The beauty of the supermarket was that it simplified food shopping. People no long had to go the butcher for meat, the farmer for produce and milk and eggs, the drugstore for this and that. They could do all their shopping at once and still have the rest of the weekend left.
Along came Amazon and took that idea online. Yes, the one-stop convenience of the department store was great, but we still had to go out in that nasty outside world, and there were always one or two things the store didn't have. Then came the mall — all those stores in one place. Amazon made that one place our living rooms, and that particular mall has every department store in the world.
Now Jeff Bezos and Amazon are bringing us full circle (of a sort) with the intended $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods. Soon, 90 percent of America will be able to get same-day delivery of fresh, perishable food.
Not sure how I feel about this, that is, what use I might make of it. My sister will absolutely love the idea. An outfit called Peapod has started serving the Indianapolis area, and she can go to their online site and order whatever she wants, and in a day or two a truck will show up with her food. She loathes grocery shopping, and I could probably count on one hand the times she has been to the supermarket since she discovered the company. She will even love Whole Food's gaudily trendy offerings of "healthy" food, assuming Amazon doesn't glutton it up for the "eat whatever's handy" slobs like me.
On the other hand, I guess I have the grocery shopping gene. I won't say I love the experience, but it's something I generally look forward to. Even when I was married, I did a great deal of the cooking, so I generally did the grocery shopping, too. I'm not exactly a compulsive melon thumper or tomato squeezer, but I do open the eggs to check them, and I do watch out for brown spots on the lettuce.
So offhand I'd say I'm a poor target for the online grocery experiment. But perhaps my attitude will change. I already order things online I never thought I would.
Like clothes. You never know if they'll really fit unless you try them on, right? But I've discovered that's generally not true (unless you're one of those odd, hard-to-fit types, I suppose). I generally order the same brands of trousers and shirts, the same underwear and socks, so almost everything I order tends to work out. I did get burned on a pair of shoes once that were too narrow to be comfortable, and on a sports coat whose thin material made it look wrinkled after just a wear or two. But those minor glitches aren't enough to mar the overall experience.
And books. I am the bookstore equivalent of the melon thumper and tomato squeezer. I like to feel the books and even smell them, open them up and run my fingers down the pages. I like to browse and get surprised by something I wasn't even looking for. I've spent whole afternoons in bookstores without even buying anything. But since I've discovered the joys of the Kindle experience, I've grown to love having millions of books from which to order, payment taken care of immediately, downloads instantaneous. And Amazon even recommends books for me to read, based on what I've already read. It knows I like Westerns and mysteries and science fiction, and it always has titles I wouldn't have found, and its recommendations have generally been spot on. It will even let me download a few sample chapters for free if I'm not quite sure.
And I've even become comfortable with ordering food online (or sometimes over the phone) thanks to that genius (and I do mean genius) innovation known as Waiter on the Way. Never mind ordering a pizza or Chinese food, those two longtime staples of home delivery. With Waiter on the Way, I can have hot food delivered from almost any restaurant in Fort Wayne, for just the price of the meal and a minimal delivery fee.
So maybe I'll end up being one of Amazon's biggest grocery customers. Never say never in this fast-evolving age.
Speaking of which, I see a lot of skepticism, even cynicism, out there for this particular evolution.
Michael Schulson at The Daily Best slams Whole Foods as America's Temple of Pseudoscience:
Still: a significant portion of what Whole Foods sells is based on simple pseudoscience. And sometimes that can spill over into outright anti-science (think What Doctors Don't Tell You, or Whole Foods' overblown GMO campaign, which could merit its own article). If scientific accuracy in the public sphere is your jam, is there really that much of a difference between Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, who seems to have made a career marketing pseudoscience about the origins of the world, and John Mackey, a founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, who seems to have made a career, in part, out of marketing pseudoscience about health?
Frank Schell at The American Spectator turns his wrath on Amazon, the "company that ate the world":
Thinking satirically, the endgame could be the slurping up of the Fortune 500 as we know it, such that there is only one company or conglomerate left standing. Imagine a corporate monopolistic colossus of “Amazon Alphabet Apple Facebook.” It would be like Argus Panoptes of ancient Greece, the imposing giant with many eyes. And after the requiem for retail, it could eupeptically ingest America — and maybe planet Earth. But ironically, Argus was put to sleep and slain by the messenger of Zeus, Hermes, whose name is an elite French luxury brand.
Reuters zeroes in on the concerns of Whole Foods workers, who worry about being let go and joke that "it's going to be robots and drones." Bloomberg News seems almost to confirm that, reporting that "knowledgeable sources" say Amazon plans to shed Whole Foods' pricey "whole paycheck reputation" by, among other things, "potentially using technology to eliminate cashiers."
I prefer the optimistic few of Investor's Daily News, which points out, while online giants like Amazon are realizing they have to have a presence in the real-world, like physical bookstores and grocery stores, competitors like Wal-Mart are realizing they need a bigger online presence, and "this is what free-market competition looks like." Those who are trying to make us fear giants like Amazon are missing the point, as they always do:
These are the same sorts of folks who were telling us in the 1980s that IBM would forever control the computer business, and that Microsoft had to be broken up in the 1990s because it would otherwise permanently dominate the software landscape.
Amazon is succeeding today not because it is big, but because it had the technology and know-how to woo consumers just as their buying habits started to migrate online.
But Amazon, Wal-Mart, Google, Facebook — and all the other companies that consumer groups fear are "too big" today — will likely suffer the same fate as their forerunners. Something new and unexpected will come along that will upend everything, again.
As long as the market is free and open — that is, free from competition-stifling government mandates and regulations — consumers will always be the beneficiaries of this ever-shifting business landscape.
When I was growing up, we grew or raised some of our own food. There were always eggs and fried chicken from our own coop, and occasional pork from the slaughter of a neighbor's pig. We got plenty of vegetables from our own garden. Most of our staples we got from the commissary that was owned by the coal company my father worked for. Its selection was limited and the prices too high and non-negotiable. The rare trips to the supermarket in the town of almost 2,000 about three miles away, maybe three or four times a year, were adventures, treats and complicated productions all at the same time.
Convenience means different things to different people at different times. Today I can go where I want when I want to get whatever I want. Or I can fire up the laptop and never leave my couch. A lot of jobs have been destroyed but others created in the capitalistic churn that gave me such luxury. Long live the free market.