Friday, May 26, 2017

Repeating Cycles

Since humans first walked this planet, cycles have connected their pasts, presents, and futures to intrigue and inspire them. All cultures have revered rotations of days, months, and seasons as well as life through death progressions. Those sequences fascinate Homo sapiens enough to make them search for them in odd places. Folks who track history and have internet access report that modern marketers are repeating old traditions.

A decade ago, I edited an uncle’s biography. His story caught my interest when I discovered grocery stores operated very differently than they did during my early adulthood. During his early life, customers delivered lists to a clerk who then moved up and down shelves to fill orders. Choices were limited to what was available. No one wandered aisles searching for an exact combination of cough syrup ingredients or Green Giant approved no-salt green beans.

For those who find themselves obsessively reading labels as they cruise canned good, pharmacy, and baking aisles, my uncle’s example of shopping appears ridiculously simple. There’s no way that would work today when consumers determine whether they want organic vegetables or one of the nine types of flour. Heavens, aspirin selections alone can drive shoppers batty. They have to know whether they prefer enteric or regular, high or low dosage, generic or name brand, or . . . the list goes on. Once they reach the wine aisle, matters go downhill.

In the old days, choices were simple. Flour and sugar came from barrels. The only choice involved ordering a specific quantity, and finances often dictated that. Even after stores sacked such staples, space limited brand preferences for canned fruits and vegetables. Consumers bought what was available since my uncle’s store was the only one around in those horse and buggy days.

The little town I lived in as a newlywed still had its old store with high ceilings and wood plank floors. Over time, the owner updated it to include rows of shelving arranged along narrow aisles so customers could carry a basket and collect their own products. Lack of space limited selection so shopping was simple. At a back counter, a fine butcher cut meat to order. Folks could call in their order or drop off a list if they desired. Though it’s only memory, it remains my favorite market.

Recently, a newscast reported major internet vendors sell groceries online. Shoppers log onto sites, review options, select product, pay electronically, and either pick up their items or have them shipped to home addresses. Apparently, robots can fill orders and drones make deliveries. Despite the Jetson-like cartoon angle, this practice follows my relative’s old grocery store shopping model. You wonder if the brainchild behind this had an uncle who collected orders for old-time mercantile patrons.

Mull the possibilities. Will this innovation simplify consumers’ lives? They order what they want and skip competing choice or will someone devise a companion site to reveal exact ingredients and cheapest sources? Will algorithms unveil exactly what shoppers desire before mathematical functions suggest substitutes? Despite its high-tech twists, this shopping technique strikingly resembles my uncle’s first job in a small town grocery store. 

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