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How Online Grocery Shopping is Making Britain’s Urban-Rural Inequality  Worse

How online grocery shopping is making Britain’s urban-rural inequality worse

Jan Kopriva/Unsplash
Andy Newing, University of Leeds

Before the pandemic, online grocery shopping was typically something younger and more affluent people living in cities indulged in. When COVID hit, though, the market exploded.

In the first week of the first UK lockdown, demand for Ocado home deliveries was reportedly ten times higher than it had been the week before. But when COVID restrictions were re-imposed in September 2020, the online supermarket, like its competitors, was still warning customers that slots were selling out fast. So fast, in fact, one staffer said they were going “like Glastonbury tickets.”

Households struggled to book delivery slots, as supermarkets rightly prioritised deliveries for elderly and vulnerable consumers. And retailers hustled to capitalise on this rapid growth.

In April 2020, Tesco told its customers it had hired 12,000 extra staff and 4,000 new delivery drivers. Six months in, Sainsbury’s said it was delivering 700,000 online orders per week, having effectively doubled its capacity.

A cat amid bags of shopping.
COVID lockdowns saw new demographics turn to online deliveries. Daniel Romero/Unsplash

In 2019, prior to the pandemic, my colleagues and I mapped online groceries coverage by all the major UK grocers, using the “check if we deliver to your area” tool on their websites. We found that where you live affects your choice and availability of online groceries.

People in rural areas have less access to supermarkets in general and, when it comes to online grocery shopping, just over 11% of those people have no choice at all.

Lack of choice

When households order groceries online from the major supermarkets, their orders are usually assembled in a local supermarket, what industry insiders term an “online fulfilment store”. These have dedicated staff, storage space, vehicles and drivers.

This model, however, means that online groceries are not available in all locations. Rather, they are concentrated around the network of stores that each grocer operates.

A cottage in a valley with fog overhead.
People living in rural Scotland have very few online options. Antoine Fabre/Unsplash

On each supermarket website we inputted one postcode from each of the 41,735 neighbourhoods in Great Britain – representing 25.7m households – and recorded the result. We then counted the number of retailers delivering to each neighbourhood.

We found that 98% of households in Great Britain are served by at least one of Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Asda. These three grocers offer the greatest delivery coverage, particularly in urban and suburban areas where households have a choice of grocer providing home delivery.

Other grocers have more restricted coverage. Iceland, a budget retailer with stores in urban areas, serves only 86% of households. Ocado, meanwhile, which is more upmarket and online only, delivers to only 77% of households.

Many neighbourhoods – in south-west and northern England, south and mid-Wales, and in Scotland’s borders, highlands and islands – suffer poor coverage of online groceries.

Households in many neighbourhoods in Argyll and Bute (Scotland), for example, have a single online groceries provider (Tesco). By contrast, in nearby Glasgow, most neighbourhoods have a choice of six online grocery providers.

Across Great Britain, we found that over 11% of households in the most remote rural areas have no choice of provider. They must rely on a single grocer (typically Tesco) for online groceries.

Why retailers are not expanding into rural areas

Rural areas that are underserved by supermarkets in general are precisely those that could benefit the most from better online provision. In urban contexts, the older, higher spending consumer demographic was newly converted to online grocery shopping.

In rural areas, this same demographic could therefore represent untapped demand. In other words, there is an incentive for retailers to expand there.

A row of beach huts on a beach.
Supermarket coverage across Wales is much thinner than for England. Llio Angharad/Unsplash

But that is not happening. We had rare access to data about the nationwide network of Sainsbury’s stores. Over 180 of those supermarkets are in London and south-east England, 85 of which are used as online fulfilment stores. This means the retailer is able to deliver groceries to all neighbourhoods in these regions.

In Wales, by contrast, there are only four Sainsbury’s online fulfilment stores concentrated around the major towns and cities in south Wales. We found that home delivery by Sainsbury’s was unavailable to 162,000 Welsh households (12%).

Even if all existing Sainsbury’s supermarkets in Wales were used for online deliveries, over 25% of neighbourhoods would still be more than 40km from their nearest fulfilment store. Drivers could have to travel over 100km to make their deliveries. This is prohibitively expensive and inefficient.

To expand online groceries coverage beyond the store network, retailers would need to fork out considerable sums to build more stores. Most, however, have cut back on supermarket expansion plans, focusing instead on smaller convenience stores to reflect changing shopper behaviours.

Amid changing consumer behaviours, online remains a key battleground for grocers. However, it offers lower profit margins than in-store shopping due to the higher costs of order preparation and delivery.

