“Got Milk?” The COVID-19 Food Dilemma: Part I, the Storefront

Don’t cry over spilled milk? Well, maybe we should. COVID-19 is forcing us to re-examine systems that have been in place for hundreds of years, including the grocery. But the grocery storefront is just a window into the unprecedented social and economic pressures we are facing as global citizens. In this two-part series, we talk about the evolution of the grocery store and how the current crisis is affecting the massive food network behind it.

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Home Stories Think “Got Milk?” The COVID-19 Food Dilemma: Part I, the Storefront

It’s Monday morning and after fixing a cup of coffee, you look in your fridge. Milk’s out. Gotta take a trip to the grocery soon. You make a mental note to drop by the local store after work. 

But not today. Today, Ohio is still under an extended stay-at-home order. For the sake of yourself and others, you stay at home, you adapt. The New York Times reports that even as spending for many sectors plummeted, Americans’ spending for food and groceries—in-person, delivery, pickup, meal-kits— has gone “way up” and is likely to stay that way. 

Consumer spending changes. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

With the peak of COVID still looming large, and the threat of its cyclical returning, Americans are reassessing and innovating everyday services that were once taken for granted, including the grocery store. Given that shelter-in-place orders are active in 42 states (including 3 states under partial lockdown as of April 7) for at least the near future, what does this global shift and “new normal” look like for the grocery store as we know it and the intricate food systems behind it?

And grocery stores have been evolving somewhat in the digital age (think Amazon & Whole Foods), but our “new normal” is not only new, it’s sudden and swift. But what we know as the grocery store is just the front face of an incredible web; the grocery store is a small consumer interface that unveils the intersections between global food distribution flows and systemic relationships between producers and buyers. As disruptive as COVID-19 has been and will be on the intricate and massive network that transports tofu to our refrigerators, perhaps there are new possibilities we didn’t expect to come (at least not so soon) just at the doorsteps of our co-COVID future. 

Immediate and radical changes in grocery shopping today
The COVID-19 pandemic is surely a major crisis, but amidst that we find our everyday full of minor inconveniences (at best). Even if you have the money, the transportation and the physical ability to go out to get groceries, disruptions to the shopping status quo are inevitable, even if it just means you still can’t get that tofu you’ve been wanting for weeks.

And yes, it’s me that wants the tofu. My old “normal” was pretty unremarkable—Kroger, Fresh Thyme and the farmers market for fresh produce, Aldi for specific items and Walmart in a pinch—save for the occasional questionably-timed trips for late-night snacks. But now that’s all shifted, and it’s caused us to face firsthand how grocery infrastructure has (or hasn’t) innovated or changed. Here’s what went through my mind as I adapted to my new shopping “normal”:

Graphics by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

The grocery as we know it
Prior to the immediate halt in the traditional grocery system in the onslaught of COVID, food distribution and the grocery store were already undergoing steady changes in the way products are delivered and marketed. They say good design is the kind you don’t notice. Well, the grocery store is a hell of a design, since most of us never even think about it. 

On average, a standard supermarket store holds upwards of 39,000 items. Yet you can typically find the item you’re looking for, with some help, and navigate with relative ease as if the store map has been ingrained into our subconscious. And in some ways, it has. From signage to distance, all the choices you make from the moment you drive into the parking lot are meticulously mapped, engineered, designed and adapted. 

Perhaps the most evident of these is the store layout, where there is a meticulous order to the flow of the store and where products are placed. The goal? To actively encourage customers to buy products in store, even when customers had no intention of buying it prior to coming in. Most grocery stores, for example, adopt the formula of a specific sequence. In fact, the shopping experience is more akin to a choreography on a stage set for a mastery of manipulation than for ease or convenience, according to Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed.

For instance, you enter in with fresh flowers, then get hit by a colorful display of fresh produce, on which “[l]ighting is chosen to make fruits and veggies appear at their brightest and best.” Even “the periodic sprays of fresh water that douse the produce bins are all for show… to give fresh foods a deceptive dewy and fresh-picked look… In fact, it makes vegetables spoil faster than they otherwise would,” according to National Geographic. Then the bakery opens up the appetite by making us hungry for the items in the rest of the store. Essential items are buried deep among the aisles so that we have to work our way through the delicious and distracting non-essentials before we arrive at what we came to find. And as we all know, there is always room to test our cravings with candies and chocolates on our way out.  

Even the aisle shelving has science behind it. The items on a shelf correspond to a planogram, or a diagram showing placement of items to maximize buying. Eye-level products are—you guessed it—more likely to catch the eye, and therefore sell better. Bestselling, leading brands are generally placed there, while lesser known, regional or gourmet brands are placed at the top or bottom. Even the number of “facings” (the straightening of merchandise to the front of a shelf, turned out to the customer) a product has changes how likely the customer is to purchase it. Visibility is of utmost importance. 

