I knew it was going to be a great day when I opened up my Twitter feed morning and immediately saw a CNN story about a woman who was arrested for licking $1,800 worth of merchandise at a Safeway store in California. She was purportedly licking jewelry, not food, but there have been multiple other instances of people coughing on and contaminating aisles of food in grocery stores around the country. These stories are heightening our already heightened fears around grocery shopping — and the risk it poses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Those are just stories of people who are contaminating food on purpose. Goods in supermarkets are handled not just by employees but also by perhaps dozens of other shoppers before they make it to your grocery cart. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing a spike in online grocery delivery sales as well as curbside pickup — contactless delivery programs cut down on the literal touchpoints before food even reaches your home, hopefully lessening the risk of contamination.
All this contamination-mania makes me think that COVID-19 will not only transform how we shop for groceries, but also where we shop for them.
One avenue that could see growth as people take steps to avoid contamination is smaller, more specialized online grocers. These operations, which focus on a more selective array of products, are already seeing a spike in demand. Services like bean marketplace Rancho Gordo and online flour purveyor Maine Grains are selling out or having to delay shipments due to sudden increases in shoppers. Localized grocery delivery services, like Farmstead and SPUD.ca, are also extending delivery hours, waitlisting customers and hiring new staff to try and keep up with the new demand.
Peter van Stolk, CEO of SPUD.ca, told me that one reason these smaller operations are seeing such an increase in demand is that they can “feel safer” than the big box stores.
The key word is “feel.” He noted that, regardless, “the supply chain is the supply chain” — if you buy a box of Annie’s Mac & Cheese from Amazon Fresh or a local e-commerce site, both had to go through the same number of steps (warehouse, distribution center, etc.) to get to the retailer.
SPUD.ca goes to great lengths to ensure the safety of their warehouses — locked doors, gloves and masks, etc. — but Amazon has the same safety measures in place. So if you’re buying foods from established brands, they’ll likely have gone through quite a few (hopefully gloved) hands to reach you, regardless of which store you purchase from.
One thing you can control is whether you purchase from e-commerce services that ship directly from warehouses or from grocery stores. Instacart, for example, uses Shoppers to pick up your groceries from a physical store, meaning all the goods they’re getting are open to contamination from regular old shoppers. Walmart operates in a similar manner, for both delivery and curbside pickup. Services like Amazon Fresh (and Whole Foods), Farmstead, or SPUD.ca, however, fulfill your online orders directly from their warehouses, where all the handlers have to adhere to safety protocol.
Fear over grocery contamination could be one reason that we’re seeing an increase in sales is Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). Food purchased through CSAs often go through significantly fewer hands than food purchase from large grocery chains, which typically travel through warehouses, distribution trucks and more before ending up on your doorstep. The number of touchpoints varies farmer to farmer, but Simon Huntley, CEO of online farm share platform Harvie, told me over the phone that “people have this perception that if they buy from a local farm or retailer there are less hands on their food.”
There are other benefits to buying food sourced nearby, specifically when it comes to produce. Executive Director of ReFed Dana Gunders also noted via email that “another upside to buying local or from a CSA is that the product is typically fresher, so can last longer (thus accommodates less frequent shopping).”
Obviously, even smaller, more localized e-commerce stores are not guaranteed to be COVID-free. As Huntley admitted: “I don’t know if we can prove that it is safe to buy from a local retailer.” They’re also often more expensive, so they won’t be a feasible retail channel for all budgets. And since many of the stores are more specialized or feature a smaller range of products, you’ll still have to turn to your local grocery store (or e-commerce store, or bodega) to get some essentials, like trash bags and hand soap.
But in a time when we’re trying to be as cautious as possible and also support local businesses, trust is more important than ever. With that in mind, COVID-19 could set up smaller, specialized grocery delivery services for a boom — one that could linger even after the pandemic passes.