Innovative online grocery store model takes nutrition research to a new level

Researchers have developed a new online store that can be used for testing the impact of different policies and interventions on consumers’ purchasing behavior. Lola’s Grocery was designed to have the look and feel of a typical modern online grocery.

Users can search for a bag of organic Gala apples or a carton of white eggs, browse beverages and bakery selections, sort through frozen foods and add it all to a basket. Product descriptions include weights and measurements, detailed nutritional information and accurate imagery. Though Lola’s Grocery isn’t a real grocery store, the shopping experience is as realistic as it gets, making it an innovative tool for studying nutrition policies and for developing interventions based on how participating users make nutrition choices.

“Our team built this store for a specific study – to test warning labels and taxes on specific products – but then we quickly realized that we could use the store to develop and test all types of point-of-purchase policies and interventions. For example, we plan to examine how different ‘nudges,’ such as swaps or product placements, can be used to promote healthier purchases among parents,” says Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, an assistant professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and a researcher in the Global Food Research Program at UNC.

Taillie and her research team knew there had been little guidance on how best to create an online grocery store platform, and they decided to publish their process in order to help other researchers who were interested in developing similar platforms. Taillie; the paper’s first author Pasquale Rummo, PhD, of New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine; UNC’s Isabella Higgins, MPP, and Annamaria Vesely, MS; University of Edinburgh’s Lindsay Jaacks, PhD; and University of South Carolina’s Christina Chauvenet, PhD, published “A Standardized Guide to Developing an Online Grocery Store for Testing Nutrition-Related Policies and Interventions in an Online Setting” online April 22, 2021, in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Sharing their expertise in a guide on how to develop these platforms for experimental research will minimize differences in the experimental studies that are testing similar research questions.

“Online shopping was already growing rapidly, but since the pandemic, it has exploded,” says Taillie. “The fact that this store resembles a real online food retailer, with over 20,000 products, enhances the realism of our experiments. Our hope is that other researchers can use this guide to develop their own online stores as well.”

Rummo adds, “Our store also provides an opportunity for researchers to test policies and strategies that promote health equity and also mimic real life programs designed to support healthy purchases, such as providing financial incentives for fruit and vegetable purchases to food-insecure customers.”

In the guide, they outline their process for designing and creating Lola’s Grocery, which included cognitive interviews. Among many considerations, the guide covers:

  • Acquiring and cleaning online grocery store data;
  • Designing a two-dimensional online grocery store experimental platform;
  • Addressing product categorization, product order/sorting and product details; and
  • Identifying outliers and conflicting nutritional information and methods for standardizing prices.

The guide is offered under open access. See more here: