Saturday, November 8, 2014

Still Life With Robin: One Giant Leap Into the Future of Grocery Shopping?

by Peggy Robin

It was way back at the dawn of the Millennium (July, 2001 to be precise) that a plan was first announced to tear down the little Giant food store at Wisconsin and Newark and rebuild a big, new modern store on the spot. Now fast forward thirteen years…uh, no, I mean, creep-forward verrrry slowly the next thirteen years, through all kinds of setbacks and obstacles, protracted negotiations, court filings, financing snafus, traffic troubles, construction delays, and everything else that could get in the way, and we have finally arrived at Thursday’s Grand Opening, when everything at last seemed to come together in an event that was festive and fun. There was an in-store jazz band playing food-themed favorite songs. There were colored balloons, and free reusable grocery bags. Lots of tasty free food samples. Friendly Giant greeters and helpers in every aisle. We had the Mayor on hand, plus other notables, and lots of Giant executives looking justly proud. Everyone was smiling, everyone was shopping. There were aisles and aisles of things to buy, all enticingly laid out. What more could we ask for?

Actually, there is something. Not to sound ungrateful, but when I was thinking back over all the years that we waited for this store to become a reality, and all that went into making it happen, I have to say that I had come to believe, by the time the store opened, that it would be a lot more futuristic than it has turned out to be. I was struck, on opening day, at just how, well, standard-big-grocery-store this new Giant has turned out to be. How….Twentieth Century. The thing it most closely resembles is the big Westbard Giant in Bethesda. A nice store, to be sure, but something that’s been around forever. True, this new Giant has a wine & beer bar, and a Starbucks, and a fancy produce department with many types of exotic fruits I have not seen in other stores. But it in many more ways, it’s still basically the same old Giant, only a whole lot bigger, with wider aisles.

What was I expecting? I don’t know….but something, somehow high-tech-y,  with some amazing, innovative way to shop. Something better than the same age-old method of navigating the aisles with an unwieldy shopping cart, hunting for items, putting them in the basket, and then going through a long, slow check-out line. Here’s what I would really love to see in the store of the future (not that I have a sense of whether any of what follows is technologically feasible!): The shopping cart should be built along the lines of a Roomba, and controlled by a Smartphone app. First, you would use the Giant Shopping Cart app on your phone or computer to download your grocery shopping list, choosing your selections from what Giant shows to be in stock and on the shelves at that particular store. When you arrive at the store, you would transmit your list to the cart’s navigational system, which would then use its self-propelled motor to roam around the store, going to each shelf in the most efficient transit pattern, to retrieve each item on your list, using its automated grabber-arm to reel in the exact brand, size, and quantity you specified, at the same time keeping a running tally of the cost of the items so far. While your cart was on its mission, you would be relaxing at the wine bar, listening to the jazz quartet,  sipping your Chardonnay. When everything on the list has been checked off, the cart would return to you for inspection. Any items you did not want, you would simply remove from the cart for reshelving. If there were any items on the list that the cart failed to obtain, you would have the ability to walk over to that department or aisle and manually add a substitute product to the cart -- that is to say, you can still shop the old-fashioned way.

When you are ready to approve the whole cart-ful of items, you go to the pay app on your phone, hit “pay,” your credit card is charged, and that’s it – you’re done. No check-out line. You go straight to your car with your cart, put your groceries in the back, and drive off. And the cart, once it senses it’s empty, finds its own way back to the cart-bay for the next customer to use.

At some point in the above narrative, I’m sure some of you have wanted to interrupt: Why not just call PeaPod? The technology already exists to submit your shopping list online to the Giant’s popular delivery service, and you can get your groceries brought right to your door. Ah, but it’s not the same. It’s not a real-time shop, and there are just too many problems that you can’t correct until after the grocery delivery person has already left your house. First, you may not be able to schedule a delivery for the date and time you want. Then there’s that troublesome two-hour delivery window: whenever the truck arrives, you are going to have to drop whatever you are doing to let the person in and unload the groceries. You won’t see any mistakes in your order until you start putting your groceries away. Even if you are able to catch the drivers before he departs and send back any unwanted items, you still need to make a phone call to Giant to get your money back. All of these problems disappear when you have a programmable, self-driving shopping cart that you can control on-site.

That’s what I would call a suitable cart for a true 21st Century shopping experience. Will I have to wait another thirteen years for the pleasure? Giant, the ball is in your court.


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland ParkListserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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