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Going for Groceries


First World Rural

May 10 · Issue #8 · View online

First World (Rural) Problems - Bringing the 21st century past city limits.

We’re almost out of coffee… but I have no idea who is going to go buy more, or when it will happen.

A true First World Problem...
A true First World Problem...
Living out in the country is kind of like taking a lot of week-long trips to a beautiful place with all the comforts of home, except that you are home the whole time. When you pack for a week at a cabin, you buy a bunch of perishable food, and you may stock up on flour, baking soda, rice, or oatmeal because the last time you were there you used it all up. You pack all those groceries away, then unpack them into your cabin and hope you didn’t forget anything.
Living on our acreage isn’t quite that extreme, since there are trips being made to the city on an irregular schedule, so it’s usually not an emergency situation like almost being out of coffee. But sometimes work schedules, kids coming home to visit, and other scheduling quirks lead to situations like today. We are getting low on water, so it’s possible that someone will take the truck to the city to get groceries, and then pick up a load of water on the way back. It’s also possible that someone will take another vehicle to the city for some other reason, which would entail a trip to the grocery store as part of the trip. A single-purpose mission just for groceries almost never happens.
Late Night Water Run
Late Night Water Run
We used to go for groceries with four kids in the cart. Now when I see harried moms or dads with kids running around asking for candy, I smile and remember. But most of those times were when we lived in the city, either in Oceanside, California, or in northeast Edmonton. There were 6 or 7 grocery options within a ten minute drive of our house in either location. We could choose which loyalty program we subscribed to (Safeway at the time), or we could get bulk purchases at Costco, which was where we usually ended up with 6 mouths to feed. Grocery trips could happen on any day, given an hour or so, and we could forget something and run out and return in under 30 minutes. I had a habit of buying herbal tea and a Safeway spice cake and hiding it in the top of the fridge where the kids couldn’t see it, just so I’d have a snack available when Deb worked a night shift.
Now that we live here, the choices for groceries are more limited. There is a local grocery store in Onoway, where we go to church and where the kids went to school. It has sales, and there is a decent selection of junk food, but it is not cost effective for bulk purchases compared to the Big Box stores. Our usual solution depends on Deb’s schedule - if she works a night shift, she can go early and shop anywhere, as long as food is okay in a car overnight. That doesn’t work for ice cream in the summer, or anything fresh in the winter where the car can get down to -20 degrees. In the morning when she gets off her shift, she is tired, and Costco isn’t open yet, so she usually just gets home, but occasionally goes to the Walmart across the street from the hospital and picks up whatever we have a critical shortage of.
When Deb works a day shift, she has the option of going to Walmart or Costco or both after work, but again, she has been on her feet all day and is often exhausted. When I worked in an office downtown, I enjoyed going to Costco on the way home and interacting with the real world for a few minutes, picking up the things I knew we needed. But I wasn’t physically tired the way a nurse is after 12 hours.
Given my job here in my home office, I actually rarely get to the city now. I’m often ready to go to the city for a restaurant meal while my wife dreads the idea of driving back the same way she just came, seeing people when she is tired of dealing with stressed patients and their families all day. So our date nights become negotiations, and often happen on her days off, which means date nights are trips into town, with all the ‘todos’ associated with that opportunity. Our dates usually include a stop at Costco, and often stops at hardware stores, auto repair shops, and drugstores. It just has to be done, since time and opportunity in the city is rare.
That leads to another date night issue - a romantic evening at a nice restaurant or a movie, followed by a trip to the gas station, a drive of nearly an hour, then unpacking all of the food in the back of the vehicle- it sort of breaks up whatever mood we had developed on our date. But that’s another story.
It looks like I'll get coffee today!
It looks like I'll get coffee today!
My use of AWS as my cloud server provider led to my trying out Amazon Prime, which has been a good deal for me and an excellent source of income for Amazon. The main driver for a Prime membership is usually 2-day delivery. That’s a great idea in theory, but as I’ve discussed previously it doesn’t happen in practice out in the country. The package may make it to Onoway in 2 days, but then I get a notice in my mailbox the next day (3 days) and then I have to pick up my mail from the mailbox, which is several miles southeast of my house, so that only happens when someone is going that way (for water, or Deb coming home from work with enough energy to remember to pick up the mail). Then someone has to make another trip, southwest to Onoway, during business hours, to pick up the package that has been waiting, sometimes for a week.
Grocery delivery through Amazon is just not going to happen. And if Amazon, who has invested so much into its delivery infrastructure, isn’t going to make it work out here, what option do we have?
The Canadian prairies in the early 20th century were a land of opportunity for the pioneers who settled the open plains and started farming. They recognized that they had to work together in order to efficiently market their goods, negotiate for financing and insurance, and even bring necessities of life out to their small towns. Saskatchewan is known as the home of the co-operative movement in Canada since so many co-ops were formed there.
I grew up in Saskatoon, and the logic of consumers banding together to create a market made sense to me. Saskatchewan is a relatively small province in population, with a lot of geographic area, so the market isn’t necessarily attractive for private companies. Co-ops aren’t formed based on the profit motive, so they are able to serve markets that shareholder-driven corporations choose not to.
