October 2017

Clicks or Bricks

Thinking inside the box

By Jaq Greenspon

“I ordered large apples and this is what they brought.”

My wife is holding up some medium sized green apples and looking at them distastefully. “Plus,” she continues, “these are Granny Smith and I wanted Golden Delicious.”

Thus are the hazards of online grocery shopping. To be fair, of course, she also loves the fact, as do I, that, since we don’t have a car, it means someone else will have to carry the 7 pounds of potatoes and extra large bottles of laundry detergent home from the shop. There are certainly plusses and minuses. There are indeed trade-offs.

We started doing online grocery shopping a few months ago, as soon as we found out it was being offered in our neighborhood. There were, we figured, no downsides. Our local service, which is an offshoot of one of the grocery chains in town, offers free delivery, will adjust the price based on actual weight of the produce and even throws in little “gifts.” We’ve gotten everything from frozen garlic bread and energy bars to dishwashing liquid. It’s like Hanukkah every time we get a delivery.

Sure, we might take more time selecting just the right pieces of fruit or vegetables, making sure we’ve grabbed the correct apples or even grabbed an impulse candy bar or ice cream before checking out, but the convenience of placing an order before going to bed and having it at our front door when we wake up the next morning is pretty exciting, especially when the baby makes it a little harder to find the time to get out.

And we’re not alone. According to a June article on, upwards of 52 million Americans are doing their grocery shopping online, and with the recent acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon, that number is likely to increase drastically. In the same article, Michael Wystrach, CEO of meal delivery service Freshly, is quoted as saying that the food industry has been “insulated from the e-commerce revolution” but that ultimately, when the customer goes digital, the companies are going to have to follow suit in order to keep up.

Those customers are looking for the same thing we were: Convenience. Sure, we opt for the delivery function, but a number of stores are also offering in-store pick up as well. This is the best of both worlds, where the bulk of your shopping is done before you leave the office and you can just pick up a couple of bags on the way home – and still get in an impulse candy bar if you want. At the same time, it’s not just produce that people are purchasing from the comfort of their laptops. There are now a number of delivery companies who will go to any restaurant you desire, pick up your “to go” order and drop it right to your door. UberEats is the big name in the field, but there are literally dozens of apps which will connect you with a delivery company. No matter what it is you want. A local driver shared with me that there were days he’d deliver McDonald’s several times in a day, often to the same house. Then there are companies like the aforementioned Freshly, which cooks the food for you, offering you plenty of complete meal options, rotating each week, and all you have to do is heat them up. Or there’s the meal kit services, where companies will deliver all the ingredients, premeasured, to make the food yourself, giving a new definition to the concept of “home-cooked meals.”

Even so, maybe you just want to get out of the house for a bit (and honestly, more on this in a minute, but with today’s technology, that is definitely a choice and not a necessity) and do your grocery shopping in person? You still may end up online. Some retailers (Walmart and Sam’s Club for instance) are adopting the old showroom shopping model, where you wander the aisles with a provided scanner, or, more often than not, your own smart phone, and you scan things you want to purchase (like creating a wedding registry). Then, with a click of the button, your items are paid for and you simply go and pick up the bagged and tagged items at a checkout counter before heading out.

Even the simple pleasures of pulling a number at the deli counter and waiting your turn in line (behind the person who had lots of time but still took until they were called to actually think about their purchase) may soon become a thing of the past. Now you can log in, order what you want and get a time to come pick it up or text telling you it’s ready so you can take care of other shopping in the meantime. Even just wandering the aisles gets the online treatment. Shopping carts equipped with touch screen monitors will be able to give you information on the products you’re considering as well as making smart suggestions for secondary purchases and informing you about sale items. With Selfio, from the European company Tarent, you set your shopping list on your phone using an app for the specific shop and location you want to shop at, then, that app guides around the store to pick up your goods. As you place items in your cart, you scan them, again using your app, until you walk out of the store, when you are automatically run through a self-checkout program with a pre-approved payment method.

The thing is, though, it’s not just food. Online shopping is the way things are going, enough so that earlier this year (and ever so briefly) Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was the wealthiest man on the planet. Amazon itself is the 800lb gorilla absolutely no one wants to take on, but even they can’t do everything. Although in the future it might not be too far off. Today, modern retailers are trying to figure out ways to give the customers what they want while still being able to do what they do best – sell products.

