Features, Grocery and Food, Trends

The Future is in the Heartland

Columbia, Missouri is halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City right smack in the middle of the state. Home to the University of Missouri, staid insurance companies and medically focused biotech firms spun out of the University hospital system. The best hotel in town is a $130 dollar-a-night place and I noticed that very few men on wore wool on an early winter afternoon- fleece is winning the cold war.

Columbia is home to the future of shopping.

It’s hard for those of us who work in Silicon Alley or Valley, or even Brooklyn to understand that what works for us only works for us. The rest of the country doesn’t play by our set of rules. I wrote a column two years ago for The Robin Report about the challenges big-box merchants had competing with Amazon. I cautioned that pick-up at the store had to be made easier. The key, I wrote, was connecting the trucking bays at the back of the store to the parking lot. I predicted that so many American homes – particularly in the heartland — had no way of receiving an online delivery at their jobs or at their empty single-family homes during the working day. I said that Amazon was an urban, doorman, corporate campus phenomenon. What about the nurses, teachers, contractors, farmers, truck drivers, or in Columbia’s case, the graduate students that populate mainstream America?

So here we are in 2018 still challenged on how to make shopping easier for the average American, whose household income is just under $60,000 a year. Good news! I’ve seen it and it works. In Columbia, you log on to Walmart.com and find your local store, then place your grocery order. The store gets back to you with same price brand substitutions if your choices are unavailable. The order is placed. Roughly 10 minutes before you plan to get to the store you call, text or email your arrival. Turn into the parking lot and you are directed along the perimeter of the lot to the pick-up area. There are numbered parking places reserved for you to the left of the main doorway to the store. You call as you park, and the crew rolls your order in blue plastic bins out to your parking place and loads your order into the back of your vehicle. No bags, no cardboard, no wasteful packing materials. It’s straight from the Walmart blue plastic bins to your own plastic bins in the trunk of your car. The Green Gods are much happier.

I timed two deliveries (not a great sample size — but still a worthy dipstick record on Sunday afternoon): parking, loading and pulling out took under 10 minutes. Every parent I’ve talked to with kids, time constraints and a budget has welcomed the concept of the service. The shopping trips stay controlled — no unplanned extras – and total elapsed time is 10 minutes not an hour.

The way it works is that the basic floor plan of the grocery section has shifted. Rather than meat deli etc. at the back of the store, those sections have pivoted to the left. That has opened up the connection from the truck bays. Two-thirds of the way from the back of the store to the front on the left side is a door and the ramp out to the parking lot in front. So logical.

For many Walmart stores, this retrofit may not be possible, but the solution is real and present. Strip developers and big boxes need to pay attention. The simple idea that you pull into a designated parking spot and your purchase is loaded into the back of your car within minutes works miracles in Columbia, Missouri. I’m slipping out the Holland Tunnel tonight to make my monthly grocery run to Jersey City. I long for the day this pick-up service will be available to me. How long do have to wait for this magic to arrive?

 

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