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Is it Cheaper to Buy Groceries Online and Have them Delivered? I Did the Math

Online grocery delivery is convenient but could it actually be cheaper than in-store shopping? I compared grocery lists from Amazon Fresh, FreshDirect and a national supermarket chain to find out.

David Watsky Senior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's spent more than a decade covering all things edible, including meal kit services, food subscriptions, kitchen tools and cooking tips. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the food business, including as a line cook in Rhode Island where he once made a steak sandwich for Lamar Odom. Right now, he's likely somewhere stress-testing a blender or researching the best way to make bacon. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
Expertise Kitchen tools, appliances, food science, subscriptions and meal kits.
David Watsky
7 min read
Amazon Fresh paper bag

We did some math to find out how buying groceries online compares to shopping in person.

James Martin/CNET

There's little to question about the convenience of grocery delivery. It's fast, saves you a trip to the store and allows you to research items, price-compare in real-time and see your order all in one place, including the cost, before ponying up the dough. But convenience, always comes with a price, right? So how much more is ordering groceries online versus buying them in a store?

We Do the Math badge

To see if you might save money, in addition to time and hassle, by grocery shopping online, pulled out my calculator to crunch the numbers. I compared a typical grocery list from Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect (available in the Northeast only) with an average brick-and-mortar supermarket. It turns out, grocery delivery isn't much more expensive than doing the shopping yourself. 

Because of membership, delivery fees and tipping, you might think having groceries delivered is far more expensive, but the final tallies were remarkably close. If you subscribe to the aphorism "time is money," online grocery shopping is surely a better bargain.

For more stories where We Do the Math, see how much you can save by shopping at Trader Joe's and how much buying in bulk from Costco can save you in a year. 

Stop & Shop vs. FreshDirect vs. Amazon Fresh


Stop & ShopFreshDirectAmazon Fresh
Total before extras $197.64$182.27$183.63
Tip N/A$20$20
Delivery/membership fee N/A$6$15
Total$196.64$208.27$218.63

I used average-priced supermarket Stop & Shop to compare

Grocery stores vary from store to store and region to region. For the sake of this exercise, I chose Stop & Shop, which is right in the middle; not known for being overly pricey like Gristede's or Acme, but also not in the budget or wholesale category with Costco and Walmart. 

Woman in supermarket checking package information

Shopping in a supermarket costs you time and gas money. Is there a better way without breaking the budget?

Tanya Constantine/Getty Images

Before looking at any prices, I generated a list of 39 popular grocery items -- some name brands, some generic -- in every category from eggs and dairy to bread and snacks, produce, meat, fish and pantry staples. I mostly avoided organic foods and specialty items and chose the cheapest available option from all three retailers: Stop & Shop, FreshDirect and Amazon Fresh. 

If something wasn't available at one retailer, I selected the next closest item, since that's what an average shopper might do. Amazon Fresh doesn't stock boneless chicken thighs, for instance, so I chose chicken breast and added the same price-per-pound cost. This issue didn't come up more than twice. 

Fresh produce on display in a grocery store

Fresh produce is one thing you might prefer to buy in person. But is it worth an entire trip to the market?

James Martin/CNET

FreshDirect and Amazon Fresh also have either a membership or delivery fee to consider along with (optional) tipping (more on that later), so I included those figures in the final tally. 

I did not include the fuel cost required to travel to and from a brick-and-mortar grocery store, since there is no one-size-fits-all formula. There is also the consideration of time and hassle required to shop in person. But, again, this is not something one can easily quantify in monetary terms. 

Stop & Shop vs. FreshDirect vs. Amazon Fresh


Stop & StopFreshDirectAmazon Fresh
Eggs/dairy:


Brown eggs (12) $4.79$3.49$2.79
2% milk (1 gallon) $5.19$4.59$4.39
Almond milk (1/2 gallon) $3.29$2.79$4
Block Cabot cheddar cheese (8 oz) $4.89$5$5.29
Quart of plain yogurt (32 oz) $3.69$5.29$4




Bread and crackers:


Loaf of 7-grain bread $5.19$4$4
Thomas' English muffins (pack of 6) $5.59$5$4.29 (Bay's)
Club crackers (13.7 oz) $5.49$4.79$5.29




Produce:


Broccoli head (1 lb.) $2.29$2.60$4.89
Bag of red potatoes (1 lb.) $1.49$1.01$1.20
Package of mixed greens (4 oz.) $4$4.29$4
Hass avocado (1) $2$2.49$2.29
Bag of carrots (1 lb.) $1.79$1.49$1.25
Bag of yellow onions (1 lb.) $1.49$1.25$1.11