Take, for example, clothing. One of the hardest things to do is make sure the fit is right. No worries. Now you can get the Pretty Woman treatment when you walk into a Nordstrom over in LA and get completely pampered while trying on your new outfit. You can get a manicure, sip some wine, talk to the tailor about getting the perfect fit… the only thing you won’t get is the outfit itself. Instead, you’ll place your order and the items will be shipped from a fully stocked warehouse. This allows the retail face to carry many more styles and sizes since they only need one of each on hand. It’s a win-win, right? This is as close as most of us are going to get to having something made specifically for us on Savile Row or Avenue Montaigne.

All of these things are happening now, today. The real question is what happens tomorrow or the day after that. And there, the trend seems to be going into two different kinds of reality – augmented and virtual.

Augmented reality really made headlines last year with the release of Pokemon Go, where, once you activated the game, you pointed your phone camera around and eventually, the small “pocket monsters” would appear, overlaid on your actual surroundings, allowing you to interact with them (and, well, catch them all). That’s all well and good for a game, but the retail future of the technology is so much more. Imagine you move into a new place and you need to furnish it. Just go to the website of the manufacturer and point your camera at the place in your apartment where you think you might want to put that sofa. A touch of a button and the sofa appears, giving you the opportunity to see it in situ. You can make all the choices you need to, adjusting variables, until you have exactly what you want. And you can see it. No more arguments with a spouse about whether it will fit or if the color will overwhelm the room. That’s settled before you even leave the house. In fact, you never even have to leave the house. Another click of the button and the item is paid for and on its way to you.

But again, being the social creatures we are, we might want to leave the house so we go off to the grocery store… where our augmented reality phones will point out the items we’re looking for or give us visual guidelines to follow to get us where we need to be. We can use this technology to try on clothes or give us guided walking tours when we’re on vacation. Just point your camera lens at a medieval castle and witness a virtual battle right in front of you, or have the centuries dead king tell you his life story, while pointing out various points of interest. And hey, if there’s anything you really like, just click a button and your virtual payment system will transfer funds and the souvenir will be waiting for you upon your exit. The possibilities are really endless.

Then there’s virtual reality. You’ve probably seen pictures of people wearing huge goggles on their heads but until you’ve been inside this set-up, you have no idea how realistic it can be. The goggles completely envelope your lines of sight so visually, you are completely enclosed. You have controllers which can allow you to manipulate things inside the virtual environment, giving you an actual “hands on” experience. Lowe’s understands this and has developed the “Holoroom How To” for virtual instruction. You walk into a Lowe’s and they can walk you through how to do a number of DIY projects, and they’ve found the retention rate is fully a third higher than simply watching a YouTube video on the same subject. There’s tactile feedback and muscle memory involved.

Now imagine you have a VR rig at home. In the future, you might be able to log into a shopping portal, a book store, say, and browse the shelves, pulling books down to read the back covers and thumb the pages. Then if you decide you want it, just toss it into your virtual basket and it will be delivered in whatever format you desire. You’ll be able to check sizes, compare products, do anything you could do in an actual shop, and all from the comfort of your living room. Given the way technology is advancing, you could probably even squeeze the oranges or the Charmin and the haptic response of the VR gloves which are sure to be coming soon, will provide enough sensory feedback you can decide if you want to make the purchase or not.

Add in a decent set of headphones and you could be watching an Imax size screen, from just the right spot in the theatre, on the living room couch you purchased through your augmented reality shopping spree. There are even virtual watering holes, where you can create avatars, full body representations of yourself, to meet and mingle with others in the same virtual world. I know I keep saying you may want to actually get out of the house, but ultimately, you won’t even need to do that. You’ll be able to interact with friends and colleagues from all over the world in a face to face virtual environment. My kid is going to grow up in a world where she can go to school in her bedroom, with the best teachers in the world, and still be physically active, playing games we can’t even imagine today.

But until then, we’ll just have to make do with what we have. And I’ll make do with eating the Granny Smith apples they brought by mistake, because I like them and no matter how the food has been selected, prepared, and gotten to the house, we still need to eat it in the real world.

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