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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Canada License.