Consumer

Shelly Banjo is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering retail and consumer goods. She previously was a reporter at Quartz and the Wall Street Journal.

How Amazon Will Kill Your Local Grocery Store

Amazon's done it to books. And electronics. And clothing. Now it wants to rule the grocery aisles. 

But Amazon still has a ways to go -- the online retailing behemoth has taken a slow, yet calculated approach to attacking the grocery store. After years of testing the AmazonFresh program in its Seattle hometown, it began expanding the grocery delivery service to other cities in 2013. Today, it delivers fresh fruit and meat in parts of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, California, Washington and Maryland. It also delivers food through its Amazon.com website and its Prime Now program. 

And even though research from Cowen & Co. pegs Amazon's market share of food and beverages sold online in 2015 at about 22 percent, that overall online grocery market in the U.S. is pretty small. Out of the $795 billion Cowen expects Americans to spend on food and drinks this year, it estimates only about $33 billion of it will be spent online.

That's because it has taken shoppers a long time to grow comfortable with buying their apples, chicken breasts and granola online when they can stop by a physical store on the way home from work and actually touch and smell the food they're buying. Companies struggle to profit from the very expensive business of picking, packing and transporting fresh food to their customers. It's much easier to mail a video game or book, which doesn't have to be kept cold or free of bruises. 

But for Amazon, the grocery business not only brings more sales, it could also make its business more profitable. People tend to buy groceries weekly or daily, so getting them hooked on delivery justifies sending trucks out more frequently. Then any general merchandise, like a book or toy, that Amazon sells along with the food adds to profits. And since Amazon will need more trucks for grocery delivery, it could reduce its reliance on shipping companies, which have contributed to soaring costs. For now, Amazon is likely to take added grocery costs on the chin, in hopes it will pay off down the line.

Growing its AmazonFresh and Prime Now offerings suggests Amazon is gearing up for the long haul in grocery. Though traditional grocers are not likely to see sales migrate to Amazon right away, that luxury won't last. And just like bookstores, your local grocer could be toast. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shelly Banjo in New York at sbanjo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net