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10 Groceries You Should Always Buy in Person

Online grocery services are booming, but there are some items you may not want to pick up curbside.

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Panic at the supermarket

Before March 2020, online shopping accounted for just 3 percent of all grocery sales, or about $1.2 billion, according to a survey by Brick Meets Click/Mercatus. By June, that number shot up to $7.2 billion. Now, with social distancing mandates still in effect in many places, plenty of customers are going to be using virtual carts for a long time to come.

“When COVID-19 hit, a lot of people who had never really thought about their grocery shopping habits before suddenly had to,” says Andy Ellwood, president and co-founder of Basket, a grocery shopping and price comparison app. As many brick and mortar stores struggled to keep food and other supplies in stock, customers turned to new chains, new brands, and online or curbside pickup services. Here are 10 things you won’t find in the supermarket anymore post-pandemic.

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A tale of two shopping lists

While online grocery shopping definitely has its advantages, particularly while the country is still coming to grips with the pandemic, it also has its downsides. Online groceries often come with delivery surcharges, and shopping online can make it more difficult to take advantage of coupons and sales. Not to mention the dreaded substitutions for out-of-stock items, like parsley when you need cilantro.

“A lot of people tested and tried delivery services and had varied experiences,” says Ellwood. “We heard from a lot of shoppers that it isn’t quite the same as shopping a store. What’s been fascinating,” he continues, “is that now, we’re seeing people make two shopping lists: one for curbside pickup, and one for themselves to shop in a brick-and-mortar store.”

We asked Ellwood and other experts to weigh in on what foods are best to buy in-person versus online, and here are the results. Here are some other ways coronavirus could change the way we eat.

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Fresh fruit

According to Ellwood, the number one complaint of online grocery service shoppers was that food, specifically, produce, wasn’t fresh. No one wants bruised apples or moldy strawberries, and online store shoppers are typically just grabbing and going as they fill orders. If you need a melon that’s perfectly ripe, you’re better off picking it out yourself.

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Avocados

Sometimes, though, you prefer produce that’s not quite ripe. Depending on what you’re cooking or how often you eat produce, you may want to leave a few green bananas on the bunch so they’re not all ripening at once. This is frequently the case with avocados, as well, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, author of Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table. “I may want four avocados, but only one that’s ripe, one that’s very ripe, and two that are rock hard so I can use them at different times.” How do you explain that to an online shopper? Answer: You don’t. Here’s what avocados wish you knew.

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Milk

Milk seems like a pretty standard item, but many people prefer to select a carton with an expiration date far in the future, especially if they don’t go through a half-gallon quickly. After all, spoiled dairy is no joke. “I am very picky about freshness dates,” says Taub-Dix. The same goes for yogurt, cheese, and sour cream. Here’s how to know whether that expiration date really means your food is bad—or not.

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Steak

“People often have specific requirements for their fruits, vegetables, and meat,” says Gus Lebiak, chief operating officer of marketing for Krasdale Foods, the largest wholesale grocery distributor in New York City. “Being able to select them directly yourself versus online will always be a customer’s preference.” If you want to make sure that ribeye is perfectly marbled—especially if you’re paying top dollar—don’t leave it to chance. Once you have it in hand, you’ll want to avoid these mistakes everyone makes when cooking steak.

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Seafood

Even though seafood can be shipped quickly and safely, people usually want to give it a sniff test to make sure it’s fresh. “Products that people prefer to feel and analyze before purchasing are better bought in person,” says Lebiak. Also, if you’re concerned about sustainability, seafood counters often note details about the fillets like where it was caught that aren’t always available online. Here’s how long you can keep fresh seafood in your fridge.

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Frozen food

One of the main drawbacks of online shopping is that it’s much more difficult to compare labels, says Taub-Dix. You can have two packages of frozen strawberries, but which one has added sugar? It’s a lot easier to find that information if you are physically in the store and can read the ingredients panel. If you’re concerned about nutrition but also want to minimize the amount of time you spend in public spaces like stores, she suggests taking a trip to do research and scout brands and keeping a list of the ones that meet your nutritional needs so you can order them online easily. Even then it can still be tricky identifying whether a food is good for you or not. Here are 11 “healthy” foods that nutritionists won’t touch.

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Store brands

When so many chain grocery stores ran low on stock, customers were forced to abandon the brands they usually preferred. “Because of COVID-19, people became familiar with store brands and they continued to buy them afterward to save money,” says Taub-Dix. Ellwood confirms that consumers aren’t rushing back to brand names. But while some stores offer their brands online, many grocery shopping services only offer brand name products, so in-store is the only option. Speaking of, find out the 15 things you aren’t buying at Costco, but should be.

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Bottled drinks

Beverages including soda, prepared teas, juices, and even bottled water often go on sale at specific stores, says Ellwood, so if you want to get the best deal, sometimes it pays to shop in person because the same deals won’t be found online. Ever wonder why soda from a can tastes different than soda from a bottle?

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Deli meat

Not only can you take advantage of sales in person that aren’t always online, but one of the perks of deli meats and cheeses is that they’re sliced fresh. When you order online, it’s hard to know exactly when they were sliced. You may also have more options in terms of quantity when shopping in-store versus online, depending on the store.  Here’s how to avoid germs when grocery shopping, according to Consumer Reports.

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The online advantage

There are definitely some safe bets online, as well. For people who like the convenience and time savings of delivery, and knowing they won’t be making a trip only to discover half the items on their lists are out of stock, online shopping can be fantastic. Here are 11 online grocers you’ve never heard of that are fully stocked.

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Buy online: Cereal

Cereal sales have been booming since COVID-19 hit. It makes sense: It’s prep-free, shelf-stable, and can be ready in minutes. Cereal is the ultimate fast, easy, comfort-food meal in a box. If you favor a certain brand, there’s little risk to ordering it online or even stocking up. Are you a cereal super fan? Check out these little-known facts about your favorite flakes.

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Snack foods

Packaged snacks like chips and cookies may not be great for us, but right now we need a little pleasure however we can get it. Generally, food that comes in boxes, bags, or cans are things that don’t need to be handpicked, says Ellwood. And they don’t come on sale super often so you’re not missing great deals. (Many online retailers accept manufacturers coupons.) When online shopping, it’s important to keep your spending habits in check. Here are 17 easy ways to save money online.

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Cleaning supplies

Non-food items including cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products like toothbrushes, and paper goods are all safe bets. “These aren’t things you’re going to need to negotiate on,” says Taub-Dix. “They’re brands you know you can trust because you bought from the company all along.” Here’s how to say buh-bye to toilet paper shortages forever.

For more on this developing situation, including how life might be different post-lockdown, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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