Grocery stores exhaust me. Before the pandemic, I would grind through a shopping list on my iPhone's Notes app, checking it over and over as I reminded myself where items were in a store I'd shopped at for years. Why did I feel so tormented by shopping?
Last year, I got an answer: a diagnosis of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. My working memory, which holds the bits of information I need right now at the front of my mind, is faulty. As a result, I have to work extra hard to find the produce I'm shopping for while impulsively checking if rhubarb is in season or wondering if that's ripe cantaloupe I'm smelling. Then there's the bright lights, the loud music and the crowded aisles, all distracting me.
So I'd check the list. And then check the list. And then check the list.
No more. Now I sit on my couch and fill up my grocery cart online. Then I drive to the store and a worker puts the food in my car. The process eliminates a frequent, stressful experience from my life and gives me back time. That's why I'm so pleased that grocery chains and other retailers have increasingly implemented curbside pickup and say they're largely going to keep offering it as pandemic restrictions ease.
It's not just a benefit for people with ADHD. Curbside pickup and home delivery, its close cousin, are helping older people, people with mobility and vision problems, people on the autism spectrum and parents get their shopping done. It's another instance where an innovation popularized by the pandemic could end up helping a number of different types of communities -- if it sticks around.
Curbside pickup requires a car and a stable internet connection, and it has its drawbacks. But for a big group of people it eliminates a barrier to getting essentials.
Noor Pervez, a community engagement coordinator at the Autism Self Advocacy Network, said curbside pickup is especially helpful for a subset of autistic people who are overwhelmed by sensory input, something grocery stores are full of.
"By design, everything is made to grab your attention," he said. "That can be a lot."
Curbside pickup has gotten more popular
The pandemic showed more people the joys of ditching stores for shopping apps and websites. Use of the services exploded as grocery and retail outlets rolled out curbside pickup to reduce crowds inside. In the last three months of 2020, shoppers picked up their purchases at the curb 140% more frequently compared with the same period in 2019, according to analysts at Global Data. Curbside pickup grew faster than in-store pickup over that period, and more than 68% of consumers said they planned to use the service even after pandemic restrictions end.
Just like when shopping for clothes or home goods online, shoppers can buy groceries through a store's app or website. Customers can search for products by name or browse through different categories, a bit like wandering down a grocery aisle. For people with limited vision or mobility, adaptive technology for browsing the internet -- like screen reading technology, increased font size and specialized keyboards -- can enable grocery shopping, too.
Many stores allow for special instructions, like extra thick slices of deli cheese or paper bags instead of plastic. Customers can also easily ditch impulse-buy items by deleting them from their shopping cart when they're done shopping. When shoppers are ready to check out, they typically reserve a time period to come pick up their food. With items like clothing, the retailer usually notifies customers when their purchase is ready and holds it for several days.
Shoppers who can't or don't want to go to the store parking lot use third-party apps like PostMates, Instacart and Dumpling to pay someone to shop for them. Some stores formally partner with third-party services to offer same-day delivery, like Target does with Shipt.
Curbside pickup was around before the pandemic. Walmart has offered the service for 10 years. Company spokesperson Camille Dunn said use of both curbside pickup and home delivery spiked 400% in the first three months of 2020. Use by people 50 or older grew the most, she said.
The company is investing in more Market Fulfillment Centers, warehouses added inside or onto existing Walmart stores. The reason: filling online orders for pickup or delivery faster.
The number of people this could benefit is significant. On Twitter, people with ADHD responded to YouTuber Jessica McCabe of #HowToADHD with their feelings on curbside pickup. While there were complaints, dozens of people said they had made it a part of their routine because it saved them time and stress, giving them back energy they could use elsewhere in their lives.
Curbside pickup could be improved
Curbside pickup isn't perfect. Many shoppers have experienced the frustration of an item going out of stock after they placed an order and finding the substitution doesn't do the trick. Some people want to pick out their own produce, or use their own bags instead of receiving what seems like a separate plastic produce bag for each apple in an order. Finally, we all want to know whether we're buying one piece of ginger or one pound of ginger, and that's not always clear.
People with mobility or vision problems don't benefit as much from curbside pickup as home delivery, which not all stores offer from their apps or websites. Joel Isaac, an accessibility consultant in Northern California who is blind, said he's picked up prepacked orders at stores but during the pandemic has mostly relied on home delivery through apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash.
"Being able to receive a delivery at home over the hassle and risk of arranging transportation to get to a store has made this trying time a little more bearable," Isaac said.
Curbside pickup is limited to people with transportation, so that excludes people who can't drive or access a car. Delivery options often require customers to be at home waiting for hours-long windows, something that can stress out an antsy, easily bored person with ADHD. Additionally, delivery options are more limited in rural areas where people are more spread out.
And to be clear, some people with autism or ADHD find grocery shopping in a store an exciting experience they look forward to.
Grocery and retail stores could be better too
As much as I enjoy not stressing over a lengthy shopping list inside a distracting grocery cavern, I miss being able to find random inspiration for a new dish. I can still do that if I want to, but I wonder what it would be like if stores could just tone it down a little bit. Maybe turn the music down a few notches and make things easier to find.
Along these lines, Coles grocery stores in Australia in 2017 tried out accommodations for people with autism, calling it "quiet hour." The chain turned down overhead lights and reduced or eliminated noise from music, intercom announcements and collecting shopping carts.
Similar services emerged at stores in the US during the pandemic for older and disabled people to shop in the store without big crowds, but Pervez of the Autism Self Advocacy Network said he worries store employees might question a young-looking person with an invisible disability using that service.
For now, I'm planning to get my groceries in the parking lot and then leave the store in my dust.