Let’s talk about the latest thing in grocery shopping, in which the store essentially comes to you. You place your selections with the grocer via an electronic device, perhaps getting some recommendations for what looks good that day or is specially priced, and the store delivers them to your home.
It’s cutting-edge technology — if by “cutting edge” you mean “been around for more than 80 years.”
This account of how home delivery of groceries used to work comes from this columnist’s parents, who are in or near their 90s but can vividly recall the service as a normal, routine feature of daily life in their youth.
The device used to order in those days was a telephone, not a smartphone or laptop, and the discussion and order-placing was conducted with an actual person on the other end of the line.
The rise of the self-serve supermarket, the growth of suburbia and the proliferation of the private automobile combined to make grocery delivery an anachronism — until recently.
The challenges to making home delivery work this decade are considerable, starting with traffic congestion and the fact that many people these days aren’t at home to take delivery. Offering further discouragement is the recent and expensive failure of a grocery delivery business. More than a few refrigerators in this region may still sport the peach-logo magnet of HomeGrocer, a local company bought by Webvan, which later folded.
HomeGrocer was a good service, scheduling hassles notwithstanding, but the biggest headache was making it work financially. Webvan couldn’t, but apparently that’s not deterring others who think they can.
Amazon has its Fresh delivery service (although typing in a North End Tacoma ZIP code produces a message that it’s not available there). Safeway has a grocery delivery (same procedure suggests Tacomans can participate). Kroger, the parent of Fred Meyer and QFC, has HomeShop, but it’s not available in this region.
Target, whose whole foray into groceries has been less than overwhelming, offers home delivery through Instacart, but only in three states. Trying that same Tacoma ZIP code on Instacart generates a message that the service is not available locally but “sign up and we’ll let you know when we get there!” Ditto with Costco and Whole Foods, which use Instacart.
Walmart and Sam’s Club, meanwhile, announced earlier this year they’re doing a pilot project using Uber, Lyft and Deliv drivers for last-mile delivery of groceries. Sorry, Tacomans, don’t race to your smartphones just yet. It’s available in San Jose, Denver and (for business customers) Miami.
Are you detecting a pattern here? If so, don’t feel snubbed. It’ll get here soon enough, as long as companies keep hurling themselves at the home-delivery wall with the expectation that this time it’ll give way.
The larger question than when is why? Why, as is in “why keep chasing after a business model that has yet to prove it works.”
Sure, home delivery is attractive to consumers, or at least many features are. For the ill, elderly, those watching kids or time-constrained, home delivery has some great features. Then again, what’s new about that? Home shopping hasn’t been an innovative idea since Sears and Roebuck rolled out their first catalog — in 1888.
Some of the current frenzy over home delivery is driven by the belief that consumers, in an Amazon/UPS/FedEx age and especially in urban areas, expect that anything can and should be available for online ordering and near-instant delivery. Then there’s the “if you’re not digital, you’re not anything” mindset that, combined with rampant copycatism, drives everyone to chase what everyone else is doing. If Amazon moves to drone delivery — and count this columnist as one skeptical that home-delivery by aerial drones makes financial or practical sense — every other retailer will want a squadron of their own.
As a halfway measure, grocery retailers are experimenting with the idea of combining online ordering with customer pickup. Fred Meyer is already doing this at a handful of stores. Amazon is building pickup facilities in Seattle. Amazon has made strides in next-day delivery of some merchandise (not groceries, though) in Tacoma.
The grocery retailing business doesn’t provide a lot of room for innovation. Contemporary stores are certainly spiffed up from what they looked like even a few decades ago, but the basic model hasn’t changed since the industry switched from customers placing their orders with a clerk at a counter to the shelves-and-aisles design. Thus the industry finds itself reviving an idea from its distant past, in the hopes that modern attitudes and technology will make that idea seem brand new, and that consumers are willing to pay enough to keep the industry from shelving it — again.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.