There was a time, not so long ago, when grocery shopping could be a pleasure. It could also be a joyless time suck, of course — a chore, a scourge — but in the right mood, and under the right circumstances, it was a delight. You could examine ten thousand different types of cereals. You could inspect the plums!
Now it is not. You could blame the pandemic for this end, but the pandemic only accelerated what was happening already. COVID-19 did not ruin grocery shopping, although certainly being terrified that you might die or kill someone has not enhanced the experience. The problem is the apps.
Even before the virus, there were reports that professional shoppers — underpaid gig-economy workers delivering groceries through Instacart, Shipt, and Amazon Prime Now — had turned normally chill grocery stores into high-pressure racecourses as they zipped around trying to quickly and accurately fill orders, manage substitutions for out-of-stock items (if no Honeycrisp, do you want Granny Smith?), and maneuver overflowing carts of other people’s groceries. Regular shoppers were not pleased. “Instacart drivers think they’re playing Mario Kart,” one Bostonian told The Wall Street Journal in 2019, referencing the situation at his local Wegmans. Across town at Whole Foods, the problem was the same: Since being bought by Amazon, it was filled with Prime Now shoppers. “They’ll usually have a device on a lanyard around their neck and a sort of a lost look on their faces,” complained another customer. “The chaos is more than what I want to deal with at a grocery store.”
During the pandemic, the chaos has only gotten worse. According to a recent Business Insider report on the state of COVID-era Whole Foods, “workers who fill Amazon Prime Now orders … are in some cases clogging aisles, ignoring virus protocols, and exacerbating severe understaffing.”
One Whole Foods manager told BI that Prime workers are “vultures” who “come in and pick every department clean” before employees can fully restock the empty shelves from the previous day. “The Prime picking starts at 6 a.m. They are picking stuff off the shelves from every department, and there is no one to refill it,” he said. “We have pallets of groceries just sitting in the aisles, and they are desperate to get it on the shelves.” The shoppers, who are often employed by Amazon rather than Whole Foods directly, are “everywhere,” complained a Whole Foods employee in Philadelphia. “It’s like being in a sci-fi nightmare film.” In San Francisco, another Whole Foods worker complained that these shoppers weren’t taking adequate precautions. They’re “running around the store as fast as they can to fill orders as quickly as possible,” he said. “Prime Now shoppers are completely unconscious and pose a huge risk to both employees and customers.” (The grievances go on.)
As is so often the case, the problem is real, but the diagnosis feels wrong. The Prime shoppers, mostly, are not the problem but victims of the problem. So are the Whole Foods employees and the customers who just want to buy tomatoes in person and in peace. It is instead another example of the old phenomenon: By not paying enough for gig labor and by rewarding efficiency at all costs, the delivery giants are turning grocery stores into glorified warehouses — much to the detriment of the overall shopping experience.
Up until March of this year, convincing American shoppers to buy groceries online had been slow going. People like choosing their red peppers, is the problem. You want spinach, unless it’s mangy, in which case, you’ll go with kale. Grocery shopping is personal, which makes it a difficult task to outsource, so most people didn’t. A representative from Instacart — the biggest of the independent grocery-delivery services — told The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost that, before COVID, the company had guessed that “20 percent of U.S. households would be shopping online for groceries in the next five years.”
By this April, Instacart’s order volume was up 150 percent. People who could afford to were avoiding the grocery store in record numbers, nobody could get delivery slots from anywhere, and Amazon and Shipt and Instacart all went on hiring sprees to meet demand, adding an influx of new, inexperienced shoppers while leaving many longtime shoppers feeling as if they’d been squeezed out. Meanwhile, the pandemic had already turned grocery stores into minefields, putting both professional shoppers and regular customers on edge.
Much of that initial panic has let up by now, at least for the moment, but there is at least one lingering side effect: A lot of people have realized that grocery delivery, at least on the consumer end, is actually kind of great. You can just … get food by pressing buttons and have it delivered to your house. “When things return to normal,” Whole Foods CEO John Mackey predicted in The Wall Street Journal, “there will be a lot of people who don’t go back to shopping in person.”
It’s worth noting that for people who are physically unable to visit grocery stores in person or who are immunocompromised and can’t visit stores while the pandemic rages on, delivery apps offer an indispensable service. Even for the 99 percent of customers who could go to stores but simply choose not to, online shopping is, if not strictly necessary, then exceedingly convenient. While delivery is expensive, it is near frictionless, especially if you’re willing to tolerate the wrong kind of apples and some occasionally wilted greens. Of course, for people who still prefer buying food in person, the new model is a problem. At this point, the big-box grocery stores have been sucked dry of any pleasure they once had.
Whole Foods’ new “dark store” — a store-shaped delivery warehouse that is not open to the public — could be a model of a future in which companies come to terms with the fact that delivery stores and consumer stores need to be two different things. Perhaps we are looking at the future! (“We’re always evaluating ways to increase grocery delivery,” the company said noncommittally.) There are so many ways the post-pandemic grocery store could change.
But someday, one hopes, in some form, it will be a pleasure to go to the grocery store again, to shop for your own dinner beside other people also shopping for their dinners, and leisurely squeeze some plums.