So far in this blog, we have written about grocery delivery services and drive through grocery stores. Today, we have a third option: Shopping for groceries at the local public library. The story comes from Baltimore (Check It Out: Get Your Groceries At The Library, Apr 26, NPR). Here’s the basics of how it works:
Under a new city program, patrons can order groceries online and pay with cash, credit or food stamps. The orders are filled by Santoni’s supermarket, a longtime Baltimore grocer. They deliver the items to the library the next day.
The program is currently running on a trial basis supported by some federal stimulus dollars. It still small with dozens — not hundreds — of participants. Why is the city getting involved in this? To try to address a long-standing problem of limited access to supermarkets in some urban neighborhoods.
The Virtual Supermarket Project is part of a city push to make healthy food more accessible in communities where major supermarkets are scarce. Baltimore’s health department launched it last month at two of the city’s public library branches. They’re located on opposite ends of town: one neighborhood is mostly African-American and working-class, the other racially and economically mixed.
These areas lack large, competitively priced supermarkets within walking distance — sometimes called “food deserts.” Both communities have plenty of fast-food and corner stores, but many tend to offer less healthy fare.
“In Baltimore, where we’re working at with the libraries, you see that the mortality burden from diet-related causes like diabetes, stroke and heart disease are among the highest in the city,” says Ryan Petteway, a city epidemiologist. Petteway and other health department staffers spend a few hours each week helping patrons order their groceries online
This arguably an admirable social aim. The article highlights that the current clientèle of the program includes single mothers and retirees without cars. For such customers, this service could be a real godsend, a way to get food and other necessities at competitive prices.
The question is whether this makes sense operationally and whether it could fly without some sort of governmental involvement. My guess is yes on the first question and maybe not on the second. Operationally, this program addresses one of the real challenges of grocery delivery: The last mile part of actually delivering the groceries. (The other real challenge is how much to invest in optimizing the assembly of orders.) By having all orders delivered to one site in (presumably) a tight time window, the actual per order cost of delivery is kept quite low. Even if a truck and personnel are tied up for an hour or two in bringing the goods out to the library, the cost should be reasonable if they are delivering, say, 20 or 30 orders.
Now for government involvement. What makes this work is that there is a central place to go that has Internet access to place the orders. Even if it were the case that everyone in the neighborhood had access at home, you would still likely need to centralize order taking in order to process payment. Many of these customers may not have credit cards or need to pay for groceries using some sort of governmental assistance. It is doubtful that a delivery program like this could support the overhead of a dedicated order-taking facility. Hence, libraries or community centers of some sort are an attractive solution. So some sort of governmental or non-profit support is needed to facilitate the order taking. I am not sure, however, that ongoing assistance beyond that is really needed. Put another way, I think that a program like this could reach a scale where the grocery chain could afford to have its own people helping out a few hours a week taking orders as opposed to relying on city employees.