Sunday, June 6, 2010

Shopping Information vs. the Supermarket

Yesterday I looked into the reasons why the financial supermarket concept failed, and why the world is moving away from that model now. Some of the same reasons explain the recent decline in the supermarket — and suggest that this decline could accelerate in the years to come.

The appeal of the supermarket used to be that a shopper would know a single place to get most routine purchases. But supermarkets have become so large, and categories so blurred, that merely knowing that something is in the supermarket no longer means you know where it is. And the supermarkets that haven’t grown large are missing lots of familiar everyday products.

Plenty of people still very much enjoy supermarket shopping. But it has come to rub many shoppers the wrong way. The shopping carts are too large, and the half-mile stroll around the aisles can end in frustration, when it turns out the store no longer sells a product that shoppers used to take for granted — yeast, perhaps, or frozen yogurt, or oatmeal cookies, or shaving cream that isn’t gooey.

This leads to the question, “Where do you find that product?” That is the scariest question consumers can be asking, from the supermarkets’ point of view, because when they get the answers, there isn’t much need for the supermarket any more.

Think about this way: you could drive all over town in the time it takes to walk around a modern supermarket with a shopping cart. The only thing that stops you is that you don’t know exactly where to go. But what it to stop the Internet, in another couple of years, from providing that information?

Imagine a mobile phone application that finds all the products you want to buy, then maps out your shopping trip and talks you through the whole process. To the consumer, this isn’t so different from the old experience of going around the supermarket, but to the supermarket, it changes everything. Supermarkets make their money from impulse purchases, and from the heavy foot traffic that leads to those purchases. Consumers who can find exactly what they want don’t make so many impulse purchases — and they especially won’t be making them at the supermarket.