Pushing a blue cart with collapsible black bins, Mary Hanahan looks a handheld device to see what aisle of the frozen section at Kroger on South Loop 288 to go down first.
A display on the device tells her to look at the fourth shelf, two units over, to pick up a box of whole wheat Uncrustables, those frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich pockets. Once she scans the item's barcode and puts it in Bin 1, the device tells her to move to the frozen pizza farther down Aisle 28.
Hanahan works to fulfill portions of ClickList orders at Kroger, some of more than 600 the store expects to prepare this week. She and other employees gather grocery items that customers have ordered online and prepare them for pickup under the digital shopping initiative.
"It's a wonderful thing," Hanahan said as she bagged frozen pizzas. "I had five kids, and I would have paid for this."
Kroger, Wal-Mart, Amazon and grocery-on-demand applications like InstaCart are transforming how people get their groceries. Applications and websites are allowing customers to place orders online for delivery or pickup anywhere from two hours to a week from when they order. Long trips to the grocery store are no longer necessary for Denton shoppers.
The idea has been around for roughly 20 years, but with the advent of smartphones and advanced technology, the concept is more adaptable for consumers, said Linda Mihalick, senior director of the Global Digital Retailing Research Center at the University of North Texas.
Mihalick worked at GroceryWorks, one of the original grocery delivery services, before it was bought by Safeway. Now with better technology in stores, it's easier than ever for consumers to trust their favorite stores with picking their foods.
"The big players are each trying to figure this out in their own way, and each are approaching it differently," she said. "The big ones like Wal-Mart, Kroger and Amazon are the ones that are going to lead this segment and push boundaries, but I think any grocer that has a good, loyal customer should really invest in this technology. It's not going to go away, and its time has come."
The model works for a lot of reasons, Mihalick said. First, convenience. There's always been a segment of the population that simply doesn't like to grocery shop, as well as people who have a hard time shopping — like parents of young children or people with disabilities.
Plus, companies are being forced to catch up to Amazon so they don't lose a share of their customers, she said.
"I think Amazon buying Whole Foods is putting pressure on those companies to not ignore that very important digital part," Mihalick said. "The consumer wants it, the consumer has the technology and ability to get online, so if it's a consumer proposition they want, grocers can't bury their head and ignore it. They have to come to the table to try to figure it out, fight for their turf and keep their loyal customers."
According to a joint report by FMI and Nielsen this year, online grocery shopping could grow to about 20 percent of the entire grocery market, where as in 2016 it was about 4.3 percent. Stores with Denton locations are already matching that pattern for growth.
Kroger is adding new ClickList locations almost weekly, and will add the store on University Drive by the end of the year, said Kelly Carroll, head of the service for the North Texas region. The service is free for the first three pickups, then $4.99. Certain stores are testing partnerships with Uber, where deliveries start at $11.95 for the region.
Wal-Mart ended with 100 locations doing grocery pickup in 2015, 600 at the end of last year, and predicts having more than 1,100 stores with pickup options by the end of the year, said Molly Blakeman, a spokeswoman.
Right now, only the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market on Teasley Lane allows for pickup. The methodology is similar for how Wal-Mart and Kroger organize shopping and add associates for the services. What sets Wal-Mart apart is that it is free to use for pickup four or more hours later.
"It's really rapid growth because our customers are telling us they love it," Blakeman said. "They can shop whatever time makes sense for them — from the comfort of their couch — and pick it up whenever it works for them. It's combining the best of both worlds with digital and physical."
At Wal-Mart and Kroger, associates who are in charge of putting together orders receive special training on how to pick produce and meat, and how to work efficiently.
Kyle Gaynor, who primarily works in produce at the Loop 288 Kroger, said he's better at picking produce than the average customer. He lives it every day, and if he is out gathering cucumbers and avocados for someone but doesn't see anything up to his standard, he can go in the back and ask for a restock.
"No one wants to be a picky customer, but I can be a super picky employee. I'm on the clock to do this," he said as he bagged apples.
Other companies are gaining ground in the industry by acting as a go-between for customers and stores. InstaCart, a national company that works with major grocers like Aldi and Publix, is like Uber for groceries. In Denton, the service is about $6 for home delivery from places like Aldi, CVS and Petco.
InstaCart uses contract labor, like Uber, and pays people to go shop and deliver other people's groceries.
Through InstaCart, customers can be as interactive in the shopping experience as they want, said Sean Twersky, senior regional director for the company.
"An associate will go and get your shopping list and see if they can reach out to you — like if the tomato sauce you want isn't in stock, they can replace it on their own — or ask what you want instead because you can follow them doing it live," he said. "You can be as involved or not involved as you want."
The service is in high demand, Twersky said, especially since it works with regional brands that might not have delivery or pickup options on their own. The company is adding services in four cities a week, on average, because customers and smaller grocers want the service.
"If I'm a retailer and I need to figure out my digital strategy, InstaCart is well positioned to say 'We're here for you,'" he said. "Our goal is to have as many options for customers as possible. If a store wants to get online, we can normally turn it around and tell you what it will look like in 48 hours."
As companies work to expand the successful programs, they're also looking at what else can be added to digital shopping to better the customer experience.
"I think it's all about people's convenience," regional chief Carroll said while walking through Kroger. "I think what we're going to see next — Kroger's working on it right now — is ship to home. I see meal kits. ... I see all kinds of opportunities that if you would have asked me a year and a half ago when I first started this adventure, I was like 'really?' But I didn't know how popular this would be. It's really popular."
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889.