Lean Groceries

Some of the leanest thinkers I know love online grocery shopping.  They rave about how much more convenient it is.  Yet, like lean itself, it has not caught on in a widespread way.  According to a 2018 article, only 5.5% of all US groceries are purchased online.  That lags a lot behind other sectors, such as apparel (19%) and housewares (10%). 

Yet there is a lot of waste in grocery shopping.  You have to get in the car, fight traffic, find parking, walk to the store entrance, and then hike for miles foraging amongst the aisles and shelves while pushing a cart around to “easy-listening” music (easier for some more than others) .  Ever notice how the grocery store puts the essentials like bread, milk, and eggs as far from the entrance as they can, so that you pass as many impulse buying opportunities as possible on your odyssey to the far back corner of the store?  One person’s marketing scheme is another person’s transportation waste.  Once you’ve got everything on your list (and perhaps some additional high-calorie impulse items), you have to deal with checkout lines, find your car, load your car, and fight the traffic again back home.

Online grocery shopping, in contrast, allows you to keep a digital shopping list.  As soon as you are about to run out of one item you can easily call it up on your phone and add it to your digital list.  The app remembers what you buy and keeps a list of frequently purchased items for you.  Then, on a fixed schedule (your standard work), you place an order.  You can do this in the morning and then pick the groceries up on your way home from work, where they load it for you into your car. For an additional fee, you can have them delivered to your door.  And fewer temptations to buy additional impulse items!

I understand that many people like to have a more intimate relationship with perishable items like meats, fish, baked goods and fresh produce.  But you can supplement your regular online orders of non-perishable items with shorter trips to local specialty stores to buy these items in smaller batches, to avoid sacrificing freshness and quality.  I am truly puzzled why anyone would want to devote any more time than absolutely necessary to buying cereal, cooking oil, or hand soap. Skip the traffic, the parking, the searching, and the check-out line! It’s all waste.

Meal kits take it one step further.  Meal-in-a-box companies deliver to your door only the exact amount of food you need to prepare and consume for that meal.  This has all the benefits of online shopping and adds additional value by relieving you of the burden of having to research, find, then store more ingredients than you really need (i.e. inventory waste).  The sticker price for these boxed meals is higher and hence these meal kits are currently marketed at upscale urban professionals who have more money than time.  Yet a friend of mine who orders these boxes is convinced that they are cheaper in the long run because they eliminate the need to throw out old leftovers from the fridge.  And if the sticker price were to come down over time, might this be the future of grocery shopping for everyone?

From a purely technical point of view, lean is about delivering to the customer exactly what she wants, in the right amount, at the right time, at the right price.  It seems to me like online grocery ordering and meal kit delivery are far more lean approaches to buying groceries than the current state.  What do you think?

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