Imagine all this algorithm behind a quick run to the store for milk. Using such techniques, grocery stores have evolved into some 14 unique formats that materialized by the 1990s, including conventional supermarkets, superstores, super warehouse stores, wholesale clubs, mini-clubs, convenience stores and supercenters. Each of these has a distinct set of parameters, from type and ratio of merchandise and produce, to physical store size, to number of items, to services and/or amenities such as gas stations to which they are attached. All this to say, when you make that milk run, your experience has been carefully calculated from start to finish. And this well-oiled machine of a system is now in jeopardy.

(Anti-)Social grocery shopping: emergent formats merging the digital and physical 
The grocery store, especially in the Midwest, is also a social, public place. What do young people do when bored late on a Saturday night? Wander the local Kroger, of course. In a city like Toledo, Ohio, Kroger, Meijer and even the Dollar Tree are some of the few free, public (interiorized) places to hang out—to meet and to talk. And while it may seem outdated or “small-town quaint” to run into a farmer, your neighbor or even the mayor at the local market, that’s still a reality across much of the U.S. 

Some of that has even been formalized, specifically and increasingly through programming—from wine tasting to nutritionists sharing expert advice.The Wall Street Journal notes that the grocery store  even replaces singles bars in some areas “by offering space for people to hang out and play.” The Times also reports further experimentation of small-format grocery spaces—facing the challenges from dollar stores and online competitors like Amazon—to adopt unique approaches and social causes such as sustainable no-waste shopping and local organic products and even membership co-op stores to maintain on-the-ground relevance. 

Although online retail presents a formidable challenge to the brick-and-mortar grocery store as a viable alternative to our shopping, buying and even eating experiences, forcing groceries to adapt e-commerce strategies for consumer engagement quickly, we’ve seen that the tangible and human remains relevant. Even with revolutionary changes in the ways people eat and purchase food (more specialized dieting and thus shopping trends, millenials eating more vegetables than previous generations, and the list goes on), the physical store and shopping in-person do not seem in danger of going away any time soon. 

This perhaps is best demonstrated by Amazon’s partnership with Whole Foods stores (boasting 500 retail stores in North America). Amazon’s tactics to incorporate the physical space of stores into its e-commerce empire means that both online and in-person shopping habits can coexist, and even thrive, in the current market. 

But this doesn’t mean the store itself has stayed the same. Marketing has taken a smart approach at Whole Foods, mingling organic products with Prime discounts and digital bonuses, which opens the door to instantaneous mobile delivery of personalized, data-informed advertisement and incentives at literally no cost to Amazon. So the store experience is still here to stay, but Amazon is spending millions to make it more intuitive and streamlined. 

Amazon is also pushing the envelope with Amazon Go—released a year after its purchase of Whole Food —that is cashier-less, data informed and AI-monitored. Amazon’s experiment is an ongoing experiment—and expensive one, with an estimated research cost of $2-3 million as of late 2019.

Considerations for “Grocery Store 2.0”
Today’s grocery store—the one whose layout we know like the back of our hands—came from a century of evolution aimed at decreasing costs, getting customers to buy and maximizing their spending at the store. With the grocery industry valued at $12 trillion, it’s no wonder retailers vie for attention to keep up with consumers and changing times. With so much thought (and money) behind the physical store, what happens when a crisis strikes and in-person shopping is jeopardized? 

Actually, many of the options we’re looking to today amidst a pandemic have been evolving for decades as incoming but not-yet mainstream options for consumers. Given the rapidly changing context, we, as a society, are revisiting and reassessing their efficacy and renewed relevance. 

Key issues and questions that we need to be asking today as we look into the long-term changes to the way we access, buy and use grocery stores:

Is the human, in-person and social aspect of accessing food still feasible as we have known it in the past?

As we have seen in the time pre-COVID19, physical stores remain a relevant part of the social fabric throughout America, occupying a connecting role in the community; even digital e-commerce giant Amazon saw the benefit of going physical with their national distribution through Whole Foods as a local site in the community. 

With the limitations imposed by a crisis such as COVID-19s, one may think that brick-and-mortar grocery stores will be extinct. The exact opposite might also happen. Because the physical will be ever more rare, it may thus be ever more valuable for goods, produce and merchandise to be touched firsthand by the consumer. Tech will have a big role to play in streamlining a cashier-less store. The store may include browsing drive-thrus where items may be moved “in-cart” as handled by a grocery worker. The architectural structure may also be better equipped with natural ventilation for regular clearing of interiorized air. 

