Scifi author and op-ed columnist Orson Scott Card has some prescriptions for making more livable neighborhoods and specifically how grocery stores can rebuild community. Yes, really.
The column isn’t just about grocery stores, but about “walking neighborhoods,” places that are conducive to getting people out and about without their cars, which is one way to build up a sense of community. In my neighborhood of closely packed homes, I don’t know any of my neighbors because whenever they leave their houses, they do so in cars. I never encounter them on the street when we’re out walking. I don’t agree with all his prescriptions, but it’s his thoughts on neighborhood stores that really got me thinking.
Most people drive to the big-box grocery stores because they offer a better selection at a competitive price. Melanie and I do the same thing. We’d love to give all our business to the small local grocery chain store that’s just at the end of our block, but can’t because they don’t stock everything we need or want. So we go to the local place, Crosby’s, for the occasional trip for the basics and trek out to the big chains, Shaw’s and Stop & Shop, for the big stuff.
But now an innovative use of computers and data mining could let the little guys compete and bring back the corner grocery store.
At the moment, grocery stores are doing almost nothing with the data they collect using their frequent shopper cards. They know which stores we shop at and what we buy. But they still don’t use that information to tailor their grocery stores to fit the neighborhood and the shoppers.
Idiotically, they still make decisions about what to stock based on the big numbers, as if they were still doing their figures on paper with quill pens. They could develop just-enough stocking practices that would allow small neighborhood stores to stock only what they actually sell to regular customers, plus a little more of the most popular items for walk-in trade.
They could make special-ordering quick and easy, using the internet, so that customers can get extra quantities for special occasions. The profitable corner grocery is easily within our reach.
In fact, we could have grocery stores every few blocks — competing on quality of tailored service as well as price and selection. Those regular-customer cards could become memberships or subscriptions that bring the privilege of having the things you buy regularly *always* in stock for you.
You can’t always get what you want