Pantry:


Bottle of Heinz Ketchup (32 oz.) $3.69$3$5.69
Jar Hellman's Mayo (20 oz.) $6.59$6$7.69
White rice (2 lbs.) $2.79$3.39$1.89
Chicken stock (32 oz.) $3.29$2.89$1.89
Ground Starbucks coffee (12 oz.) $11.59$11$9
Peanut butter (16 oz.) $5.19$2.49$2.69
Seltzer (8) $4.79$3.88$5
Barilla penne pasta (16 oz.) $2.39$2.09$2
Prego pasta sauce (24 oz.) $3$2.79$3.59
Canned dog food (12.5 oz.) $2.09$2$3




Snacks:


Box of Cheerios (9 oz.) $5.69$4.79$5.79
Cape Cod potato chips (7.5 oz.) $5$4.79$4.19
Corn chips (11 oz.) $2.69$3$2.49
Chewy granola bars (box of 8) $4.89$4.29$3.79
Breyers ice cream (1 quart) $6.19$7$6.79
Simply Orange juice (52 oz.) $5.69$5$5




Meats/fish:


Ground beef (1 lb.) $5.49$6$4.69
Skinless chicken thighs (1 lb.) $5$5.29$5.19 (breast)
Atlantic salmon (1 lb.) $15$14$12.39
Whole chicken (3 lbs.) $6.90$7.50$6.75
Organic chicken breast (1 lb.) $14.24$9$11
Bacon (16 oz.) $7.49$10$8.09
Beyond beef (16 oz.) $11.49$10$11.29
Veggie burgers (4-pack) $4.29$4$4.95




Total before extras $196.64$182.27$183.63
Tip N/A$20$20
Delivery or membership fee N/A$6$15
Total$196.64$208.27$218.63

So is buying groceries online cheaper than in person?

After tallying the grocery costs for my order with all three retailers, the results were remarkably similar. See below for a breakdown of the differences in cost including membership and delivery fees for both. 

Is Fresh Direct cheaper than a grocery store?

The FreshDirect total amounted to $208.27, just $1.63 more than Stop & Shop (but with no trip to the store, time spent shopping or money spent on gas). If you subscribe to FreshDirect's DeliveryPass, the total would be more like $198 and a few bucks cheaper than Stop & Shop. FreshDirect was the cheapest before fees and only slightly more than Stop & Shop with the $10 tip and $6 delivery charge added. 

Is Amazon Fresh cheaper than a grocery store?

Amazon Fresh was the priciest, clocking in at $218.63 for the same 39 items including the $15 monthly Prime membership fee and a $20 driver tip. If you already have Prime and don't consider that an "extra" cost, Amazon Fresh would fall to $203.63. 

How much are Amazon Fresh fees?

Amazon Fresh offers free grocery delivery for orders exceeding $100. Prime subscribers pay $6.95 for orders of $50 to $100 and $9.95 for those under $50. Shoppers who don't subscribe to Prime pay $7.95 and $13.95, depending on the order size and delivery window. Amazon Prime membership costs $15 a month or $139 per year. 

Amazon Prime will also get you a subscription to Prime Video along with free two-day shipping on Amazon proper, plus other secret perks. Amazon Fresh also offers free pickup at Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh locations, depending on your proximity to those stores. 

Amazon Fresh delivery or pickup options

Unlike FreshDirect, Amazon Fresh offers both delivery and in-store pickup for select zip codes. 

Screenshot by David Watsky/CNET

How much are FreshDirect fees?

FreshDirect has two delivery fee options: You can pay $6 per individual delivery, or sign up for DeliveryPass, which gets you unlimited free deliveries. A year of DeliveryPass is $129. There are also two six-month DeliveryPass options: One allows for deliveries seven days a week for $79, while the other limits deliveries to Tuesday through Thursday but costs just $39. 

If you were to order groceries every week and choose the cheapest delivery plan (Tuesday to Thursday only) you would pay just $1.50 per week, or $1.50 per delivery depending on how you look at it. 

FreshDirect DeliveryPass membership tiers

If you don't want to pay the delivery each time, FreshDirect offers three membership tiers for unlimited deliveries.

Screenshot by David Watsky/CNET

Is it easy to shop for groceries online?

