How to Reinvent Grocery Shopping

Last week I outlined why grocery shopping is, in a word, dumb. It’s inefficient, wasteful, and has a significantly negative impact on the environment. What’s more, grocery shopping environments are designed to sucker every last penny out of us even as they tax the physical endurance of our sturdiest citizens.

So… why do we do it?

The short answer is: it’s how we’ve always done it. And that’s no answer at all. If status quo can be shown to be (I’ll say it again) dumb, then it demands to be challenged.

Here’s my alternative solution: the community (meaning local government in partnership with business and citizen groups) should devise, design and implement a citizen-oriented shopping system that does not require any consumer travel and is based on free or low-cost direct delivery of goods.

Whoa, now I’m talking crazy. Nationalize grocery shopping? What’s next? Conservative-brand corn nuts? Oh wait, we already have some of them in the House.

It’s not necessarily an act of putting grocery shopping under state control, however, as it is using civic principles to spur economic innovation and community improvement.

For example, the municipal government could kick-start the whole deal by enacting and enforcing an anti-idling bylaw. Vehicles left idling more than 10 seconds (the point at which all efficiency gains for not stopping a vehicle’s engine are lost) could receive a minimum $10 fine.

Even before we talk about reinventing shopping, an anti-idling bylaw would have benefits right away.

For one, it would significantly reduce the thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions that Whitehorse dumps into the environment just to keep our cars warm.

Perhaps surprising to some, there are also health benefits. Every year 1000 Canadians die as a direct result of car exhaust fumes. That’s the same number as die each year from second hand smoke, a figure that drove Whitehorse to enact its anti-smoking bylaw.

In a sense, the City of Whitehorse (and many other municipalities, provinces and states in North America) have set a valuable precedent that indicates they are willing to affect change on traditional social behaviours in order to preserve human life and reduce health care requirements and costs. With this in mind, it’s almost incumbent on our municipal government to lead the charge against the negative environmental and health impacts that retail grocery shopping has on our community.

Unlike the negative economic impact that the smoking bylaw has had on some local businesses, however, an anti-idling bylaw would introduce economic opportunities. First and foremost, it would keep millions of dollars in the community that we currently burn off into the atmosphere.

Furthermore, it would spur industry to develop a solution to the problem that, if you go shopping in wintertime your car’s either going to freeze solid or you’ll get a ticket.

Left to their own devices, the unimaginative folks who manage the box stores would likely take the path of least resistance and either install electrical outlets for block heaters across their parking lots or just build big, ugly, energy-inefficient parking garages.

Again, enter the municipal government: subsequent to introducing the anti-idling bylaw, City Hall should learn more about citizens’ reasons for idling and work to resolve them.

In regards to the matter of grocery shopping vehicle idling, I would recommend that the municipal government partner with local grocery retailers to co-operatively design and build a hybrid web-telephone home ordering system supported by home-delivery services.

The main ordering system would be web-based and, of course, specially designed to operate on Bell’s spiffy new high-speed 1X cell phone network. Most of us tend to buy the same products redundantly, week after week. We could set up these basic orders on the web once. After that we’d visit the web site to tweak a weekly order for a special need.

It just send chills down my spine to imagine it: I could compose my shopping list on Sunday evening and my groceries would magically appear at my door Tuesday morning. Be still my beating heart!

For the elderly, disabled and the folks who just hate the web (even I fall into that category sometimes), a telephone system staffed by real people would be offered. As well, the grocery ordering process could be integrated into the home care system for elderly and infirm people.

Groceries would be systematically delivered once a week based on a schedule similar to that for solid waste pickup. In fact, to keep costs down, the delivery system could be based on the solid waste pickup process.

The City charges every household that enjoys curbside waste pickup just $5 a month. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a bargain at double the price.

We can safely assume then that home delivery of groceries wouldn’t cost much more than that. The fee could either be built into the overall cost of goods, it could be charged by a third party delivery service, or added to the municipal tax regime.

There’s tons of room for additional efficiency and environmental gains through a home-delivery grocery service. The enforced use of reusable bins as vessels in which groceries are delivered would cut down on plastic bag waste. And those bins could be returned to the delivery agent full of recyclables (y’know, like they did with milk bottles way back when).

Would retailers buy into web/telephone shopping system? That’s the tough sell given that retailers’ systems for duping us – I mean, marketing goods to us – are firmly entrenched. But most brick-and-mortar retailers have enough experience with online commerce to know how to make it work to their advantage.

There’s really no reason, in this point in human history, for us to engage in the traditional and inefficient model of retail commerce. By leveraging some basic technologies such as the web and the telephone we could achieve substantial gains in environmental protection, service improvement to citizens, and generate positive local economic opportunities.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 20, 2006.

