The supermarket after the pandemic

This future might play out in both promising and worrying ways. On the promising side, more online food shopping could encourage companies to better remunerate grocery workers for their skills and persuade Americans to embrace smaller local supermarkets. Internet-grocery fetchers might come to be seen more as the small shopkeepers of the turn of the century, or the community-supported agriculture services that deliver fresh, local goods at small scales today: not menial laborers, but devoted workers with specialized knowledge and experience who help meet families’ specific food needs.

The shift to smaller-scale, more attentive grocery service has already taken place, in part. As superstores got bigger and consolidated more, they cleared room for shops intended for more specific markets. Those include Trader Joe’s and even Whole Foods, before Amazon bought it. Small butcher shops already had been enjoying a renaissance, and quarantine seems to be accelerating that trend. Those shifts are spurred, in part, by increased urban densification, along with the rising popularity of buying nonperishable consumer packaged goods, such as paper towels and crackers, from online services such as Amazon Pantry. If online grocery can supply the basics, that could be a boon for Main Street–style local shopping.

The worrying future is more likely, however. Big-box retailers could tighten their grip even further. Kroger’s and Amazon’s dedicated online-shopping stores are both experimental and temporary, but increased demand might justify such a solution on a larger scale—“dark stores,” a ghost-grocery equivalent of the ghost kitchen, a restaurant established solely for delivery. Ghost groceries could help the largest chains make online delivery run more efficiently, because the stores could be reorganized for order fulfillment rather than browsing. But dark stores would also help companies consolidate their share of the food business while expanding their stake in other sectors.

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