Post-covenience economies and local shopping

crystal palace fruit and veg

A few days ago Matt Webb said this on his Interconnected blog:

“We used to have a regular big shop at the supermarket, and also pop in frequently pick up ingredients etc to fill out a particular meal.

Now we get our groceries from a small set of local shops do delivery. It’s a rewarding way to do be connected to our changed community. The supermarket is for whatever they don’t carry. Meals are planned around available ingredients. Food waste, which was always a concern, is now a priority… and almost zero. I hope that continues.”

And then just two days later Nat Buckley said this is in her Weeknotes update:

“In the Before getting stuff ordered home was a hassle, and many of those places didn’t deliver in the first place. But now? I’m enjoying this so much more than the boring supermarket fare.”

I think a lot of us are having similar thoughts at the moment. It’s definitely something I’ve been having conversations about. I haven’t set foot in a supermarket since the lockdown began. Instead we’ve been ordering meat boxes from the local butcher, beer and wine from local shops, and, more recently, taking a trip each week up to one of our local pub, which has installed a small fruit and veg stall in it’s outdoor space (they also deliver some stuff).

The burger kit from Jones the Butcher in Herne Hill, South East London

It’s a really interesting phenomenon to watch happen, mainly because supporting local businesses is one of those things you tell yourself you should do a lot more of; only to find yourself hastily grabbing something from a Sainsbury’s Local or a M&S in the train station on your commute home.

I’ve been mulling it over in my head for a coupple of weeks, and then Matt published another post, which said a lot of what I’d been thinking (only with a bit more focus!).

What Matt hones in on in his post is the delivery aspect of this burgeoning infrastructure (what he calls ‘last mile delivery’). He worries that it might get broken by “corporations and startups” who will turn it into a gig economy nightmare.

I really hope that doesn’t happen, and I think that there’s a good chance that it won’t happen here. The reasoning being that those kinds of companies (startups and corporations) feed on the need for convenience, but these new behaviours are not born of convenience, they’re born of necessity (a strange kind of ‘positive necessity’ where we’ve had to adapt to a negative situaton and then found ourselves almost enjoying a portion of the place we’ve arrived at).

Our behaviours have changed, the infrastructure and the economy around us has adapted to meet that change (with small, local businesses able to move far quicker than the big guys), and now we find ourselves eschewing ‘convenience’ for the more long term (and I think ultimately more rewarding) benefits Matt and Nat already talked about.

Those kinds of companies feed on the need for convenience, but these new behaviours are not born of convenience, they’re born of necessity…

Also, delivery was a massive headache when so many of us were out of the house for a huge percentage of the day. Now that factor has been eradicated, and I suspect it’s not going to come back for a long long time (if ever), it means that timeslots and missed deliveries and ‘leave with a neighbour or in a safe space’ options are unnecessary and we’re able to be far more relaxed about the whole delivery scenario.

And, because this is largely hyperlocal services we’re talking about, the scale should be relatively manageable. There’s sno need for fleets of refrigerated vans covering whole cities.

I suspect that a good percentage of local businesses would be able to manage their own delivery services as a long term solution. But I also suspect that the added cost to the consumer of that service would also mean that a large number of people would be priced out and forced back into the arms of Sansbury’s and the like.

I’m not sure what the solution is here, but I know what I would like to see happen. Matt mentions a “new local website” he has used called Dulwich Delivers, and similarly I’ve been following and using Support SE London for months, as well as Little Places (“a directory of little places that are switching up how they operate”).

I am biased here (I founded a relatively local ‘community-authored’ site in Londonist and I worked for the local review site Qype.com for a few years, so part of my heart will always reside in Hyperlocal Community Land), but bearing that in mind… How about one or some of these existing aggregators extend their middle man status, either by taking on the full logistical load of delivery for the businesses they feature; or by enabling sharing of the load across the local businesses, essentally providing an organisational platform so deliveries can be grouped and resources (vehicles, drivers, bags etc) can be shared?

And in return they charge a monthly subscription fee to continue to act as a shop window for your local independent businesses.

Is that naively utopian? Full of logistical holes? Can a local aggregator stay truly local or will greed and growth always prevail until another monster is born? Probably all of that. But I also think that right now we can’t judge anything based on a pre-pandemic baseline.

Everything is up for grabs right now and that’s frightening but also quite exciting.

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