Shopping for groceries online was incredibly simple and intuitive. I liked being able to peruse the items carefully and research anything I was curious about. I also appreciated being able to see my entire order and total cost before making a final purchase, a luxury that in-person grocery shopping doesn't afford.

For the most part, I found every item I was looking for. Stop & Shop, FreshDirect and Amazon Prime stock a lot of the same brands, but not all of the same brands, and so I wasn't always able to find the exact same item at all three. Amazon also has its own proprietary brand Amazon Fresh alongside Whole Foods' 365 brands, since it acquired the upscale supermarket chain in 2017.

chicken thigh product listings on Fresh Direct

For me, FreshDirect had the best options in most grocery categories and at competitive prices.

Screenshot by David Watsky/CNET

Surprisingly, Amazon Fresh was the only grocery retailer that didn't have some of the items on my list including boneless chicken thighs, and so I had to find a like alternative. Amazon also didn't have a few popular brands like Thomas' English muffins, so I opted for a lesser-known muffin brand called Bay's. 

For me, FreshDirect had the best overall selection of items, beating out both Amazon Fresh and Stop & Shop. But slight differences aside, you should be able to find just about anything you're looking for at all three retailers.

One small annoyance I've had with FreshDirect is the accumulation of reusable bags since the service won't pick them up. A spokesperson for the company alerted me to a donation program they've set up with local charities and nonprofits that need them.

You can't squeeze a peach online

The biggest downside of buying groceries online is that you can't judge produce, meats and other fresh foods with your eyes (or hands). In my experience, what I've received from FreshDirect in the dozens of orders I've placed has been up to snuff with no spoiled, bruised or overripe foods. The same can be said for my experience with Amazon Fresh, although I've used this service less. 

Buying groceries online is still my pick for value and convenience

That said, it's hard to deny the convenience of getting all your groceries ordered in minutes and delivered in a day -- sometimes hours. For those looking to grab some time back during the week, ordering groceries online is a major convenience and by my calculations, won't cost you any more than making a trip to the supermarket. 

instacart shopper holding pepper

Instacart assigns a shopper to buy all your groceries from a local market. It has its pitfalls but is still a time-saver versus going yourself.

Instacart

Other options for buying groceries online

Instacart

Instacart is a popular national delivery service and functions as a third-party shopper and delivery outfit that allows you to order groceries from a selection of local supermarkets. You'll essentially be paying the same prices as if you visited the store yourself, plus a $4 delivery fee and tip. 

I've used Instacart and like it fine, but there is a process by which you must respond to your shopper in real-time through the app while they're filling your order and consent to replacements for items that aren't in stock (and there are always items not in stock). It can be distracting, time-consuming and even stressful -- although it's still a time-saver over shopping yourself. 

hungryroot groceries

Hungryroot is an excellent subscription service that sends a curated order of groceries designed to make meals and snacks all week. You can always make swaps for things you don't want. 

Hungryroot

Hungryroot 

Hungryroot is another grocery delivery operation, but it functions a bit differently than the others. With this subscription service, you'll get weekly deliveries of curated groceries based on your preferences and eating habits. Hungryroot gives meal kit suggestions and will send you the ingredients to make them if you so choose. You can always ditch the meal kits or any other items you don't want and swap them for groceries you do want using a credit system. The service ultimately is designed to inspire new recipes and introduce new grocery items to your weekly routine.

Hungryroot doesn't have nearly as many grocery item options as the three stores I compared above, but it does have a full stock of meat, dairy, fish, produce, pantry goods and just about anything else you'd typically get from a supermarket. 

Hungryroot cost versus buying groceries in-store

I tested the hybrid grocery service and meal kit company in June and liked it a lot. Below is the cost for my week of groceries versus buying them from a local supermarket. You can read more in my full review of Hungryroot.

  • Hungryroot total: $120
  • Groceries if purchased separately: $107
  • Difference: +$13

Even more online grocery options: Thrive Market, Boxed.com 

There are other smaller online grocery services available including Thrive Market Misfits Market and Boxed.com. I found these retailers to be useful for certain but limited for others and no one of the three is a full substitution for your typical grocery run. 

Thrive Market, for instance, has lots of high-quality and organic meats but no produce or dairy products. Membership-only Boxed.com is a good place to find dry goods, pantry items and paper products at low prices but it also lacks the fresh foods you generally buy at a market. 

If you don't mind getting your various groceries from different vendors, we've tested to find the best produce delivery services, best meat delivery services and even the best online fish and seafood markets for 2023.