A cab with an ad for an online grocery company.
Will Turkish online grocer Getir expand into rural areas? Metin Ozer/Unsplash

Another solution is the partnership model between grocers and online platforms such as Uber Eats, Just Eat and Deliveroo, who collect customer orders from smaller convenience stores (such as Tesco Express).

New players like the Turkish online-only grocer Getir offer rapid delivery services using smaller, more efficient warehouses located close to the customers. However, these, too, are confined to urban areas, for now.

Not being able to choose where you shop has several adverse impacts. It can restrict competition in online groceries, which in turn can see customers faced with less choice of delivery slot or higher charges for home delivery.

And, as highlighted by the consumer choice champion Which? and the Consumer Data Research Centre, it can hamper access to affordable, healthy groceries, by limiting customers’ opportunity to shop around for the best deals and widest range.

Quite how this might change though boils down to whether the major grocers or the new innovators are able to make the investments needed to better cater to rural demand. Until then, customers in these areas will face the dual disadvantage of poor access to larger supermarkets and fewer online grocery options to improve things.The Conversation

Andy Newing, Associate Professor in Applied Spatial Analysis, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Job Opportunity: Research Fellow in Urban Mobility

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Job Opportunity: Research Fellow in Urban Mobility

The Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) at Leeds delivers insights into human behaviour using consumer and commercial datasets, and we are looking for a Research Fellow in Urban Mobility who can help us deliver greater impact from our data assets and projects.

We’re seeking an ambitious Research Fellow in Urban Mobility fascinated by urban mobility data who can support work on advancing theory and methods relating to urban mobility and most crucially, work on emerging insights that ultimately have impacts on policy.

You will work closely with Professor Ed Manley, to develop new ideas and approaches for modelling urban mobility. You will gain experience in a rapidly developing, interdisciplinary field that will benefit a future career in academia or data science.

The successful candidate will have the opportunity to work with colleagues from Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, along with our external partners. We are currently working with Wejo and Spectus to make connected vehicle, mobility and location data more readily available for research purposes.

You will have an approach to research and level of technical expertise that allows you to draw out new insights and models of mobility behaviour from large datasets.

View job description and find out more.

CDRC Researcher wins Best Paper at GISRUK 2023

CDRC Researcher wins Best Paper at GISRUK 2023

Lead author Dr James Todd, CDRC data scientist, winner of GISRUK 2023 Best Paper, with the conference organisers.

The 2023 edition of GISRUK (Geographical Information Science Research UK) conference took place in late April at the University of Glasgow with over 150 delegates, and saw a strong representation from CDRC-aligned Ph.D students and centre staff, with one of the centre’s data scientists winning the Best Paper prize.

The paper, “Dominant Trip Purposes within a Dockless Bicycle Sharing System“, was presented by lead author Dr James Todd, with co-authors Oliver O’Brien, Shunya Kimura and Professor James Cheshire, all of the Department of Geography at UCL. The paper was one of three shortlisted in advance by conference organisers and then voted on by participants towards the end of the conference.

Other CDRC staff and student presentations included Dr Meixu Chen on “Creating an energy deprivation classification at small areas in England and Wales“, Fransesca Pontin on “Identifying areas at highest food insecurity through open data: the “Priority Places for Food Index“, Louise Sieg on “Regionalising mobile phone data: attributing time components to optimised regions to create region classifications“, Eliott Karikari on “Analysing Connected Car Data to Understand Vehicular Route Choice“, Shunya Kimura on “The Use of Consumer Data to Explore Geographic and Social Variations in Online Gambling“, Nikki Tanu on “Residential Telephone Directories and Geodemographic Change in Britain” and Rob Davidson on “Levelling Up Health: A Review of UK Datasets on Place-based Measures of Health Inequality“. Additionally, Hamish Gibbs and Mikaella Mavrogeni showed posters entitled “Detecting bias within location histories collected from a panel of mobile applications” and “The use of in-app data to drive geodemographic classification of activity patterns” respectively.

CDRC was also a conference sponsor and had a stand at the event’s poster session, showcasing some of the latest CDRC research and also the Consumer Data Research book produced by the centre and published by UCL Press. CDRC staff outlined the centre’s mission and modus operandi, and a number of copies of the book were given to interested attendees.

CDRC’s Dr Patrick Ballantyne (Postdoctoral Research Fellow) and Centre Technical Manager Oliver O’Brien, with copies of the centre’s Consumer Data Research book, at the GISRUK 2023 poster session.

Photos © University of Glasgow photography team.

Tackling the Cost of Food Crisis – Event Summary

Four CDRC team members at the House of Commons for the Tackling the Cost of Food event with The Food Foundation and Which?

Tackling the Cost of Food Crisis – Event Summary

The CDRC Priority Places for Food team were invited to the House of Commons earlier this week in order to share their work on food insecurity.

