scotland said: “Our new survey reveals that unhealthy food and drink and alcohol are actively promoted in online retail just like they are in-store. While Scottish Government’s plans to introduce restrictions to HFSS food and drink promotions were put on hold due to outbreak of the pandemic, the promotions have not been put on hold and keep influencing shoppers both online and in-store. The introduction of these restrictions is urgent if we want to ensure the healthy choice is the easiest choice for all consumers to improve their diet and their health.

It will be important that regulation is bold and wide ranging to take account of the varying types of promotion employed by different supermarkets.  We recognize that supermarkets have helped ensure food supplies during a very difficult year but they must also ensure they take responsibility and improve their service to support and enable our good health.”

Associated links, blogs, videos and publications
Online Grocery Shopping - February 2021
Associated Content
Price & Promotions