Technology expands grocery shopping, delivery options

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Krista Bowen
From left: Clicklist employee Paige Willes and supervisor Susan Muchan confer over an item that has been discontinued. Muchan trains her employees to be thorough so their customers are satisfied with their order. (Krista Bowen)

A little more time in the day.

For Adam Archbold, that’s what he needs more than anything. With a backpack overflowing with psychology and chemistry textbooks, the biochemistry major rides his bike to campus at 8 a.m. and doesn’t make the return trip until well past dark.

As a self-described “health-minded guy,” Archbold likes his shelves packed with kale, quinoa and the occasional turtle cookie dough for the rough days. However, he simply does not have the time to bike three miles to the nearest grocery store, wander through the aisles and bike home.

The gift of time is something the grocery industry is in a race to give customers like Archbold. National and regional companies now offer online grocery shopping for pickup or delivery. According to research done by the Food Marketing Institute, 23 percent of Americans buy their groceries online, and options for online grocery shopping in Utah are growing. 

Expansion of options

Amazon is a go-to site for many online purchases from textbooks to microwaves, accounting for 43 percent of all online retail sales, according to a Slice Intelligence analysis. But in 2007, Amazon took a huge step forward and began to offer perishable grocery delivery in Seattle.

In August, Amazon expanded its grocery options to include more healthy items after purchasing Whole Foods, a move expected to make the company dominant in the online grocery shopping game.

Amazon currently provides online grocery delivery to Amazon Prime members in more than a dozen cities through AmazonFresh, but the company does not currently deliver in Utah.   

In July, Amazon announced plans to build a new fulfillment center in Salt Lake City, which may open up AmazonFresh options in Utah.

“We are excited to continue growing our team with the first fulfillment center in Utah,” said Akash Chauhan, Amazon’s vice president of North American operations. “This new facility will enable us to better serve customers and improve Prime membership benefits.”

Many students, like Archbold, hold Amazon Prime Student memberships that might make them eligible for AmazonFresh for a lower price.

“I would definitely use fresh grocery delivery if it was available to me,” Archbold said. “If I can just click and have it delivered to my door, that would save so much time.”

However, Amazon isn’t the only company with an online option for busy shoppers, and Utahns need not wait around for Amazon to arrive.

Instacart and Google Express are national personal shopper services that deliver online purchases from a section of stores for either a yearlong flat membership fee or a fee for each purchase.

“I have looked into using the personal shopper site, but let’s be honest: I’m a college student. I can’t afford those fees,” Archbold said. “Those sites have fees for using the service and for delivery unless you spend a certain amount. That really adds up.”

Local options

Local stores offer some more affordable options for online shopping, with lower fees and pickup options. In Provo, Smith’s, Macey’s and Walmart Neighborhood Market all offer online shopping with in-store pickup. Smith’s Clicklist also offers delivery through PigeonShip.

Archbold uses Smith’s Clicklist because the fee is a flat $11 for delivery and $5 for pick-up.

“I like that no matter how many groceries I order, it is always the same price, no loopholes,” Archbold says.

He trusts that he will get good quality, but isn’t sure how they select his groceries.

For other shoppers, making time for a quality check is worth fitting a shopping trip into a busy schedule.

Sarah Sorenson, a senior studying chemical engineering, understands how hours in the library can drag on, but she said she doesn’t order online “mostly because I’m picky about my produce and the quality of my produce.”

“I don’t want someone picking bad apples or bruised or too big of bananas,” Sorenson said.

Provo Smith’s Clicklist Supervisor Susan Muchan knows that quality control is a concern for customers looking into online grocery shopping.

“You will always have people who like to feel and see their food before they buy it,” Muchan said. “But we are a very busy store for Clicklist. We have a lot of students busy with school and young families who like to avoid the hassle.”

Smith’s employees are trained to pick high quality products when shopping for Clicklist customers so they can be more confident about the quality, Muchan said.

Behind the curtain

Muchan oversees about 10 employees who gather grocery orders from Clicklist. One of those employees is Paige Willes.

Willes began working at Smith’s 27 years ago as a nutrition specialist until transferring over to Clicklist.

“I love this job,” Willes said as she prepped her cart for filling four orders at once. “I get to walk around and talk to fun people. It’s exercise, and hey, I get to shop all day.”

Each cart holds up to six crates, which are each labeled with a barcode that matches the order that goes in it. Willes pushes the cart up and down the aisles of the store, stopping to help customers as she goes.

The items for each order appear on a handheld barcode scanner in order of how the store is laid out, so she can navigate the store quickly to fill the order. She scans each item and then the order barcode of the crate she puts it in, bagging as she goes.

With her quick pace, it might seem easy to overlook quality, but as she goes to scan a can of tomato soup she notices a dent and swaps it out for an undented product. She is careful to put the heavy can with other heavy products on the bottom and light products on the top.

The scanner lets out a loud ring to alert Willes that the dark brown sugar she scanned should be replaced by light brown sugar.

“It is basically impossible to mess up an order,” Willis said as she corrected her mistake. “The (scanner) will stop me.”

The next item on the list is cornbread, but a thorough scan of the shelves reveals that the correct item is not there.

“The list online is store-specific, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t run out of items,” Willes said. “So if we are out of a requested item, we substitute it for a similar item of equal or greater value.”   

Picking produce is more of a process: apples with no bruises, zucchinis with hard ends, cantaloupe with a sweet smell. Willes examines each piece of produce before adding it to the bag.

Krista Bowen
Willes examines a cantaloupe for soft spots before selecting one for the online order. The employees were trained by the store produce specialists with tips and tricks on spotting the best produce. (Krista Bowen)

“Some people make requests, like they want half of their avocados to be ripe and half unripe for later,” Willes said as she examined a pile of avocados of varying shades of green. “This lets people have more of a say in the quality and type of produce they get.”

Amber Vance, a 2015 BYU graduate who is pregnant with her first child, loves using Clicklist to pick-up her groceries.

“They are really great about picking produce, and it saves me a ton of time,” Vance said. “You can put in detailed requests like ‘slightly green bananas.’ It forces me to plan ahead.”

Willes double checks her items before bringing them into the front room to separate each order.

Another employee takes a cart and selects frozen items, and another selects refrigerated items so they can be kept at the right temperature.

If the customer selects pickup, they call the store and the employees take the order out to the car. The employee goes over the order with the customer and checks to make sure any substitutions are approved.

“I just love not having to get out of the car and boom, I have groceries.” Vance said.

If the customer selects delivery, the employees load the order into the delivery vehicle and the customer receives a text giving them a timeframe. For Archbold, the order arrives just after he gets home at night and he quickly fills his shelves again.

Muchan believes online shopping will only grow and change to become more useful and efficient for helping people who are looking to save time.

“There are a lot of different companies that are taking advantage of the new techniques,” Muchan said. “With the age change and people becoming more busy, I think we will see these programs grow.”

The future

Walmart is one of the companies looking to grow.

Partnering with August Home, a smart home and smart lock provider, Walmart is testing a system that will allow it to go beyond what any other company is offering and deliver groceries straight to customer’s fridges.

The delivery driver will ring the doorbell, and if no one answers they will use a one-time code provided by August Home to enter the home and put away the groceries. All of this can be monitored with cameras.

Still in its preliminary stage, Walmart hopes to change the game of grocery shopping even further.

“We’re excited to be running this test in Silicon Valley with a small group of August Home customers, all of whom have opted in to participate in testing this new concept,” said Sloan Eddleston, vice president of Walmart eCommerce Strategy and Business Operations. “The possibilities are endless, and we look forward to exploring how we can further serve our customers’ needs.”

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