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Commentary Appliances

Grocery delivery and pickup are changing how we buy food for the better

Commentary: Grocery stores are turning to delivery services and curbside pickup, some even powered by robots and autonomous vehicles. The future is cartless, and I'm here for it.

nuro-kroger-pods-promo

There's no minimum order, so if you wanted to order a single bottle of soda just to see a self-driving delivery pod in action, you could.

Nuro

My grandmother loved grocery shopping. Raised on a farm in south Alabama, she spent decades dishing up three made-from-scratch meals every day and loved nothing more than casually perusing the aisles all afternoon. One generation later, my mom loathes it. A working woman in the city during the height of TV dinners, she just wants to get in, get out and get on with her day.  

Me? For years I had a foot in both camps. Sometimes, the hunting and gathering of pushing a big, squeaky cart through tiny aisles feels soul-sucking. Check with me a week later, when I'm feeling less stressed and more creative, and I might sing the praises of browsing for interesting ingredients and great deals.

But all of that is changing. I may never step foot in a grocery store again, and I'm 100% OK with it. Let me tell you why.

Retail, reimagined

Like other retail industries touched by technology, online grocery shopping is transforming your weekly schlep to the store into just a few clicks. 

Stores like Kroger, Walmart and Target are harnessing in-house resources to power curbside pickup and turning to third-party providers like Instacart, DoorDash, Deliv, and Shipt for home delivery. We're not fully automated yet, but we're headed that way. Walmart rolled out robots to manage stores' stock and even clean floors, and Kroger partnered with startup Nuro for autonomous delivery pods in Arizona. 

Even the smaller aspects of food retail are changing. When it comes to couponing, stores are finding ways to digitize and catalog deals. Target's Cartwheel and Kroger's ClickList both make it easy to see where you can save money and apply coupons online.

I've tried Walmart, Target and Kroger for grocery pickup and each experience was great. When something wasn't quite right, it nearly always came down to how I input my order. It's a learning curve, for sure. In my early attempts to grocery shop online, I made mistakes like ordering a single banana instead of a bunch, or forgetting to apply coupons for items I wouldn't have bought if the discount wasn't offered. 

The good, the bad and the ugly fruit

It's early in the digital grocery era, and we have pretty good options, but no perfect system. There are pros and cons to shopping in person, and just like shopping for clothes or a new car, doing things online will take some getting used to. 

Pro No. 1: Time saved

Shopping for groceries online saves time. Yes, you'll still need to make a grocery list (if you really loathe that, consider meal kit delivery), but the process of typing in each item and adding the right brand or size to your cart is much faster than physically walking the aisles. Plus, you can do it in your PJs from the couch. Anything that lets me get work done from beneath a blanket with coffee in hand is a winner in my book.

Pro No. 2: Convenience and general rage reduction

I like people, but I'm an introvert. Humans are cool. We do a lot of nifty stuff, and some of us are actually pretty nice. But my shopping-cart rage is worse than my road rage, and most days I just want to avoid the grocery store at all costs. 

With grocery pickup, I park my car, dial a number and a hardworking store associate brings me my wares, even putting them in my trunk. I never unclip my seatbelt, I never lift a finger. It's magical. 

Walmart's grocery pickup is free, as long as you spend at least $35. Giant Eagle and the Albertson's family of stores also offer free pickup. There are fees for pickup from some stores. Kroger charges $4.95, so check with your favorite grocery chain to find out if picking up curbside might cost you extra.  

It's important to remember that there are umbrella companies here. Kroger's family of stores, for example, encompasses 31 brands like Ruler Foods, Harris Teeter, Fry's and Mariano's. The Albertson's corporate family tree of 21 brands includes Jewel Osco, Safeway and Vons. Not all of these brands offer the same pickup and delivery services. 

Pro No. 3: Digital coupons

Rewards programs and digital coupons for many grocery stores are also available within the online shopping experience. With Kroger's Clicklist platform, items with active coupons display a checkbox under the description. All I have to do is click to apply it and purchase the qualifying items. 

Kroger

Kroger's app makes it easy to fill your cart, apply coupons and see your previous purchases.  

Screenshot by Shelby Brown/CNET

Some stores even add discounts for pickup customers only. With stores putting so much effort into curbside service, it's no surprise grocery chains are incentivizing it with offers like free pickup when you purchase a specific brand or a certain number of items. I've taken advantage of it. It's much nicer to add another item to my cart than pay a service fee. I get to keep something. I'll take that deal every time. 

