Funny about Money

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. ―Edmund Burke

Groceries: Online or In Person?

A thing of the past?

Here’s an amusement: Whilst Amazon makes a grab for Whole Foods, cheapies down its offerings, and turns it into an order-out joint, Aldi is going in the opposite direction: Opening newer and fancier stores, spiffing up the existing properties, and targeting customers who prefer to buy their groceries in brick-and-mortar establishments.

Interesting development, isn’t it? Aldi, according to the report linked above, is betting the farm (heh!) on the proposition that most people would rather shop for groceries in person, especially where fresh products are concerned.

Though it’s a huge risk, it makes sense when viewed in some lights. Given the traditionally low profit margins in the grocery business (typically around 5 percent), dropping your margin to somewhere around 3 percent for the privilege of letting shoppers order online and have stuff delivered has a whiff of suicide about it.

Also, it’s reasonable to suspect that a large number of shoppers may prefer to buy in person, for a variety of reasons. Some may prefer brick-&-mortar shopping all the time; some may find it more convenient to pick up food on the fly some of the time — and they may prefer to do the picking up in a real supermarket with substantial offerings, not in a Circle K.

This may apply to the young and the techie as well as to us cranky old fossils. Last night, for example, my son invited me over for dinner. He kindly made us a pizza, but realized he was missing a couple of items and he didn’t have a bottle of wine. A ten-minute trip to the Fry’s Supermarket around the corner caused these items to materialize… We didn’t have to search for them online, and we didn’t have to wait hours or a day to have them delivered. Obviously, when you order online, someone has to find your items, package them, ship them, pick them up at the warehouse, drive them across the city, and deposit them at your doorstep. That isn’t going to happen in 15 or 20 minutes.

As for us old folks: we’ve been around the grocery-delivery block.

Some time ago, I decided to try ordering up a week’s worth of groceries from the local Safeway. How wonderful, I imagined, not to have to get in the car, traipse through the homicidal traffic, trudge through the store, stand in line to pay, drag the stuff out to the car, and drive back home through said homicidal traffic.

And online grocery shopping would be wonderful. If it worked.

It probably would indeed work for a certain kind of buyer. If you subsist mostly on restaurant food and, when at home, on processed, packaged food, door-to-door grocery delivery would no doubt be highly successful for you.

But if you’re into real foods, unprocessed foods, fresh foods: not so much. The problem is, grocery-store clerks haven’t a clue about selecting fresh fruits and vegetables. What I got when I made the ballyhooed delivery order was under-ripe tomatoes, over-ripe fruit, and wilted lettuce. They don’t eat that kind of stuff, and so they do not know how a fresh melon or a fresh bunch of asparagus is supposed to look.

Nor do they know how to select a decent cut of meat.

Consequently, what you get is not very good — certainly not worth the price you pay for it.

I think the growing popularity of “organic” foods suggests that a number of people — maybe a lot of people — do care about the quality of the food they consume. And possibly that a larger number than you might expect prepare food in their homes.

My son for example, can make a pizza that you simply cannot buy at any pizzeria or grocery counter. Why would he want (for example) a random bag of soggy mushrooms delivered when he’s building a really first-rate meal?

It’ll be interesting to see what develops.

Meanwhile, while we’re watching: what’s your preference in grocery-shopping: on-line or in person?

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Author: funny

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  1. Definitely agree on fresh stuff being the pain point.

    I’ve experimented a bit with niche providers and currently most weeks order produce, milk, bread and sometimes a bit of meat from a new online shopping service. The quality is quite good, they come loose but all in one big cardboard box, they’re not a big corporate. Super flexible, you can order up to a few hours ahead of time for delivery.
    For everything else it’s still a trip to the supermarket but for much fewer things (the range of packaged goods this service sells is limited and expensive).

    I’ve tried getting meat from a local organic meat delivery service (fairly good but too expensive to really justify) as well as form several other organic produce type box services (expensive, sometimes dodgy or inconsistent quality, sometimes inconvenient delivery days/times).

  2. Definitely in person. I cook from scratch and want to see my ingredients. Also, shopping online results in one less personal contact. I’m beginning to feel strongly about personal contact.

  3. I’m definitely in the “shop for myself” camp, or would be, given the opportunity. How else to pick the best meats and produce, browse the various options on the shelf, check for unadvertised specials or reduced items… Unfortunately, I can’t do a lot of that independently now, so have to rely on help from others.

