Ken’s View: Clean-Up In Aisle 6

A recent email tersely informed me, “You’ll never be alone in aisle 6 again.” Which was disturbing. I mean, how did the writer know that I enjoy being alone in aisle 6, in the first place, and who or what henceforth was going to be crowding the aisle with me?

Big data, that’s who, I discovered. Along with Amazon, which recently announced the purchase of Whole Foods. That’s just swell. Big data will probably be leaving its shopping cart in the middle of the aisle all the time, and Amazon will be whispering that “people who bought this frequently bought that. You should, too.”

Aisle 6 used to be a peaceful place, away from the perimeter of the store where all the foodies are buzzing around the fresh produce, freshly prepared entrees, artisanal cheeses, cappuccinos, and whatnot. Store designers tell me that more folks are avoiding the center of the store where the prepared foods—in cans, no less—and other unnatural stuff languish on the shelves.

But, like I said, aisle 6, with its rows of products that used to be trees, with its packages that feature unnaturally colored bears and cherubic children, was a generally uncrowded oasis. If one listened closely, one could almost hear the rustle of the plastic wrap in the breeze from the air conditioning. Now, if I linger too long, big data will be sniffing around, collecting god-knows-what personal information about what’s in my shopping cart. Did he buy the toilet paper with the bears or the cute kid? Both are equally disturbing.

One shopper, quoted in the book Grocery by Michael Rhulman, said she preferred the self-checkout lane because she was sometimes embarrassed by her purchases. I can almost see that, given the choices. But I have news for her; as soon as her purchases are scanned, whether by her or another human, big data knows what she bought anyway.

By the way, it’s interesting that at the store where I shop, the self-checkout stations have been demolished and replaced with old-fashioned express lines manned by actual people. That runs counter to the trend toward transactions that call for less and less human contact. I kind of like management for going in the opposite direction.

Now, I can see the appeal of big data to grocers. They operate the slimmest of margins, hovering around 1 1/2%, I’m told. The 3,000-sq.-ft. store of days past became 30,000 sq. ft. and then 90,000 in some instances. In 1975, the average store had fewer than 9,000 items. By 2008, the number had quintupled, according Rhulman’s book. That’s a lot of junk food to keep track of by any measure, and it helps to know what’s selling and what’s not.

On the other hand, there seems to be a demand for smaller, independent chains alongside the megastores. They’re more unique, offer better customer service, can make changes almost overnight, and some folks don’t mind spending an extra nickel or two for the experience of shopping there. Too, new urbanism encourages smaller groceries and specialty food shops that are within walking distance.

That brings up the “European shopping” trend. I take it to mean almost daily trips to a close-by food emporium for the fixings of a single meal. I suspect that, save for a few lucky residents of thriving new-urbanist enclaves, not a lot of Americans are actually doing anything close to European shopping. For that matter, I’m not sure how many Europeans are doing it either.

European shopping never was exclusively European anyway. Years ago, before gargantuan talking refrigerators, or any refrigerators at all, daily trips to the grocer or butcher or bakery were more necessary. Even with iceboxes, those primitive insulated boxes with real ice, cold storage was limited. Besides, stores were close, even in neighborhoods far from the central city. Americans, as well as Europeans, shopped in similar ways.

Stores, in suburbia at least, are no longer so close. To me, European shopping doesn’t mean jumping into an oversized SUV to pick up a few items for tonight’s dinner. Rather, I’d call it attention-deficit shopping for people who can’t or won’t anticipate what they might eat a day or two hence and can’t be satisfied with—or remember—a dining decision made a few days past. And just what is the point of those giant refrigerators if you shop every day?

Then there’s the concept of ordering online and picking it up in the store. That’s apparently where Amazon has an interest, although it’s experimenting with something called Amazon Go, too, where you just grab stuff and walk out with it. No checkouts, but you’d better have a smartphone, or it’s shoplifting.

Wait, wait, I’ve got it. You use Alexa to order your groceries and then send your self-driving car to the store by itself to pick them up. With the time you save, you can stay at home with your bloated, nearly empty refrigerator and try to figure out why your electric and gasoline expenditures are so high.

— Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

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