Pro No. 4: Delivery

Delivery is all the rage, and for good reason. Curbside pickup is great, but if you're a busy parent, that means you still need to load up the kids and drive to the store. If you're not feeling well or are in the middle of prepping for a big party, home delivery can feel like a life saver. It swipes a giant task off your to-do list for the day without even putting on your shoes. 

You can get food from almost anywhere with companies such as Postmates, DoorDash, UberEats, Instacart and Shipt. Like pickup, fees vary, but some waive the fee for your first order of reduce it if you spend enough. 

wholefoods-storefront

Amazon Prime members get discounts and free deliveries from Whole Foods. 

Claudia Cruz/CNET

If you're an Amazon Prime member and choose delivery from Whole Foods, you can take advantage of free 2-hour delivery and free 1-hour pickup in some cities. Most grocery delivery fees range from $5 to $12. Depending on your personal budget, that may or may not be a deal-breaker.

Cons

Con No. 1: The produce problem

This is the first concern most people cite when I bring up grocery delivery and pickup. Not being able to pick out individual fruits and vegetables or even meats from the deli. Someone else is making that choice for you. 

I hear you. You won't get to pick out your individual items, obviously. That's what you sacrifice for convenience. Here's the thing: I just don't care. It's a risk I'm willing to take. 

I know there is both emotional and quality-control value in choosing your own food. I won't pretend for one second that food isn't deeply personal to each of us. The foods we love grows with deep roots from our childhood memories, cultural backgrounds and most memorable travels.  

I think that weight and value lies in recipes. So what if someone else picks out the sweet potatoes? I'm still going to make the sweet potato casserole scribbled in illegible cursive on that decades-old, stained recipe card written by my late grandmother. If having another person help me get the shopping done means I have more time to make and enjoy that recipe with my family, I support that. 

Con No. 2: Substitutions

In many cases, stores make an effort to give you the same or better if your requested item is unavailable. Just last week, I got a bag of coffee twice the size of what I ordered because the smaller size was out of stock and I didn't pay a penny more. 

While many platforms allow you to review substitutions and accept or reject them prior to pickup or delivery, you don't get the option to view every possible replacement. If I were physically in a store and had to settle for another brand, flavor or size, I'd want to look them over. I'd love to see a system where you can browse all similar items and choose your replacement from multiple options.

Are grocery stores dying?

Because so many people still prefer to physically choose their food, I don't think online grocery shopping poses as big a threat to brick-and-mortar grocery stores the way online retail does to shopping malls. 

However, online grocery shopping, whether it's pickup or delivery, is a new way of getting our food that is only going to gain momentum in our two-day (and now, one-day) shipping society. 

Grocery stores may begin to act more like fulfillment centers, but I'm optimistic those who want to will be able to shop in person. The pickup and delivery model rests on the shoulders of hardworking employees, and if it does indeed scale to a warehouse-style operation, what does that mean for that labor force? How do working conditions change?

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union has voiced concerns regarding Amazon's aims to cut shipping time in half for Prime members and the impact that will have on already difficult warehouse conditions. If there's anything to keep a sharp eye on when it comes to automating these services, it's how people are treated. No technology is worth the sacrifice of employees' well-being. 

My suggestion? Give some type of online grocery shopping a try. If you want to pick out your produce or cuts of meat, do that. But first, park the car for curbside pickup of the duller things in life like garbage bags, toilet paper and dishwashing detergent. You'll still need to pop into the store, but only for the items you really care about.

The future of buying food

Right now, there are a handful of innovations being tested in the grocery retail space. Companies are trying different models for pickup and delivery, working in technology to identify where the supply chain is weak. 

Ford Europe has developed a self-braking shopping cart that just might solve my cart-rage issues. Amazon, which recently acquired Whole Foods, is reportedly planning a new, lower cost grocery chain. That's in addition to the Amazon Go stores. Walmart's Store No.8 incubator is working on AI-powered stores of the future, too. 

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Safety first! Ford Europe's self-braking cart aims to make the aisles safer. 

Ford

The way I see it, that means our entire grocery system is bound to become smarter and more efficient. It means I'll have more time to spend with my friends and family and more time to cook and enjoy the foods I love. Who knows? Maybe someday AI and machine learning will train grocery shopping robots to pick me out the perfect bunch of bananas. 

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