The event, ‘Tackling the Cost of Food Crisis’, was set up to share new research, led by Which?, on the availability of budget range options in small and large supermarket stores, and to launch a new film by The Food Foundation highlighting the lived experiences of those living in the areas of highest food insecurity.

CDRC’s Priority Places for Food Index (developed last year in collaboration with Which?) emphasises that food (in)security is determined both by access to food and the obstacles blocking access to that food. As a result, this event brought together policymakers, MPs, charity organisations and those with lived experiences of food insecurity and diet-related ill health, with the joint objectives of working together to improve access to affordable food and to remove the social barriers currently limiting access to that food.

The Priority Places for Food Index demonstrates that access to supermarkets plays an important part in the UK’s food security. Good access to supermarkets includes both online access (including availability of online delivery as well as the likelihood of individuals in a particular location to shop online) as well as in-person access (including proximity, travel time, and travel options to supermarkets).

Which? calls on supermarkets to do more

Which? took this research further, by exploring what choices consumers have if they have limited access to larger supermarkets and need to shop in smaller stores. Their research involved sending a team of mystery shoppers into 123 different-sized branches of Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco across the UK to assess the availability of a range of essential budget groceries.

Each shopper was armed with a list of around 29 different basic budget groceries to find in each store, and the results show that those core budget items were almost all available in larger stores, and almost all unavailable in smaller stores.

The shopping list used by Which? was developed in collaboration with CDRC researchers, and the outcomes of Which?’s research emphasised that having access to supermarkets was not always a guarantee that consumers could access affordable food. In fact, the items available in different-sized stores are not configured to cater to the areas in which those stores are located, but in fact based on store size (with a larger range of budget items available in larger stores, not areas of greater need).

Which? have called on retailers to do more to tackle food insecurity by ensuring budget ranges are available in smaller stores, using the Priority Places for Food Index as an example of how to determine which areas in the UK need access to affordable food most urgently. You can sign their #AffordableFoodForAll campaign here.

The Food Foundation – Sharing lived experiences

The powerful and emotional film launched by The Food Foundation focused on the lived experience of Melissa, who lives in Solihull, and who describes how difficult it is to feed her children during the cost of living crisis.

The Food Foundation used the Priority Places for Food Index to determine an area of particularly high food insecurity – Birmingham – and in the video, uses the expertise of GP Dr Ewan Hamnett to highlight the long-lasting health implications of food insecurity for individuals and, more long-term, the additional stress health inequalities are likely to place on the health and social care systems in future.

Alongside the launch of this video, the Food Foundation have made demands on both retailers and Government to ensure everyone can survive the cost of living crisis and eat well.

In particular, The Food Foundation called for the expansion and strengthening of the healthy start voucher and free school meal schemes.

The Priority Places for Food Index includes the eligibility and uptake data for these schemes. You can read more about the work CDRC has done previously on free school meals here, and read also how Dr Michelle Morris’s work with retailers has evidenced the value in expanding the healthy start voucher scheme.

What happens next?

The event was a reminder to all attendees that the cost-of-living crisis and its impacts are not going away any time soon, and that in order to effect change we need to get a clear picture of the extent of the problem.

The combined effect of the Priority Places for Food Index, Which?’s secret shopper research, and the accounts of lived experiences provided via The Food Foundation provide the evidence necessary to prompt action, with many attendees at the event signing the declaration on affordable food put forward jointly by Which? and The Food Foundation.

Furthermore, guests at the event were able to spend time using the Priority Places for Food Index, exploring how they as individuals or organisations can use it to develop targeted interventions to improve food security.

Which? also used Priority Places data to provide constituency-level evidence packs for the MPs in attendance, placing the evidence of the levels of food insecurity and contributing factors to that insecurity into the hands of decisionmakers.

Journalist and Radio 4 presenter Sheila Dillon, who chaired the event, said that it was hard not to be moved by the video created by The Food Foundation, and on Twitter noted that coming together for the event – with representation from both the Conservative and Labour parties – gave her hope that ‘democracy might be working’.

Dr Emily Ennis, Research and Impact Manager, Consumer Data Research Centre (Leeds)

Digital Poverty Research

Map showing digital poverty index in South Yorkshire

Understanding Digital Poverty in South Yorkshire

Researchers at the University of Sheffield used several CDRC datasets as part of their research into digital poverty in South Yorkshire. The South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (SYMCA) wanted a better understanding of how digital poverty and digital exclusion play a role in the region, and how to build digital capability in the region, particularly for social groups identified as at risk.  