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11 thoughts on “How to Reinvent Grocery Shopping

  1. I like the idea of legislating the anti-idle rules. However, I’m not sure about legislating how we grocery shop. Shouldn’t that choice be mine? To drive, take the bus, walk… or to shop at home over the phone or internet? There are business out there already that would probably happily take advantage of the market that the anti-idle laws would spawn – such as SPUD in Vancouver/Victoria, for eg.

  2. That’s a good point I should have been clearer on: I’m not suggesting this is the only way to shop.

    Rather, I’m recommending that government provide big business with an initiative, a demand, and even assistance to move at least some of their operations online.

    I discussed with several friends in Vancouver (mostly hippies in and around Commercial, actually) why services like SPUD (http://www.spud.ca) hadn’t really caught on and we all agreed that it was because the brands large retailers carry and which consumers are accustomed to purchasing (and therefore “trust”) are not commonly available, as they are brands owned by the large retailers (i.e. “President’s Choice”).

    We agreed that it was unlikely that organizations such as Loblaws would seek to change their method of doing business, as silly as it is, without a strong incentive, hence the anti-idling bylaw and municipal drive for large-scale home delivery.

    So, no, I’m not saying everybody has to shop online. In fact, I would fully expect owners of SUVs and monster trucks to just park and idle and pay the fine in the normal course of going shopping (so perhaps a larger fine?). I mean, 10 bucks is a small percentage of the total cost for filling up an F-150 these days.

    But by engaging a public resource, such as a municipal government, in partnership with businesses, the seeds of change would be sown. As people slowly realized that buying into the automated, home-delivery model of grocery shopping saves them time, aggravation and money, they’d migrate to the service.

  3. Thought provoking, that one…

    Sounds more like a value-added business than a taxpayer-funded municipal service. If people would ‘migrate to the service’ than there should, in theory, be some money in it.

    Besides, I like grocery shopping. I enjoy wandering the aisles, looking at food and wondering what I will eat. We do it at least 3-4 times a week. I’d miss it.

    That doesn’t mean we waste resources. For smaller amounts we often pay the higher prices at Super A, because it is closer. I often fetch groceries on my bicycle. We try to maximize our trips into ‘town’ (from Riverdale, lol) when we use the car and do more than one thing.

    My dream would be a return to that romantic erca of neighbourhood grocers, bakeries, butchers where everyone walks or bikes to get their stuff in their own neighbourhood, rather than driving many km to get to the megastore.

  4. When I lived in small-community NWT, we were able to fax our order to the grocery store in Fort Nelson, BC. They assembled the order, packed it into boxes, and sent it to us via the local expeditor (who charged a very nominal fee)

    It was a nice little system if you didn’t want to, or couldn’t, leave town to get the produce you wanted. (Or couldn’t get it in town)

    So why didn’t I do it more often? The simple answer is: choice when selecting fresh produce.

    – The store can’t know what I deem to be the perfect ripeness for banannas.
    – The store doesn’t have the discretion to decide that the peppers don’t look very good this week and should be avoided.
    – The store can’t pick that perfect cut of meat (I once received a $65 hunk of bison tenderloin when all I asked for was a bison steak).
    – The store cannot know what I determine to be a big yam and a small yam.
    – And, quite frankly, I’ll squeeze my own melons, thank you.

    Now, there are things that could be put onto a regular order list (like milk, for example) that are the same, week in and week out. But since I have to go to the store anyways to purchase that chinese vegetable that the store staff doesn’t even know the name of(I’m not kidding about this – every time I get it, they just plug in the code for various other random vegetables), I might as well get the other stuff while I’m there.

    Whilst on travels in Europe, I’ve always admired the store/residence combinations, where specialty cheese, meat, fruit & vegetable, and bakery shops abound. It’s unfortunate, but that won’t exist in Whitehorse within our current land zoning and economic framework. (But it would be nice to see someone try!)

  5. Ok, so we’re not allowed to idle our cars more than 10 seconds.

    Are you willing to pay for the broken transmission bands, engine oil pump, front and rear differentials, and toasted piston rings ?

    In the deep cold, you must allow your vehicle to warm up. When it’s -30 outside, and you jump in your vehicle and take off, you’re going to break something, and if you’re somehow lucky enough not to break something, then you’ve just put a huge strain on your vehicle’s mechanical parts.

    Take off on a cold morning and chew up your front differential spider gears. $1000 fix ? If it’s fixed by a garage, now it’s $1500 ?

    Thanks, but no thanks, I’ll allow my vehicle to reach proper operating temperature before I go taking off down the street. If the world wants fewer greenhouse emmissions, then the government should support hydrogen powered vehicles that would not emmit any gases at all.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Abom, and for highlighting what is a common misconception. From National Resources Canada’s web site:

    Contrary to popular belief, idling isn’t an effective way to warm up your vehicle, even in cold weather. The best way to warm it up is to drive it. In fact, with today’s engines, you need no more than 30 seconds of idling on winter days before you start to drive.

    You can read more about the myths and realities of car idling on their web site.

