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New Study Details Grocery Shopping Habits Of Low-Income Consumers


Last updated on June 14th, 2024 at 10:10 am

A new National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS), “Where Do Americans Usually Shop for Food and How Do They Travel To Get There?,” jointly sponsored by the Economic Research Service (ERS) and USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, has collected comprehensive data about food purchases, both from grocery stores and other food retailers and from restaurants, sandwich shops, school cafeterias and other eating places.

FoodAPS collected data between April 2012 and January 2013, and nearly 5,000 households completed the survey. The main food shopper or meal planner for each household provided a variety of information, including where the household did most of its grocery shopping and the typical mode of transportation used to get to the store. The survey purposely included a disproportionately high number of households that participate in SNAP and other low-income households to allow researchers to construct a more detailed picture of the grocery shopping habits of low-income Americans. However, responses were weighted to yield nationally representative estimates of all U.S. households.

In ERS’s analysis of the data, researchers looked at whether travel modes to the stores where households do their usual grocery shopping, the types of stores patronized and the distance traveled to stores differ by participation in food assistance programs or food security status.

Lower-income households less likely to use their own vehicles

How consumers travel to a grocery store can influence what they purchase; if consumers take a bus or walk to a store, they are limited to what they can carry or pull in a cart. People may be less likely to buy heavy items or multiple cans of on-sale items if they do not have a car. Shoppers without access to a car who walk to the store every day may be more likely to buy fresh ingredients for that night’s dinner, or their purchases may consist of grab-and-go prepared meals.

Pg1-USDA-august15_feature_morrison_fig01Responses to the survey reveal that most U.S. households use their own vehicles to do their primary grocery shopping. However, households that participate in SNAP and food-insecure households are more likely to rely on someone else’s car or to walk, bike or take public transit.

Key findings of the study include:

  • Sixty-eight percent of SNAP participants used their own cars for grocery shopping, compared to 83 percent of non-SNAP, lower-income households and 95 percent of higher-income households.
  • Among SNAP households, 19 percent reported using someone else’s car, and 13 percent walked, biked or used public transportation.
  • Sixteen percent of food-insecure households used someone else’s car (compared to 5 percent of food-secure households), and 14 percent used other transportation modes (compared to 4 percent of food-secure households).

Borrowing someone else’s car or sharing a ride to a store is likely to mean less frequent trips to the grocery store. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 28 percent of SNAP participants make their major grocery shopping trips just once a month or less frequently, compared to 8 percent of higher-income households. Seventy percent of SNAP participants rated “how well food keeps” as being very important to them—the second most highly rated attribute, and ahead of price, nutrition and convenience. Researchers point out that less frequent shopping has implications for menu planning and food choices, and healthy shopping strategies may need to be adjusted for low-income shoppers.

Consumers favor supermarkets and supercenters

Supermarkets and supercenters are the most popular grocery shopping destinations for most U.S. households. According to the study, income and mode of transportation do not appear to influence the type of stores households use for their primary shopping. In addition to their primary store, FoodAPS respondents also reported a secondary store that they regularly used as an alternative for groceries. These primary and alternative stores were grouped into four categories:

  • Supermarkets (supermarkets, large grocery stores and commissaries)
  • Supercenters (supercenters, mass merchandisers and club stores)
  • Other retailers (smaller grocery stores, specialty food retailers and other retailers, such as convenience stores and dollar stores)
  • Unknown store types (not possible to identify or classify the store)

Roughly 44 percent of households did their primary grocery shopping at supercenters, while another 45 percent used supermarkets. Just 5 percent of households did their main shopping at other retailers. For the remaining 6 percent of households, it was not possible to identify or classify their primary store. Supercenters and supermarkets were the most common alternative stores as well, though the alternate stores identified by about 26 percent of households could not be classified, suggesting that these stores are less likely to be recognized chain stores.

SNAP households are similar to non-SNAP households in their use of supermarkets or supercenters for their primary grocery shopping. Ninety percent of SNAP and food-insecure households did their primary grocery shopping at either a supermarket or a supercenter.

Pg1-USDA-august15_feature_morrison_fig02WIC households, however, were more likely to use supercenters as their primary store than non-WIC households. Because WIC households are larger and more likely to contain young children compared to non-WIC households, WIC participants may be more likely to shop at supercenters in order to purchase larger-sized products or to take advantage of one-stop shopping.

Consumers are bypassing the nearest supermarket

Most Americans do not necessarily shop at the supermarket that is closest to their home. Even households that do not use their own vehicles tend to travel farther than the nearest supermarket or supercenter. The study found that the distance to the nearest supermarket or supercenter for the average U.S. household was 2.14 miles and that the average household shopped at a store 3.79 miles from home. SNAP participants and food-insecure households, even those who walk, use a bike or take public transit, are also likely to bypass their nearest supermarket. These results suggest that store proximity may be important, but price, quality and selection—and possibly the need to combine grocery shopping with a commute from work or school—also affect where households shop for food.

The complete report, along with more information about the survey, data collection and data releases can be found online at ers.usda.gov.

About the author

Shelby Team

The Shelby Report delivers complete grocery news and supermarket insights nationwide through the distribution of five monthly regional print and digital editions. Serving the retail food trade since 1967, The Shelby Report is “Region Wise. Nationwide.”

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