The research team mapped digital poverty in the South Yorkshire region. This allowed them to assess the areas at greater risk of digital poverty, by highlighting the intersections of different inequalities and barriers that different social groups in the region experience. This provided a place-based nuanced understanding of which populations and areas are more affected and thus potentially excluded from the labour market, education, and services due to being digitally excluded.

Screen shot of the visualisation tool

The findings are helping SYMCA create a positive impact in the region: they will inform the region’s COVID-19 recovery plan and the agenda for implementing their Inclusion Plan and is providing feasible and research- and evidence-informed pathways towards alleviating digital exclusion and digital poverty. Besides supporting the most disadvantaged citizens, by leveraging the findings of this project, SYMCA will be better able and prepared to create further digital development opportunities in the region, e.g., by supporting the development of literacies, entrepreneurship, and talent- thus supporting its economic recovery.

For more information see the project webpage: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/office-for-data-analytics/digital-poverty

The visualisation tool is available here: https://sheffield-university.shinyapps.io/Digital-Poverty/

The project was funded through the Knowledge Exchange Support Fund (QR Policy and Covid Recovery) and supported by the South Yorkshire Office for Data Analytics Pilot.


Job Opportunity: Lead Research Data Scientist

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Job Opportunity: Lead Research Data Scientist

Here at the Consumer Data Research Centre we’re committed to using consumer data for the public good and we are looking for a Lead Research Data Scientist who can help us deliver impact from our data assets and projects.

We’re seeking a talented and highly motivated Lead Research Data Scientist who can help us design, manage and deliver more data outputs derived from our research.  

We are looking for someone with a strong understanding and experience of working with sensitive data in a secure environment, who is able to design and implement code for the cleaning and analysis of new datasets.

You will have prior experience in using your data analysis and interpretation skills to interrogate datasets, develop and pursue research questions, and generate attractive and easily understood outputs

View job description and find out more.

New Data: Wejo Connected Vehicle Trajectories

Urban Mobility Image

New Data: Wejo Connected Vehicle Trajectories

We have been working with Wejo to make connected vehicle data available for academic research purposes.

We have today launched a new dataset, supplied by Wejo, which contains GPS trajectories for around 50,000 vehicles during the month of July, representing over 1.8 million vehicle journeys and over 400 million individual records. An observation is available every 3 seconds on average during each journey.

The data contains a journey identifier, timestamp, longitude and latitude coordinates, as well as additional data fields for vehicle speed and bearing. The data is of high quality, with GPS records for every three seconds on average. This enables the successful implementation of map-matching algorithms as well as the identification of vehicle stops as well as periods of acceleration and deceleration.

This is one of the first times such a detailed and in-depth dataset detailing connected vehicle trajectories has been made available for academic research purposes.

This data is available via our Secure data service – find out more and apply.

Masters Dissertation Scheme: applications open

Thinking of applying to our 2023 Masters Dissertation Scheme (MDS)?

We asked the winners of the 2022 MDS prize about what attracted them to the MDS and how they got involved. In these short videos Aindrila and Alex tell you about the benefits of the MDS and how their experience, working with industry, is supporting their career development.

Disa Ramadhina, winner of the Best Dissertation 2021, went straight to a Data Analyst role, following her Masters. In this YouTube clip Disa describes how she was able to add value to the partnership between academia and industry and how the MDS experience helped progress her career at Entain.

2023 Masters Dissertation Scheme Launch

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Thinking of applying to our 2023 Masters Dissertation Scheme (MDS)?

Ten years ago, the Economic and Social Research Council funded a nationwide collaborative Masters Dissertation Scheme for the first time. Over the years, businesses, government and third sector organisations have collaborated with universities throughout the UK to allow Masters students to develop practical solutions to problems through applied research, often using their own sources of data that are not usually available for student projects. Sponsoring organisations solve problems, students get real world problem-solving experience, and many students have gone on to work for the organisations that sponsored their research projects. This year’s projects can be viewed here. As in previous years, there is likely to be very considerable interest in these projects, so interested students are advised to apply as soon as possible!

Group of three data scientists chatting informally - one is using a laptop and one has back to camera

Quantifying state-led gentrification in London

CDRC data used to understand population displacement from gentrified London council estates with surprising results

New research using our novel Linked Consumer Registers has found that the demolition and associated redevelopment of council estates in London has displaced former residents, potentially separating them from their existing employment, education and care networks. Yet around 85% of the displaced in remain London, and most stay within the same Borough. This suggests that the scale of displacement may be less than has previously been suggested, particularly in the popular press. However, there is also evidence of increasing numbers of moves out of London to the Southeast and East of England.

The full paper in published in Environment and Planning A, authored by Jon Reades, Loretta Lees, and Phil Hubbard.