It is equally possible to have a future where brick-and-mortar structures that were grocery stores are adaptively reused to take on new programmatic functions that serve the social functions of community in a hygienic way as “Grocery 2.0.” Teaming up with local restaurant owners, Grocery 2.0 might serve as multiple restaurant kitchens’ back-of-house, serving food as orders ready for pickup. On-site eating can be reserved in eating “chambers” that are serviced before and after each use. You can very well eat “in public” in Grocery 2.0. Making the most of unused space, Grocery 2.0 may coordinate with their distributors to set up outdoor fresh markets in their parking lots. Such a setup may also be useful for a myriad of other social functions as well.  

As delivery becomes a “permanent part of the landscape,” how are digital interfaces made accessible and streamlined across the socio-economic spectrum? 

Delivery of meal kits, such as Blue Apron, have been around since 2012. But such efforts have struggled to self-sustain and faltered for years. As people are looking into such options amidst shelter-in-place orders, however, Blue Apron market shares saw a mid-day surge of 140% on March 18 while other industries’ stock crashed around it. Indeed, delivery is on its way to become a “permanent part of the landscape,” a phenomenon ushered in almost overnight. 

It is to be expected that existing startups will bolster their delivery services—think Uber Eats, whose operation in France has teamed up with French supermarket giant Carrefour to bring 30-minute deliveries of household items and fresh produce. Additionally, Uber in France has waived the delivery fee, typically €3.50 ($3.8)—at least for the month of April

Such efforts aren’t the first, as Uber has experimented with grocery deliveries alongside passengers in a three-month test run called UberRUSH. In an article written in October of 2018, Forbes recognized the massive potential of Uber’s unique platform in mobilizing the connection of food to consumers: “The goal of Uber is to leverage its platform to become the Conductor to a massive and complex ecosystem of suppliers, retailers, restaurant chains, food companies, and logistics companies globally… Uber should create an integrated experience whereby it connects consumers with companies offering groceries and food.” This connection is precisely what is at stake right now. 

Could Uber do the same here as in France to reach a more socio-economically diverse population?  Is there a fee structure that looks beyond profit (though that is almost certainly assured) to bring groceries to the breadth of society—including those who don’t typically order UberEats—in a systematic way? 

And these questions apply to other companies seeking to innovate in these times as well. Blue Apron’s clientele is typically upper-middle class. Their 2018 financial report shows that 89% of their customers earn more than $50K a year and 56% of their customers earn more than $100K a year. As food shortages will hit the poor the hardest, these business ventures will undoubtedly need to address the issue of accessibility, as well. 

How will spaces, materials and physical interfacing be made safe and hygienic?

While grocery stores in the traditional format may be reprogrammed, new stores that are arising are already considering technology to help present an alternative, touchless and personless shopping experience. 

The millions of dollars spent on researching the grocery retail experience and smart interfacing done by Amazon may have seemed luxurious in 2019, but prescient now. Indeed, the lessons that we are learning from the technology of AmazonGo stores show that, through smart packaging, scan-and-go systems and digitally controlled interfaces, we may be able to eliminate the need for physical touching of items, making the future of in-person shopping more viable. Moreover, storage lockers, already in use in Whole Foods to keep delivered foods by Amazon, seem particularly useful now to restore the market demand. AmazonGo’s cashier-less format seems more relevant now than ever.

Still, besides the innovation that is touchless, intuitive technology, material engineers and spatial designers and thinkers are racking their heads to consider new parameters that have arisen around public health:the use of hygienic materials and surfaces for easy cleaning and the need for a thorough re-evaluation of the health precautions of back-of-house and distribution workers. Whole Foods (owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon) has recently installed plexiglass dividers and offered masks to employees as a measure to protect workers. This is especially relevant since, as of publication of this article, thousands of grocery workers have been infected by the virus, and at least 41 grocery workers, from storefront to processing, have died from the disease.

While both grocery stores and our shopping habits and concepts have evolved and adapted throughout the century, today’s crisis means that grocery store designers, strategists and CEOs must make ethical decisions about resilience and access—and make them quickly. But perhaps, hidden under all of the chaos, there are opportunities for swift innovation, indicated by new platforms, social trends and environmental considerations that we have been trending towards for a long time. Now we have to make the final leap: a kind of innovation that isn’t to get the most out of buyers, but to benefit our society and the welfare of all humankind. 

But behind the storefront, beyond the consumer front face, another crisis looms large that may last well beyond the stay-at-home orders: because of interruptions in national and global food chains, massive amounts of unharvested, unprocessed fresh produce and dairy are thrown out while other products are in short supply. And this will fundamentally impact the grocery storefront and food chain as we know it today, initiating a renewed sense of urgency toward diversification and localization in our food production. Read more about this in Part II.

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