In the COVID-19 alternate universe we now find ourselves in, going to the grocery store is like gearing up for a battle, or maybe something more like a traditional tribal hunt: your village has selected you for the journey. You don your gear: mask, gloves, a hazmat suit if you really want to commit. You pack your weapons: hand sanitizer in your shirt sleeve for easy access, wipes in your pocket for the cart, and yes, that’s a spray can of Lysol in your pocket. You aren’t happy to see anyone who isn’t at least six feet away.
You travel, slowly, through dangerous lines that feel like they are days long only to find empty shelves and the enemy on every surface, in the very air that you breathe. You gather all you can before you journey to the next and the next and the next – a battery here, a roll of toilet paper there.
But as you come home, war-torn and without three-quarters of your list, you think to yourself: there has got to be a better way.
You and millions of other Americans who are all in the exact same boat. Curbside and delivery services are overwhelmed, personal shoppers cannot find what you need any better than you can, and you’ve started to wonder how you can keep this up week to week without getting sick.
The good news is that it’s not that supplies aren’t there. There actually is enough of most things even with shipping and distribution issues preventing some of our supplies from overseas.
The bad news is that the system was never set up for us to shop four times the normal amount for months on end.
It’s no wonder that between the desolate shelves, the germs and the frustrations that people are looking in every niche and cranny of the food industry to see who can deliver “most of the list” to their doorsteps. Local farm deliveries, meal kit services, produce subscriptions, “food waste” subscriptions and others are seeing a surge in demand that isn’t necessarily good for all of them, but they are all striving to meet it.
We at MODIV have examined these alternative suppliers and how they are adapting to this “new normal” of “hunter gatherer grocery shoppers.” We hope to provide some clarity for what these businesses are up against as they turn these “grocery games” into jobs, profits, and workforces that are much needed in a struggling economy.
- Local Farms – Some local farms that traditionally sell at farmer’s markets or to restaurants are learning to sell produce and/or dairy boxes for the first time. The learning curve is steep for them to bring their businesses online, but even more so in more remote and rural areas where many farmers who not comfortable with computers are simply left behind. Local movements like this one, which brings farm products to delivery services or local co-ops, have been able to help these farmers distribute their goods and keep them from devastating losses as their restaurant and market customers are shut down.
On the other hand, many farms, especially small or family farms, have been in the local food delivery service for years, bringing meat, dairy products, eggs and produce to customers in their immediate areas either directly or with CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). These CSAs essentially bring the farmer’s market collectively to customers’ doors. However, in urban hotspots, most of these farms and distributors have been wait listing new customers indefinitely as they struggle to meet the soaring demand. Surprisingly, most of them say that it is not a matter of having enough product so much as learning how to scale up the processing, harvesting and distribution so quickly.
- Meal Kit Services – Subscription meal services like Blue Apron and Home Chef are also seeing a surge in business as traditional grocery stores struggle to deliver food to our doorsteps, and like family farms, they are in a mad dash to scale up to meet the demand. But where small farms have enough product either way and just need help with distribution (measures that can be easily sustained or redirected following the pandemic), many experts think meal kit delivery is headed for a crash if they expand their inventories and workforce to meet the temporary need.
Prior to COVID-19, these services were already floundering in the marketplace with stocks falling to all-time lows shortly before everything shifted. An argument could be made that investing in customers now could pave the way for future loyalty, but with wait lists, backlogs and botched orders piling up for many of these businesses, that is increasingly unlikely.
- “Ugly Food” Subscription Services – One business model that seems to be working better than alternatives in the face of COVID-19 is “ugly food” subscription. Companies like Imperfect Foods and Hungry Harvest send subscribers boxes of grocery store rejects, which they claim saves food from being wasted in our convoluted food system. Grocery stores reject these foods because they are unattractive, short-coded (meaning they don’t have long enough expiration dates), surplus (the grocery store already has too much, which is mind-boggling in these circumstances) and other reasons that seem increasingly minor to consumers hungry for reliable deliveries.
While there are still wait lists for these boxes, many assure customers that the only issues are with scaling up for distribution, similar to what family farms are facing, as there is plenty of supply. And Imperfect Foods, for one, is even able to tell customers when they expect to meet their demand rather than giving them an indefinite waitlist message, which means they have a good shot at cultivating loyalty that extends beyond the pandemic.
- Restaurants Selling Groceries – While there have been examples like Jimmy John’s selling its bread to hungry customers who can’t find it at the grocery store, most of this COVID-19 phenomenon has come from a hyper-local, community-based set of restaurants who couldn’t quite make enough revenue through take-out orders. Local eateries from Texas to Florida to Washington, DC have started selling the bulk items that used to power their menus, including many hard-to-find groceries such as tortillas, bread, fresh produce, coffee, flour and baking needs, and even toilet paper and paper towels. Some of them also prepare meal kits for customers’ favorite recipes.
While this is not a solution that can meet the incredible demand the pandemic has produced, for loyal customers in the know, it is a convenient and easy way to shop with little to no contact, a curbside service that actually has available pick up times. And that is really the key here. Not scaling up. Keeping the inventory easy and available to the customers who will stick with you for the long haul, knowing they will eat with you again when this is all over.
We wish, like everyone else on the planet, that there was a silver bullet solution to all of this. That we had a plan B waiting in place, ready to deploy and bring toilet paper to the masses. That isn’t the case. However, while we are all facing an unprecedented blow to our health, society and loved ones that no one would ever ask for, we do have the opportunity to learn, to adapt, to meet challenges and think creatively, and maybe, just maybe, in some ways, we can come out stronger for it on the other side.