  7. I have read the article, and it’s ludacris nonsense, posted by “environmental assessment specialists”, not engineers.

    You can trust me, driving off at -30 without letting your vehicle’s vital fluids warm up will wreck it.

    I have done this personally once. It was around -36, I drove off in a 2 year old pickup truck after 1 minute startup in the morning. Broke all the spider gears in the rear diff, and the intermediate band in the automatic transmission. Neither was covered under factory warranty. Reason? I didn’t give the vehicle enough time to properly warm up, therefore it is my fault those parts broke.

    Notice how the article says “with today’s engines, you need no more than 30 seconds of idling on winter days before you start to drive”. Notice the key word there, ENGINE. What about differential ? What about transmisson ? These are definately not parts of the “engine” as described in the article.

    So everyone can trust me on this one, if you don’t want to break your vehicle, let it warm up properly. If you’re an environmentalist, perhaps riding your bike to work at -35 would be an alterative ?

  8. i feel compelled to point out that no amount of idling will warm up the fluid in your differentials – only the heat generated by the friction of movement will thaw the gear oil. same goes for your automatic transmission: park = neutral, so no power is transmitted from the torque converter – no movement = no friction = no heat.

    engine oil, on the other hand, is a whole different ball of wax. at 30-below, even 5w-30 is as thick as…well…molasses in january. idling will help in this case, but by the time you’ve warmed it up enough to actually flow thru the pump & passages, the longer-term damage is done.

    if you’re going to drive your vehicle at -20 and below, you really should get yourself a timer and set it to come on 3-4 hours before you need your vehicle. ‘plugging it in’ includes:
    a) block heater – get it checked when you do your winter service
    b) oil pan heater – this’ll keep your oil in a decently liquid state
    c) battery blanket – frozen batteries don’t crank so well.

    before i stopped driving in extreme cold, i was tempted to get a second pan heater for the tranny. something to consider also. once you do get moving, take it easy while the rest of your drivetrain warms up.

    all these measures help, and are fairly effective between 20 and 30 below, but if you’re going to drive your car/truck below even that, you’re just asking for trouble. if your tires are square, consider all the other rubber parts that don’t see much heat, if any: c/v boots, axle seals, power steering hose, etc. – these suckers just crack, or shrink (and leak) if you’re lucky, but they can also just plain break (i was fortunate enough to have my steering pump spray type-f all over my engine compartment one winter). oh. and don’t forget the wind-chill factor – it applies to any warm object. you think it’s cold at 30 or 40 below? imagine what it’s like at 50km/h! 70k? 90k?

    all these factors, combined with my metal and plastic radiator (the two materials contract at different rates making for one heck of coolant leak) convinced me to avail myself of public transit when it was square tire weather…but that was before i started telecommuting full-time….now that’s the life….!

  9. Very true, diffs don’t get heat from the engine, therefore they will only warm up when you begin driving. Transmissions however, do get heat from the engine, both by physical transfer, and by the fact that the ATF cooler in most vehicles is sitting inside the radiator. Coolant inside radiator warms up = coolant inside ATF cooler which is inside radiator warms up as well.

    Everything else you’ve said is pretty much on par, and makes sense.

  10. oy vay! if i’m ever in the neighbourhood and i happen upon you leaving your vehicle to “warm up”, i hope i have a decent sized yukon gold to stuff in your tail pipe.
    i don’t know which is emitting more hot air, your car or your mouth.

    i would really like to see your vehicle reach proper operating temperature at 30 below. must be a new model i haven’t heard about.
    thermostats would be hard pressed to open at all at these temperatures, even while driving.
    since the thermostat isn’t open, the coolant in the radiator is just as cold as the rest of the car. if anything, the atf in the transmission is warming up the coolant since the transmission pump is connected directly to the engine via the torque converter. it’s probably generating more heat supplying lubricant to the critical parts of the transmission.
    depending on what type of transmission you have, atf may not even be circulating to the cooler in park.
    i suggest to you what i suggest to all our customers, invest in the various heaters for your engine and battery and plug in for a few hours before you need to use your transport. then fire it up and by the time you have unplugged and brushed the snow off or unstuck your wipers that have most likely frozen to the windshield, you are ready to roll.

  11. Oh fair enough, heaters are the best. I have an oil pan heater, block, tranny, and about to do circulating coolant.

    None the less, many people simply plug in nothing but the block heater, and they seem to not have any issues at all. As long as you let your engine warm up before driving off, you should be fine.

    And assuming your hood isn’t open (or missing), there should be no reason why you can’t reach normal operating temp (or very close to it) if you let your car idle for a while before driving off. Even at -40 a few year back, my car reached 1/2 of operating temp just idling, and reached 3/4 normal temp after driving it for a few minutes.

    Not quite sure who you are, or how you “suggest to your customers”, but investing in heaters is a good idea, but you should still be ok even if you don’t have them. Otherwise, they would come stock on every vehicle sold in cold climates.

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