The 21st century has seen the reduction of friction in a lot of the economy due to the internet. Given a high enough population density, the real world problems of inexpensive delivery of consumables are mostly solved. The problem comes when the population density drops, leaving an underserved market that is not worth chasing for investors or venture capitalists.
However, the analyst and blogger Ben Thompson has identified a fundamental change in the economy that encourages the growth of the Google/Amazon/Facebook/Netflix giants. In his analysis, the ease of distribution in a digital world has shifted the power away from the retailers and the distributors, towards the ‘aggregators’ who control the demand for things. It doesn’t matter to most people where stuff comes from, especially when it is hand-delivered within a few hours to your house, your car or your workplace. Once demand comes from one place (like Amazon for retail or Google for search or Facebook for news), the retailers or distributors or even the ultimate producers all have to line up and arrange for the to supply the good on the aggregator’s terms. So journalism is being turned into Facebook News Feed content, websites are optimized (using SEO techniques) to meet Google’s specifications so that they end up on the first page of search, and retail goods are sold on Amazon’s website, stored in Amazon’s warehouses and delivered using Amazon’s infrastructure because the shoppers are on Amazon’s site.
Given this ‘Aggregation Theory,’ and given the First World Problems of getting groceries to my acreage, there is a market opportunity. Amazon (with or without Whole Foods) is not going to focus on my area, since it is not worth the investment for them. Conventional grocery stores are moving toward destination shopping, with cafes, and locally sourced food, and cooking classes. That will not get coffee delivered to my front door on demand. However, if a group of rural people join together to create a market and solve the problem not to get a return on investment, but to solve the problem for ourselves, we could create a replicable solution that could grow and improve lives everywhere outside of the preferred delivery area of the internet giants.
Grocery delivery is the apex goal of my Rural Co-op initiative. Once we have that problem solved, we will have enough infrastructure, enough co-op member knowledge, and enough investment that we can investigate and solve adjacent issues, all in the service of bringing the convenience of the 21st century to the country.
So here’s how it would go:
  • Rural residents join a Co-op, and are given a Co-op number.
  • Deliveries can be made to the Co-op, and the Co-op can receive packages in a central location and deliver them to member homes. Online shopping can then flow to the Co-op and from there via delivery directly to people’s homes.
  • The Co-op can start buying non-perishable items and storing them centrally, delivering them along with the parcels to member homes as needed. An app can be developed that organizes member’s regular delivery of consumables.
  • The Co-op can hire people to assemble groceries and other purchases in the city for multiple members, drive a truckload full of member deliveries to the central location, and then optimize the delivery of the groceries and other goods to member homes. The app can now serve as a front-end for grocery delivery, or as a gateway to other retailers who offer pickup services (except that the persons picking up the orders will be Co-op employees working for members who don’t have to leave home).
  • Eventually, the Co-op becomes a full-service grocery store and a warehouse with cold storage so that groceries and packages can be picked up from the central location (just like the Co-op grocery stores that currently exist), but with enough of a connection with the Co-op members that members’ regular grocery purchases are made through the app, and are delivered on a known schedule directly to the member’s home.
The cost savings comes from reducing the number of trips to and from the city (one truck instead of multiple members and their private vehicles). The convenience provides the incentive to join the Co-op. The data generated internally means that the Co-op can buy in bulk on a predictable schedule and offer savings comparable to current Big Box retailer prices, but with home delivery included for much less than the cost of a tank of gas.
This vision can then be replicated wherever there is relatively cheap real estate (for a central warehouse) and enough labour available to supply some shoppers, some delivery drivers, and some warehouse staff. The Co-op model could grow across rural Canada and the United States, and since it would be owned by its members, it could become an organizing model for rural residents anywhere in the world where there are smartphones (which is everywhere). It would likely not return a lot of money to investors, since physical delivery across miles of rural roads is not profitable (or it would have been done already). However, it would be worth doing for the consumers, and if we as consumers could aggregate our demand into a large enough pool, we could encourage providers to work according to our preferences in order for them to get a piece of the pie we are offering.
I’m laying out this vision because I’d love to see it happen. I know all the parts of it are doable. I know how to do some of it, but obviously not all of it. If you are a frustrated rural consumer, let me know by replying to this email. If you are intrigued by this opportunity, reply and let me know how you’d like to help. The best thing that could happen would be for you to share this vision, either by sharing these emails with your neighbours and friends, or by posting something on social media that invites people to start aggregating demand, or just talking with people and mentioning these concepts. Eventually I’d love to aggregate 😉 all of these conversations somewhere, but for now, we need to start the conversations.
Here’s hoping I’ll have coffee before next week! Talk to you then!
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David Block RR 1 Site 1 Comp 271, Onoway, Alberta, Canada T0E 1V0