Feature story by Kamilla K. Steinnes and Frode Alfnes (SIFO): Mail order food: Online niche food extends product range

By Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes and Frode Alfnes, Consumption Research Norway, Oslo Metropolitan University. Originally published in Norwegian in the newspaper Nationen.

Imagine going into the convenience store to buy food. But instead of going to the left inside the grocery store, you go to the right and go to the in-store post office. Here you get a couple of big packages with a wide variety of foods, such as bread, rice, jam, candy and nuts. So you have gone to the grocery store – not to shop in the store – but to get mail order food.

The example above illustrates a trend in the grocery market. In recent years, a number of digital grocery retailers have been selling food through websites and delivering through mail order, often at the nearest grocery store. This is evidenced by a mapping of online food stores carried out in the project PLATEFORMS by Consumer Research Norway/SIFO at OsloMet. It is almost a bit comical that one can go to the convenience store and get the store employees to deliver food from the post office that comes from a competitor to the store. Upon closer inspection, we see that mail order food expands the range of goods for many consumers, thus supplementing the product range most have in their local stores. 

Bypass the gatekeepers

The large food chains NorgesGruppen, Coop, and Rema decide which goods are to be offered to us consumers. They prefer to have volume products that sell well and can be offered in many stores. This makes it difficult for contractors with niche products to establish themselves with new products in the market. Internet and sales via mail provide opportunities for these contractors to establish themselves on the Norwegian market and now consumers spread throughout the country. This reduces the power of the large chains to determine which foods will be available to Norwegian consumers. SIFO’s mapping finds that food entrepreneurs within a number of product groups try their luck on the web, with varying success. Those who succeed have often found niche markets that have poor coverage in most Norwegian food stores.

Online product range

SIFO’s mapping of digital food outlets shows that there are many outlets for food on the Internet that deliver throughout the country through mail order. Here you can buy many types of food products such as bread, oils, cakes, soups, cereals, canned goods, sweets, pasta and drinks. What is more difficult to obtain through mail order is fresh products such as eggs, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. These foods are difficult to carry around at the national level with quality and durability intact. Most online stores that offer fresh produce and refrigerated goods use home delivery. You can still get both fish and meat from mail order from smaller online stores – in processed form. It is possible, for example, to pick up pork meat, sausages, bacon, shavings and salami through Spekehuset.no. In addition to food products, you can buy other items that you typically find at a regular grocery store such as cleaning products, alcohol, kitchen utensils and baby goods. If your local store lacks your favorite beer, you can order it at Vinmonopolet.no and pick it up at the post office.

Apart from the major online stores like Kolonial.no and Meny.no, the selection in online stores is often characterized by ecology, local food, veganism, and allergy friendly. Most of such niche stores sell food products online. Of the 99 online stores for food in Norway in 2018 that were mapped in PLATEFORMS, 80 specialized in niche food, such as local and sustainable snacks, herbs, and oils from NaturligLiv.no and organic chocolate, tea, and honey from BeeOrganic.no. The Internet thus opens up an alternative sales channel for special food. A small food entrepreneur focusing on exclusive oils may be too small for nationwide distribution through the large chains. By establishing themselves online, the entrepreneur can now reach the ever-growing foodie segment with the best olive oils and exquisite cured meats – niche food that the local grocery store often lacks.

Extended product range

Investigations of the Norwegian product range have shown that it is very limited compared to our neighboring countries. Product selection surveys made by SIFO in 2016 found that Swedish stores have almost twice as large a range of goods as Norwegian stores. There are also regional differences in the product range, where the districts come out worst. They have fewer supermarkets and fewer shops in general to choose from. Food ordered over the web is often independent of the region and can typically be delivered at a national level using Posten and Bring. Mail order food therefore constitutes a particularly important offer for people who live far away from the largest supermarkets. Mail order food is also important for marginal goods with too low turnover so that most stores will carry them. Online stores can have a large selection of a narrow range. This means that people across the country get a larger selection of niche products without traveling far to find them. The next time your local store does not have what you are looking for, you might consider mail order food.

Original article in Norwegian