    My choices are to send MrH or the boys, have one of them or a friend take me shopping, go to the service desk and ask an employee to gather my items, or place an order online or by phone for pickup. I don’t *think* any of the stores around here deliver, though Harris Teeter might. They and Lowes Foods do have a spot in the parking lot where you can pick up your grocery order without getting out of your car.

    I have given some thought to what I would do if I were on my own without minions to fetch and step for me. 😉 My first thought was to get a friend to help me stock up on staples once a month, then get a ride or use paratransit to the IGA every week or two for meats, produce and perishables. But it might make more sense to call in the stock-up order and pick it up via paratransit, then get a friend to help with the fresh stuff. It’s hard(er) to mess up rice, oatmeal, beans, canned tomatoes and the like.

    I can definitely see the appeal of grocery delivery services. I think there’s an excellent opportunity here for third-party shopping and delivery services–I’m kind of surprised there aren’t already more of them around.

    • You know, I’ve been driving a couple of beloved friends who are now on in years for their monthly Costco Run. It is SO effing much fun! I enjoy their company no end, and we all interact with the Phenomenon That Is Costco in different ways, which makes the whole expedition kinda crazy. It’s hard for me to believe you couldn’t find a friend to help out. In fact, I even wonder if someone hasn’t figured out that this could be A Gig, and maybe hired herself out to schlep folks on shopping trips.

      • Hmm. When I posted that, I was thinking of delivery services that will pick up take-out food orders and bring them to your doorstep–but I bet you’re right, and there are already plenty of people doing this for one or two or a handful of folks without advertising it.

        You’re also right that shopping with someone can be a lot of fun–and if money is tight, “I’ll fix you a home-cooked meal or bake you a couple loaves of bread.” might be a workable substitute for payment.

  4. I’d love to have groceries delivered – the non-fresh food variety, at least. Unfortunately, the intercom isn’t working in my current apartment building (it was empty for 12 years), and you can’t get in without a key. Also, what if they tried to deliver while I was at work, running errands, etc.?
    Also, I like to inspect before I buy, which is another reason I don’t buy clothing online anymore. Ordered a pair of basic Keds a few years ago and they simply did not fit. It’s like they no longer know how to make a shoe for a human foot! Anyway, learned my lesson.

  5. When I lived in DC, I would get groceries delivered occasionally when I was working 100+ hour weeks to save time. I didn’t do it often because the fees added up, but the quality of the produce and meat with delivery was far superior to that which I routinely found in the store when doing my own shopping.

  6. My wife does most of the shopping in our household and she is very picky about the type of produce she gets. This would definitely be an issue. My other problem with it goes back to the other issue you mentioned, in that you often remember you need things (or spot deals on something you weren’t planning on buying but might want to stock up on) when you’re there in person.

    Perhaps a market will exist for both. I certainly don’t see online ordering taking over the in-store experience.

    • One would hope that’s true. But we’ve seen what big-box stores did to quality local hardware stores and other kinds of local business. The question is whether online buying represents the same kind of sea change as did the spread of big-box stores and chain retailers and restaurants. What we gained in convenience and homogeneity we lost in small businesses, regional and local charm, and the quality of life we used to think of as “American.”

      LOL! Ya can’t stop “progress.” But maybe we should think of some other name for it?

  7. I would totally do online if the nearby grocery stores had better interface structures– I have an active toddler, and shopping with her is an exercise in answering: what is the minimum I can get to survive for 2 more days? With online shopping, I could buy supplies that would last a little longer.

    I did online grocery shopping a couple of times when she was a newborn and I wasn’t supposed to be out and on my feet much. It was a godsend in terms of actually getting food into the house during a critical time. It was a massive pain in the neck in terms of actually using the interface. It was like they were having the buyer work through the category trees of their inventory system. And if you tried to skip the trees and did a search for “onion,” the actual onions were buried three screens in, after Frozen-Whatever-With-Onions, Onion Candy, and whatever other cockamamie things that had onions in the name. I think things appeared on the list in order by number, not logic. No matter what I did, just selecting the things I wanted was infuriating and took hours.

    • That would be totally crazy-making!

      heeee! Onion Candy…the trouble is, it’e believable… 😀

      If the interface were similar to Amazon’s, I think it would be workable, but only if you ordered mostly packaged, processed foodoids OR if they had staff who could apply some educated discrimination in the choice of produce and meats.