The Future of Grocery Shopping

The Brave New World Meets the Supermarket

When Amazon acquired Whole Foods last year, it seemed like an improbable marriage: the union of a massive discount mail-order operation with a trendy store that sold the best of everything at outrageous prices. The outlines of Amazon’s strategy are still fuzzy, but are steadily growing clearer. The purpose of this post is not to sound the alarm against Big Brother, but simply to speculate on where things are heading.

Obviously, what Amazon wants with Whole Foods (and other large retail chains) is the structure of thousands of stores that will become shipping centers. It’s rumored that they intend to buy Target in 2018. This strategy will allow them to take over the grocery business, and ultimately control many other industries as well. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on how you view the tech revolution in our lives.

Back in the old days, most people shopped at local markets. Joe the grocer was intimately familiar with his customers. He knew how much money they made, what their lifestyle was like, and when he needed to extend them credit. He didn’t stock a lot of different items, but he didn’t need to. People were less sophisticated then, and one of everything was usually more than enough.

We’re aware that outfits such as Amazon know more about us than Joe the grocer did, but the extent of that knowledge is unclear. We only know that they want more. Amazon has been testing a gadget you can attach to the front of the refrigerator; when you need something, you scan the barcode and the gizmo arranges for home delivery. Not to be outdone, Walmart is experimenting with “in-fridge delivery” for users of the August Home lock system. You place your order on Walmart.com, and the delivery driver uses a one-time passcode to enter your house when you’re not home, after which he places the items in your fridge. Trials are currently underway in Silicon Valley.

Whether you’re alarmed or excited by this, there’s an irony: the result of all this technology will be to limit your choices. With the Amazon device, you’ll scan the existing items in your fridge and continue to use those brands in perpetuity. You have the theoretical ability to shop in the Walmart scenario, but few customers are likely to do so: the entire concept is built around providing solutions for busy people. In other words, the miracles of the digital age will reduce us to shopping with Joe the grocer.

If this does sound like the outlines of a nefarious plot and you can’t figure out why the government isn’t doing anything about it, here’s an answer: the monopoly laws in this country were written over a century ago, when the big worry was that J.P. Morgan might seize control of the railroads. The Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890, and the last significant piece of legislation dates to 1950. And yes, Amazon and Walmart are probably significant contributors to political campaigns on all ends of the spectrum.

Twenty years from now, it’s possible that the skies over trendy urban neighborhoods will be clogged with drones delivering Himalayan sea salt to residents. However, we tend to forget that many rural areas of America still lack cell towers and wifi. Even if those folks are on the grid, they’re likely to be one hour away from the nearest Walmart Supercenter. Either way, it sounds like we’re circling back to the comfortable establishment of Joe the grocer.

Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.

Related Post