Fro-Yo from Soho (or, how to save the world)

First published 11th April 2021

Supermarkets were the future once, back in the 1950s. Imagine just grabbing a basket, wandering around and picking up whatever you liked. Liberation!

Now 70 years on it’s hard to imagine any alternative to supermarket chain hegemony, five or six brands sitting square at the centre of the nation’s kitchen life. But look closely and things are stirring at the fringes. In my south-London neighbourhood indie coffee shops now vi with a new breed of retailer for those prime high-street spots: the zero waste shop. Bring your own containers and pour only what you need.

This year has already seen several ‘dark store’ start-ups — Dija, Getir, Gorillas — launch in London, with the promise of bringing groceries to your door in less time than it takes to run a bath. In Milton Keynes, the Co-op are casually delivering groceries via a fleet of autonomous delivery robots.

One of the quirkier upstarts is Good Club. This online retailer brings you a monthly delivery of household staples (think pasta, loo roll, rice, muesli) sourced exclusively from morally-upstanding suppliers.

The Good Club model, which brazenly cleaves off all the non-perishable, cupboard-dwelling items from your shopping list, hints at the possibility of a rupture, one day, in that cornerstone of grocery shopping — the big weekly shop. And this is where things get interesting. What if Good Club could underwrite one-half of an entirely new model: pantry staples delivered monthly; freeing you up to get your fresh and artisanal produce from….somewhere else.

But where else? The modern, digital-era answer feels like it should be — from wherever the hell you want. But it isn’t that today, is it, because if you did it now you’d have to traipse from butcher to baker yourself. It’s an inconceivable inconvenience. Subship or Weezy, early players in this space, could bring some locally-sourced groceries to your door. But for my money the one to watch here is Deliveroo. If they can marshal an army of 50,000 riders to whisk piping hot wonton soup from a indie restaurant across town straight to my door, in minutes, they could pull the same trick with local groceries.

The key to this would be having one, single weekly delivery. Buy from anywhere; answer the door once. Imagine a world where you pull up an app and assemble your weekly shop from a smorgasbord of the very best London has to offer: freshly ground coffee from an east-London roastery; fancy artichokes and olives from a nearby deli; kombucha, direct from a trendy new D2C brand; plant-based ready meals from a local kitchen; bananas and grapes from a Covent Garden market; sumptuous Fro-Yo from that place you love in Soho. Why can’t the contents of your fridge come from anywhere?

Such an aggregator could start with local, artisanal stores, then extend into up-and-coming D2C brands, and perhaps right down to farms (maybe restaurants would consider getting into wholesaling?). The exciting thing, though, would be entirely new, platform-native shops.

There is an avalanche of innovation potential here. Take fruit. Walk into Tesco and you’ll see the usual spread of bananas and blueberries. Ever wonder whether they were flown in? What the carbon footprint was? Innovation here is a digital greengrocer that tells you the exact mileage each fruit has travelled, so you know what your footprint is. Or better: a store that offers only fruit grown in the U.K., guaranteeing you never eat anything that arrived on a plane. Perhaps a shop that measures your raspberries to the gram, so you never chuck any in the bin.

Ditto for milk. Why can’t I have a dairy store curated by an industry insider, who sells me only milk that has been sourced from the highest-standard, lowest-emission farms? I haven’t the first clue about dairy production, but other people do, and it only takes one or two, with the right outlook and the right platform, to help us all start making better, more ethically-led food choices.

The point is that today any innovation in food production has to pass one enormous hurdle: acceptance by the large supermarket chains. They are the gatekeepers. The power concentrated at this pinch point of grocery merchandising is staggering: hundreds of billions of pounds in the U.K., all in the hands of perhaps a few hundred supermarket buyers. Can they adequately speak for all of us? Is it right that so few people hold the reigns on innovation in our food supply chain, which makes up 20% of the country’s carbon emissions?

A nimble, ‘urban-web’ style supply chain could admit newcomers far, far more easily; and indeed it would be incentivised to do so, because that’s the aggregator’s USP: unrivalled choice, customisation and responsiveness to consumer demands.

In some ways online grocery shopping today is not really that different from the supermarkets of old, of the 1950s, we just stuck them on the internet and added price filters. Are we really at the end point of ‘software eating the world’ in grocery? It doesn’t feel like its even begun yet. An urban aggregator, sitting atop a web of independent merchants, holding the ring on logistics, could enable a thousand, ethically-oriented, food-providing flowers to bloom, helping us, one air-flown mango at a time, to cut down our society’s disastrous dependence on fossil fuels.

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Data scientist, product junkie, one-time founder. London-based. @tgh44

Tomhalloran

Data scientist, product junkie, one-time founder. London-based. @tgh44