Various facets of my being hold divergent opinions on grocery delivery:
- The Manager loves its labor saving properties
- The Epidemiologist appreciates the reduction in contact
- The Environmentalist frets over waste
- The Ethicist fears disconnectedness
- The Chef shakes his head at the quality of results
- The Explorer wants for inspiration and serendipity
- The Data Engineer recoils in horror at the range of failure scenarios
I tried grocery delivery ~5 years ago and it proved a short-lived experiment — the results disappointed mightily and the delivery area contracted to exclude me. Then we kicked off the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 so I tried it again with Whole Foods through Prime Now and the result was… less terrible, if still some combination of disappointing, vexing, and horrifying.
Eventual Consistency is the lazy Data Engineer’s best friend but boy how can it make for an awful end user experience. As I recently began tallying all the ways grocery delivery could go wrong this source of pain stood out. Clearly, though, there were others, not the least of which involve a workflow spanning multiple humans across large time windows as well as a “warehouse” that the general public is continually ravaging. The following list represents only the failures I can remember:
- Item presented during list build-out is not presently available
- Item included in list at checkout is not presently available
- Delivery window advertised during list build is not available at checkout
- Item included in completed order is not available at picking time
- Picked item is wrong, deformed, spoiled, expired, damaged
- Picked instances of a kind of item are of problematically non-uniform size
- Picked instances of a produce item are not of successive ripening times
- Picker fails to register a bag as part of shipment
- Delivery agent fails to onboard one of the bags to delivery vehicle
- Item suffers damage or spoils in transit
- Delivery agent fails to off-board one of the bags from vehicle
- Delivery occurs outside target window, exposing goods to theft and spoilage
And never you mind my growing alarm at the horrific packaging footprint or my woeful tendency to fall into a repertoire rut.
In fairness, over time the experience improved in many ways — they figured out clever techniques to prevent some of the more egregious workflow errors and they iterated on the packaging to make it far more recyclable. The eventual consistency of the architecture and the non-investedness of the agents, however, continue to offer disappointing quality, the lack of my presence in the store deprives me of inspiration, and the idea of someone making a drive to my remote-ish home just to drop some groceries feels wasteful.
With a couple of Pfizer jabs well in the rearview mirror, a Whole Foods conveniently located on my return from the rifle range, and a desire to do better across the board, I just might be done with grocery delivery barring the occasional emergency.
Yesterday, after a semi-successful first attempt at upping my game from 100 yards to 200 yards, I stopped off at Whole Foods to leisurely stroll the aisles looking for both staples and inspiration while savoring the contrast of the refreshingly cool air with the oppressive 93F at the range. Along the way my gaze lingered on some crab and I thought “omelette”. When acquiring some Yukon golds for upcoming scalloped potatoes I carefully selected ones of appropriate and similar size. At checkout I handed over four reusable insulated bags that accommodated everything. I had forgotten what a Flow state one can experience while exploring a good grocery store in the right state of mind.
And yet, if we are being honest, grocery stores themselves pose their own sort of problem by offering a tidy and pleasing abstraction layer for the messy business of food production. To the undiscerning eye the pasture raised and factory farmed animal products look much the same. The water hungry produce grown in drought prone regions and harvested in harsh and sketchy labor arrangements seem innocuous enough. The roll up of production into an ever smaller number of margin conscious conglomerates continues apace as the appetite of a voracious and ingenious species grows without bound.
And yet, compared to nascent alternatives, such a place still offers an opportunity for evolving experiences and greater awareness. I shudder at the prospect of a food ecosystem overrun by fully roboticized ghost kitchens — an accelerating arrangement where we no longer gather in communal spaces to break bread, a complex web of loosely connected processes obscures the origins of our nourishment, the trash and transportation footprint becomes enormous, and a prioritization of mass producibility obliterates creativity, variety, and quality.
I get it — we collectively have wildly varying predilections toward the culinary arts, appreciation for food itself, and resources to invest. But with the sudden shock of pervasive remote work and the increasing mechanization of the entire food ecosystem we seem perched on the precipice of losing a key component of our social fabric.