Thursday, May 22, 2014

Everything old is new again

Innovations in shopping?

One of my father’s favorite jokes was about the telephone company. “Someday, the telephone will get so advanced that all when you pick up the receiver, someone at the other end will say, ‘number please.’”

This week at a technology meeting in Portland, the invited speaker told about a supermarket chain in southern New England where you can use special hand-held devices while shopping that scans your items as you put it in your cart and when you get to the checkout you hand over the device and the sale is already totaled up for you. This “shoppers’ convenience” was imperfect, according to the speaker, who envisioned that a better device would know where you were physically in the store and be able to offer you more services as you shopped. I thought, well that will probably be available in the next version.

Today, I read a NewYork Times article about Instacart, a two-year-old grocery delivery start-up that is now available in some larger US cities. The article explains, “When you buy groceries from Instacart, the company summons a green-shirted ‘personal shopper’ through the firm’s smartphone app. The shopper receives your list, scurries through a grocery store to pick up your items and then heads across town in his own car to deliver your stuff.” New idea?

Both these stories, and my father’s old joke had me reflecting on my childhood in Brooklyn, NY and made me think that we were now seeing was a re-invention of an old idea.

Myrtle Avenue, the business nexus of the Clinton Hill/FortGreen neighborhood where I spent my youth was a panoply of small businesses that provided for the wants and needs of the tens of thousands of local citizens. In those days, the large, one-stop-shop megastores and shopping malls were still futuristic, albeit we did have a couple of smaller, locally-owned supermarkets (Bohacks, A&P, and Key Food), but these carried a very limited line of products and were tiny as compared to my 50,000 sq. ft. local Hannaford in Augusta, Maine.

Competing in the next block of Myrtle Avenue were butcher shops, bakeries, greengrocers (stores that sold fresh produce), drug stores, fish markets, and hardware stores. In those days we had local clothing stores, shoe stores, and even a store that sold notions – whatever they are. There were also a host of smaller grocery stores and delicatessens that even had prepared foods. Add to that several smaller restaurants and pizzerias.

And all these stores “picked out” your item and offered free local delivery.

Add to this list, the local Laundromat, several dry cleaners, liquor stores, and even a florist. They all delivered and many of them offered free credit to local customers. This was a time before revolving credit cards. I think my father got his first Uni-Card (later to become VISA) in the mid-1960s. Many neighbors would purchase their daily groceries, have them delivered and pay off their bill at the end of the month. In many cases, we would pay the delivery guy with cash and he would even make change (“Make sure you tell that when you call in the order to bring change for a ten!”).

Yes, I think we have gone in a full circle. Number please!


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