Home Opinion Greg Blass The next big thing: How technology will transform supermarkets (again)

The next big thing: How technology will transform supermarkets (again)

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We may be in for some big changes, again courtesy of technology, this time in our supermarkets. As we on the North Fork make our way through the routine of food shopping at Stop & Shop, King Kullen, IGA and the like, do we have any sense of how quickly they may be outdated? Some knowledgeable sources predict that our disappearing bookstores, now joined by more and more retail stores, foretell the future of our food stores.

A few weeks ago, Bloomberg News reported that Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market, a central player in the grocery world, for a hefty $13.7 billion. Aside from the concern about the impact on jobs from this deal, it builds on a trend where we are spending less time shopping in the “physical world.” Many regard the Amazon/Whole Foods deal as pivotal in supermarket business. Let’s consider why.

Enter “Amazon Go,” a first of its kind convenience store in Seattle, described in detail in an interesting book just out, “Grocery – the Buying and Selling of Food in America” (Abrams Press), by food writer Michael Ruhlman. “Amazon Go” customers can shop and leave without waiting to pay at a register, thanks to a new “Just Walk Out” technology’s billing them for each item taken from the shelf.

Not to be outdone, Walmart has announced it is joining forces with Google, to list its food products on the Internet, at a time when Walmart’s revenue, solely from groceries, beats the total revenue of giant companies from other industries, such as AT&T and GM.

Supermarkets in America have always been evolving — at rapid pace with two simple inventions in the late 1800s: the cheap tin can and the cardboard box. Then the almost-cherished mom and pop grocery stores fell to the wayside as large supermarket chains set up warehouses for distributing all manner of food products. Ruhlman’s tome delves into a careful history of the supermarket, but the surprise is in the path that lies ahead.

It’s worth noting that the supermarkets of the 1970s had about 9,000 items on the shelves. That number is now up to 50,000. More and more packaged and processed foods are added in response to less and less cooking at home, to the point where prepared foods are every supermarket’s fastest growing section. And packaged items easily adapt to online (or other out-of-store) methods of purchasing. At the same time, crowding these items on shelves grows costlier, and supermarkets feel the pressure to invest in automation.

This aversion to cook at home is bad news not only for the modern supermarket, but also for the family as an institution. Slowly fading is a key opportunity for families to be together.

Joining in preparing a meal, as well as sitting together to enjoy it, quickly disappears across America as a mainstay of family life. This has been the trend since WWII, owing in great measure to women joining the workforce. Where couples are still forming households, both have to work just to pay the crushing cost of homeownership. Add to that our exploding culture of wireless phones and iPads that we welcome at the expense of sitting at a table and interacting with each other. While Ruhlman steers away from this aspect of it in both his book and his famous blogs, still the disappearing family meal is arguably a far more serious change in our lives.

The “Amazon Go” era of food shopping from electronically controlled shelves begins its rise, imperceptibly but still in earnest. The standard, sea-of-shelves supermarkets we have known for generations could step aside for a rerun of their predecessor food stores from back in the 1800s and early 1900s, where customers did their shopping by reading to a grocer a list of items and amounts, and the grocer weighed them out and placed them on the counter. Such specialty item stores (our North Fork farm stands have a touch of this) are gaining in nationwide, food shopping popularity.

So super-markets are likely to stop being super, and to contract in size, while customers across America increasingly prefer to have delivered at home large fractions of their groceries. At the same time, foot traffic finds its way to many new, small specialty food stores.

And it’s all driven to save the most precious commodity of all – time. Civilization’s obsession comes to this: if it saves time, it is good. That explains why technology-enhanced grocery services are fast on their way. The real irony is that we will be far too busy to notice how much time it will save, since saved time ends up being devoted to our wireless screens anyway.

In a future column, we’ll consider the inevitable disappearance of yet another of our stop-in-everyday retail stops, owing to the wonders of technology.

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg