The supermarket must die. App-fueled services can reinvent it

There is no greater temple to our industrialised food system than the American [or any other] supermarket. With its bins of megafarmed produce, attention-seeking boxes of processed foods, and generous, if anonymous, cuts of meat, it is a place of comforting predictability and one-stop convenience.

And like the American waistline, it’s also huge.

A typical supermarket is 4200m2 and carries some 42 000 products. Problem is, it’s a terrible way to get food.

Such scale demands a vast supply chain, with goods transported to multiple distribution centres before they arrive at stores. This comes with costs, most notably in food loss.

A 2014 report found that 19-billion kg of retail food didn’t make it to consumers, for reasons like mould, inadequate climate control, and other factors the industry calls shrinkage.

All this is damaging to the environment and, because it encourages mass production, gives us worse food (in terms of both taste and nutrition).

Ripe for disruption and reinvention

The supermarket was once a modern marvel, but, as they say, that register is closed: the $638-billion industry is ripe for reinvention.

Thanks to the smartphone-addicted consumer, GPS, apps, and the Internet, a new breed of startup is building systems that make it easier for producers to know just how much to produce, for shoppers to order just what they want, and for food to get from one to the other faster and with fewer stops in between.

They range from offerings like Instacart, which gets us partway there by providing a digital portal into existing stores, to more advanced services, like Farmigo, that show the potential to eliminate physical stores entirely.

All emphasise convenience. Many promote transparency, responsible practices, and shorter supply chains.

The upside: higher-quality food, easier-than-pie delivery, a wider range of growers, and reduced waste and carbon emissions.

The downside: For now it tends to be expensive, and the market will need to grow before these services can break out of elite cities.

But the future they promise — the end of the strip mall monolith and better and smarter food, to boot — is hard to resist.

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