There’s An App For That Deli Item

Publix has been in the news lately for launching — and then expanding to 50 stores — an experimental online system, designed with smartphone users in mind, that allows consumers to pre-order subs, wraps, sliced meats, and cheeses. These are then ready and waiting for customer pickup.

It certainly is a good idea. Customers, often on a lunch hour getting a sub, don’t want to wait.

Also, sandwich orders can be complicated, and this way, customers can save to their “favorites” those sandwiches they might wish to order again.

It does seem somewhat antiquated that customers have to take a number and wait idly during some periods just to get sliced deli meats and cheeses. This columnist’s family is a big buyer of sliced deli items, and just waiting for our own order — a pound of roast beef, a pound of turkey, etc. — takes far too long. So this ordering system is a good thing.

Still, it seems like a pretty limited technology for 2012. Although there may be some logistic difficulties, it isn’t clear why customers can’t add other products, say a cup of soup, some chips, and a beverage, to their order.

And the system is just an ordering system; customers still have to wait in lines at the cashier to pay. It isn’t clear why this is necessary.

In fact, it’s pretty clear that waiting in line isn’t necessary from a technological point of view. So one suspects Publix has a strategy to encourage customers to walk the store to get their chips and beverage and to force the customers to go through the cashier line so that they aren’t tempted to walk out of the store with just their sandwich and go buy their Coke elsewhere. The strategy is to make it just convenient enough to get the order and then create a process that maximizes the likelihood of shopping for other things.

Conventional supermarkets have been battled on all sides in recent years. Customers can find less expensive offers from Wal-Mart, from deep discounters such as Aldi and Save-a-Lot and from price-focused offerings such as Winco and Market Basket. They also find more upscale offerings at Whole Foods and Fresh Market, unique vibes at Trader Joe’s and more fun experiences at Costco. Increasingly, drugstores are offering more convenient grab-and-go sections filled with fresh foods, and this doesn’t even touch on the alternative restaurants provide.

It’s pretty clear that the conventional supermarket requires reinvention. It seems unlikely that successful reinvention will come about without slavish dedication to delighting consumers.

Online ordering systems and new apps to do similar things are all great ideas, but customers today don’t necessarily experience such things as incremental progress — “Great, now I can order online.”

They often experience it as an example of retail obstinacy — “What’s wrong with these people? Why don’t they let me charge this/scan this myself and pay on my credit card so I don’t have to hassle with lines at the cashier?”

We can push consumption one direction or the other with BOGOs and whatnot but, bottom line, typical 22-year-olds find shopping in most grocery stores to be burdensome. They may enjoy shopping for clothes; they even may enjoy farmer’s markets and trendy cheese shops. But they don’t enjoy shopping for food in conventional grocery stores.

You might say that their parents and grandparents didn’t find it such a thrill either. That would be true but it isn’t necessarily relevant. Their parents and grandparents didn’t grow up with a little device in their hands that allows instantaneous communication with friends and family, the ability to watch videos and listen to music, the ability to instantaneously summon all the information in the world. Their parents and grandparents were used to being bored, used to being frustrated.  Not the young shoppers of today; they’re used to never being bored. Life is more exciting — and few supermarkets have kept pace with the very real competition that an exciting life, filled with better things to do, offers to the conventional grocery store.

Where it’s available — where new buildings in Manhattan are often designed with “Fresh Direct rooms” stocked with refrigerator and freezer space to which the online delivery service has access — young people are voting with their feet and dollars — and staying out of grocery stores.

So this columnist gives two cheers to Publix for its new online deli ordering system. It’s clearly a step in the right direction. But the third cheer has to be reserved for the company that will figure out how to delight the young consumer of today and the mainstream consumer of tomorrow.