Farm-fresh food and meeting farmers directly are only a few reasons why consumers love farmers' markets. They also enjoy the atmosphere — the handmade signs, the stacked tables and the earthy aromas that waft through the weather-beaten canopies.
So it seems a bit contradictory that the Internet has gained momentum as a growth vehicle for farmers' markets. First there was LocalHarvest, a site established in 1998 that enables consumers to connect with, and buy from, farmers in their area. Now, similar concepts exist across the country that offer local and artisan foods. One of the most recent start-ups is Foodzie, which offers gourmet selections from small growers and manufacturers like Boulder Popcorn in Boulder, Colo., and Bravo Farms cheese in Traver, Calif. There's also GoodApples.org — billing itself as the “Virtual Farmers Market” — which delivers to subscribers in a five-state area surrounding Pittsburgh and offers a variety of grocery goods, from fuji apples to Burt's Bees personal care products.
Some people have questioned whether these sites can truly claim to be farmers' markets, since the products they offer don't all come from one state or region. Foodzie, for one, offers products from around the country.
“Is there a contradiction here?” asked Avigail Hurvitz-Prinz in a recent post about Foodzie on the popular food blog The Jew and the Carrot.
Most don't question the opportunity in online grocery sales, however. According to Forrester Research, consumers annually spend $6 billion for online food, beverage and other grocery items. That amount is expected to double within the next four years.
“Grocery has been one of the areas that's actually increasing online, and especially right now with people spending less and going to stores less,” said Heather Dougherty, research director at Hitwise, a firm that tracks Web traffic.
Online retailers like FreshDirect and Ahold-owned Peapod, which specialize in home delivery, have been expanding their operations into natural and specialty items. Amazon.com, the popular online retailer that also offers more than 45,000 non-perishable grocery items, has been testing a perishable foods ordering system called AmazonFresh in the Seattle area.