Matt’s looking at how the internet is changing churches; Mark Bittman looks at how the internet ought to be changing the real spiritual center of most neighborhoods today, the grocery store.
The one time I tried shopping online I was sent a free watermelon — how does that happen? — but that didn’t make up for the even-less-than-supermarket quality of the food. This is my fantasy about virtual grocery shopping: that you could ask and be told the provenance and ingredients of any product you look at in your Web browser. You could specify, for example, “wild, never-frozen seafood” or “organic, local broccoli.”
You could also immortalize your preferences (“Never show me anything whose carbon footprint is bigger than that of my car”; “Show me no animals raised in cages”; “Don’t show me vegetables grown more than a thousand miles from my home”), along with any and all of your cooking quirks (“When I buy chicken, ask me if I want rosemary”). You would receive, if you wanted, an e-mail message when shipments of your favorite foods arrived at the store or went on sale; you could get recipe ideas, serving suggestions, shopping lists, nutritional information and cooking videos. If poor-quality food arrived — yellowing broccoli, stinky fish, whatever — you would receive store credit without any hassle. You might even, I suppose, be able to ask the store to limit the amount of impulse purchases that you make — forget that second pint of Ben & Jerry’s or those Cheez-Its you have trouble resisting.
These are services I’d be willing to pay for. And suppose this online grocer also sold precut or preseasoned vegetables, meat, fish and so on that were made with high-quality ingredients. (Surely I’m not alone in believing that the worst carrots are selected to be formed into “baby” carrots or that premarinated meats feature not only inferior meats but also inferior seasonings.) Maybe I could order my precut broccoli to be parboiled for two minutes, shocked, tossed with slivered garlic and packaged with a lemon. It would be ready for me to refrigerate until I’m ready to eat, and then, in five minutes, I could sauté, dress and put it on the table.
Gosh. True personalization in online retail really is the holy grail, isn’t it? Everyone wants it. We think it should be easy, that it’s right around the corner — but nobody never quite gets there.
No corporation big enough to pull off an operation like online grocery shopping is nimble enough to actually pay special attention to you as a person. It seems like online shopping can give you personalization roughly up to the level where you can pick one of five choices. Also, 50-60% of the time, at least two of them will be unavailable. Even with something like Amazon, which has a pretty sophisticated recommendation engine, I often find myself chastising it, like an unfavored lover: “sometimes I think that you don’t know me at all.”
As for complex operations like Bittman’s parboiled broccoli with garlic — which admittedly sounds delicious — if you can’t get either your grocery’s butcher or your favorite chef to tailor your order that precisely, you’re never going to get a drop-down menu to do it.
Some of these other ideas are great – but when it comes to the cooking, unless we’re willing to take what the supermarket’s serving, we’re on our own.