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Better Shopping Through Technology


Mark Bittman's vision of a world where online grocery shopping is the norm is an appealing one. Keeping a stocked kitchen is one of the time costs of food that cooking advocates don't talk about that often. A meal can be assembled from raw ingredients, but procuring those ingredients is a real annoyance -- particularly late in the week, when Saturday's fresh foods have been used or have begun to rot.

Delivery, though, hasn't worked out so well. The food doesn't always survive the trip, and the extra cost of delivery has proven prohibitive for most early adopters. Plus, most people who are too busy to stop by the grocery also don't have time to wait at home for groceries.

But I've always wondered about pre-packaging: if I could do my shopping online, and then just pick up my packed bags at a pre-approved time, that would make running by the grocery at day's end a lot easier. A smart supermarket chain could even partner with a large recipe site to allow people to select a few recipes and add the ingredients, wholesale, to their cart. It could offer pre-selected packs (enchilada night!) for when people didn't want to sift through recipes. It could make a stocked fridge easier and more common.

Update: Apparently, Harris-Teeter has a program like this. But it's not offered in DC. Thanks, guys.

Photo credit: By Simon Dawson -- Bloomberg

By Ezra Klein  |  October 12, 2009; 5:05 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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I recently notice "Guacamole Kits" at Trader Joe's. Avocado, tomato, onion, garlic all wrapped up in plastic together. It seemed funny to me, but I think you've explained the appeal.

Posted by: reifier | October 12, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

I love to shop and select the fresh ingredients that I am going to use. Milk, eggs, etc. could be prebought and delivered, but fresh produce (and to some extent meat) needs to be selected not just bought, IMHO. Plus, what looks good in the store often affects what I buy and cook. The real problem is that I have to work too many hours to have the time to cook every day.

Posted by: srw3 | October 12, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, this is the best idea you've ever had, and you have had a lot of great ideas. I have the time to go shopping almost everyday for whatever I'd like to cook that night, but I know that lots of people don't -- and I imagine it's a big part of the reason why folks end up eating fast food or Stouffers frozen lasagna. I can see the mass appeal of this "pre-packaged" pick up.

Posted by: howardclh | October 12, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

To further on SRW3's point, the online supermarkets in the DC area aren't the ones known for quality ingredients. If a grocery store always assured good ingredients and substituted them as necessary, a major problem with online retailers would subside. And to Ezra's point of picking up ready bags, this is still a problem, because you lose the time savings if you return bad produce.

In France, it's exactly the opposite mentality: you go to the grocery store and pick out your food, pay for it, and then they'll deliver it. That way, little old ladies can get heavy bottles of water delivered to fifth floor walk-ups. And that way you don't need to worry about having a car or a big enough caddie.


Posted by: GrandArch | October 12, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

In the UK, where the grocery store business is (a) cut-throat, and (b) national, these do exist. All the supermarkets offer some sort of delivery and online shopping, usually free for orders over a certain amount, and most of them (at least, the ones I've looked at) offer some sort of 'buy all the ingredients for this recipe' function.

Waitrose, for instance, has a really nice 'online community' that includes recipe sharing, and you can easily click a 'add this to my cart' button.

Al Gore's venture capital firm just invested in the Waitrose delivery service (Ocado)-- I wonder if there's much plan on bringing one of these mature services to the US to partner with an existing service.

Posted by: hutchie6 | October 12, 2009 6:33 PM | Report abuse

New Seasons Markets here in Portland (a locally owned chain of about 6 or 8 high end food markets-think all that is cool about Whole Foods, and everything that is not) does exactly that. Order online and either pick up your completed order ($4.95) or have it delivered ($9.95). Go to to see how it works. It's a fantastic service. There are downsides: If you use the service you can't take advantage of the generous samples in the store.

Posted by: jmccormi | October 12, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

As you've pointed out, the problem with grocery delivery is the same problem with all sorts of delivery. Waiting around for the delivery is a hassle, even when companies give you a two hour window. In the past decade, the amount of stuff we purchase online has skyrocketed, but there's been very little innovation in our ability to receive said merchandise (basically just online tracking). This should change!

All sorts of online purchasing would be greatly facilitated if there was a way to temporarily authorize a trusted delivery company to go into your apartment building, and put some stuff in, say, a locked box outside your apartment (or in the case of a house, the box could just be outside the front door). I realize this sounds like a bit of a fantasy, but it would seriously be a huge boost to e-commerce.

In Providence, there's grocery delivery service, Peapod, that was thinking about (at least according to an online survey I filled out) letting people install locked grocery delivery bins outside of their house. For apartment buildings, I guess a fancy electronic lock on the front doors might also be required. Perhaps this sounds overly elaborate, but the potential benefits seem large.

I would think that a lot of local businesses (say a bakery, dry cleaners, a local farm) could afford to pick up and deliver stuff if they didn't have to also worry about setting up their own delivery infrastructure and also wait around at each apartment for someone to let them in. Basically I'm just looking forward to a world where I can have fresh bread delivered to my door each morning.

Posted by: eerac | October 12, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Seconding New Seasons Market in Portland, OR! We got rid of our car a year ago and have had our groceries delivered ever since, it's a wonderful service. Seriously Ezra, you should update again and link to New Seasons. They are basically like treasure.

Posted by: bridgietherease | October 13, 2009 12:12 AM | Report abuse

As I mentioned in the Jamie Oliver thread, and as hutchie6 has noted here, delivery is fairly common in the UK, where competition and population density combine to make it affordable for the car-less. In the space of 50 years, British shoppers have gone from waiting for delivery boys on bikes through self-service and back to waiting for the Tesco delivery van.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | October 13, 2009 12:25 AM | Report abuse

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