How long before the robots tell us “Thank you, come again”?

In the suburban fringe of Indianapolis, just within the city limits, patrons of a regional supermarket chain encounter this…um, mural?—as they exit the premises.grocery signage“See you tomorrow.” Clearly it’s a marketing ploy, gently cajoling the visitor into making the grocery trip a daily occurrence. More than anything, though, this sign is a nod to nostalgia, evoking a time when people routinely did shop for their food every day.

But that was ages ago. And was it ever a common occurrence in a place like Indianapolis? The household refrigerator, about a century old, preceded the modern, automobile-oriented grocery store by a few decades, meaning that the average middle-class household had a means of preserving highly perishable goods long enough to obviate a daily shopping trip. And the ubiquity of cars around that same time gave the consumer the capacity to carry an entire trunk full of foodstuffs. Since most households in Indianapolis own a car, it’s hard to conceive of a time when daily trips for groceries would ever apply.

So maybe the sign intends to evoke places where people do shop for food daily: cities like Chicago, Boston or San Francisco. But mostly New York. Only in an area as dense as Manhattan would the housing costs preclude car ownership for the overwhelmingly majority of the customers, thus forcing them to approach the closest grocery store from the angle of a pedestrian. This arrangement, in turn, results in customers purchasing only as much food as they can carry, or that they can wheel out in one of those little collapsible metal carts. And only New Yorkers, living in some of the most expensive real estate in the country, would cherish additional space to the extent that they’d opt for a smaller refrigerator if necessary. (Space is such a premium that many unfurnished apartments in NYC do not include a refrigerator; the tenants have to provide them upon moving in.)

Therefore, the sign at this upper-middle-tier grocer (essentially) tries to signal a profoundly urban way of life to a person in the suburbs.  I suspect 99% of people do not walk to this location. After all, as soon as we might step out these doors, we encounter a vast parking lot, along with the receptacles for depositing the bulky carts provided by the supermarket itself. And most of Earth Fare’s customers live in spacious homes with a full refrigerator and freezer; heck, it’s a safe bet that many of them have a back-up refrigerator in their basement or garage, not to mention a second freezer. The “See you tomorrow” indicator is low-cost, gentle persuasion. Perhaps, thanks to a variety of organic and eclectic offerings at this smaller a competitor to Whole Foods (whose high-profile struggles and subsequent Amazon buyout revealed the encroachment within the natural foods empire), its merchandise will entice some patrons to visit more than once a week.

But does that ever happen, even in New York? Manhattanites may lack the floor space to support voluminous refrigeration—and thus need to shop more frequently than those in the suburbs—but that doesn’t mean they have a greater craving for homemade food. The number of restaurants on the island alone—far more than anyone could count—bespeaks the residents’ penchant for dining out. And even though the high cost of car ownership and easy parking prevents people from carrying the huge quantities that suburbanites can stash in their trunks, they can easily rent cabs or ride-sharing services. Or they could just opt out of keeping much food in their homes altogether. In fact, Manhattanites put such a low stock on food storage that many have even chosen to scrap a refrigerator; they’d rather use that precious floor space for something else.

In an era where most retail is reeling from the rising popularity of online shopping, groceries have generally held their own, up to this point. Sure, online grocers like FreshDirect have taken a nibble in the supermarket industry—particularly in the aforementioned large cities—but most people still prefer traveling to a grocery store and selecting their own produce. However, the growing popularity of meal kit services like Blue Apron are encroaching on the market from another angle. And who knows what Amazon has in store, not just in terms of how it will reinvent Whole Foods (its recent acquisition) but how it will reinvent how we access food in general. The competition is fierce enough that the small players like Earth Fare need to devise clever strategies all their own—and even if a “See you tomorrow” directed toward car-dependent suburbanites isn’t the answer, at least it’s an approach.

14 thoughts on “How long before the robots tell us “Thank you, come again”?

  1. Alex Pline

    Timely article. We are having this exact discussion in Annapolis where many people say they want an urban grocery store, but the reality is their habits (high car ownership and easy of auto centricity) won’t support it.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Indeed, and since many formerly under-represented areas–the gentrifying food deserts–are now faced with an impending oversupply of perishable retail (which is really what a grocery amounts to), I question whether we might be on the cusp of a supermarket bubble. So many downtowns cheered the arrival of a real grocery store as an indicator that they “made the big time”, that we fail to scrutinize the elasticity of demand of this industry. As grocery taste become more specialized–particularly for the higher-income people–will we continue to support big floor plates, particularly when contorted into an urban arrangement that often compromises on the convenience of the suburbs?

      Reply
  2. Oran Sands

    It’s not uncommon to daily shop if you’re on foot or riding a bike. Studies show that bikers shop much more often since they can only carry so much.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Indeed Oran and partly the reason why I explored the world of difference between environments where the built form supports non-motorized trips, and where it doesn’t. I suppose it’s possible that this Earth Fare has a bike rack nearby (certainly more likely than a Kroger), but I’m not holding my breath.

      Reply
  3. Aparna V. Sri

    And what’s the future of those lines at checkout? Seems so archaic. We should be able to automatically debit our account as soon as we grab an item off the shelf.

    Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Good points…both of you! As they say, “there is (or soon will be) an app for that.” Of course, it also translates to more people out of work.

        Reply
  4. Chris B

    LOL. I know that store. Literally on the edge of the city.

    The really sad part is that probably a couple thousand people live in apartments close enough to walk to its massive parking lot (less than a mile as the crow flies, which would normally be a ~15 minute walk). But only one complex seems to have a good, direct pedestrian path…and it is across two busy streets. The others involve trespassing across other properties and/or traipsing around the back of strip malls, or in the case of the complex right next door, walking all the way out to the main street to avoid crossing the drainage ditch that separates the two properties’ interiors.

    Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Good points. And I suspect that at least a few hundred of those “couple thousand people” live in the Laurel Lake apartments just to the east–a moderate income, immigrant-heavy development that (quite surprising for southside Indy) offers a reasonably safe walk to Earth Fare…yes, there are sidewalks. Not sure it would be quite as easy for the Westminster Apartments to the southwest, cattycorner at the major intersection (which I incidentally covered in this blog http://dirtamericana.com/2013/08/an-apartments-reversal-of-fortune/). Folks who live there–probably the balance of that thousand people–would have to cross a huge intersection that I suspect remains only half engineered for pedestrians: i.e., sidewalks but no crosswalk or signal lights.

        This is the only Earth Fare I’ve visited. Do you know if others feature that same “See you tomorrow” sign? I would assume they do.

        Reply
        1. Chris B

          There are lots more apartments within a mile (as the crow flies): Crestwood Village senior apartments northeast of Laurel Lake and Lowe’s, Polo Run (south of Westminster), Cambridge Square (southeast across Madison). That whole area is just so disconnected and pedestrian-hostile, and the apartments are tucked back. I cannot say with certainty that I’ve ever seen a pedestrian there (from the safety of my car). Maybe one or two waiting for the bus at the edge of the mall parking lot.

          I have only been in that one Earth Fare. Like you, I assume the design elements are corporate and repeated.

          Reply
          1. AmericanDirt Post author

            Yeah, I only mentioned the two apartments that could enjoy a reasonably safe walk to Earth Fare. Greenwood Park Mall is surrounded largely by apartments, mostly from the 1970s, some of which have been refurbished, while others are clearly past their prime. Typical of “mall zones”, really.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good to hear. Clearly some people do this, but it’s a waning culture, especially in suburbia. I walk to a grocery store four blocks from me about half the time. Yet I still load up for the week. It’s terrific exercise, walking home with all those bags. Some people clearly enjoy grocery shopping, manifested by the fact that it hasn’t lost as much ground to the Interwebs as, say, shopping for clothes.

      Reply

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