A street fight among grocers to deliver your milk, eggs, bananas

  • moving food
- RACHEL ABRAMS

Jun 25, 2017-

Every couple of days, Sinclair Browne fights through traffic in Times Square, squeezes his delivery truck into a parking spot, walks up four flights of stairs and delivers groceries to a guy whose order he knows by heart.

 “I’m fast,” said Mr. Browne, slicing his hands in the air, ninja style. “In and out, in and out.”

Delivering food requires military precision: Bananas can’t get cold. Produce can’t get warm. Eggs, of course, must not get broken. And people expect their food to arrive at specific times.

Mr. Browne, 40, is a driver for the online grocery business Peapod. He plays the most important role in solving the biggest problem vexing the online grocery industry: moving food, undamaged and unspoiled, from the warehouse to the customer’s house. It’s known as the last-mile problem.

Delivering perishables is much trickier than delivering T-shirts, books or pretty much anything else people can buy online. The biggest challenge is that groceries must stay cold for hours at a time. But there are myriad other complications, too. Bananas and apples give off fumes that can hurt loose leaf lettuce, so they can’t be stored too close..

All the complexity adds costs in an industry where profit margins are already thin. Few businesses have attempted these kinds of gastronomic acrobatics on a large scale, and numerous start-ups have failed trying, making groceries the last frontier of online shopping. Even Amazon, which built a multi-billion-dollar business by perfecting its delivery logistics, hasn’t quite mastered the art of profitably delivering perishable food in big metropolitan areas. But it just made a big bet, purchasing Whole Foods in a $13.4 billion deal that will give it access to more than 400 stores concentrated around major population centers—places that may have walk-up apartments, aggressive taxi drivers and other urban obstacles that Mr. Browne navigates five days a week.

Amazon’s deal sets up a face-off with Walmart, the nation’s largest grocery store. Walmart itself is struggling to become as dominant in the virtual world as it is in the physical one.

Jennifer Carr-Smith, Peapod’s chief executive, says she hopes Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods will ultimately encourage more people to shop for groceries online, where about 10 percent of all shopping in the United States happens now. The numbers for food are less than half that, according to data from FMI-Nielsen.

As the competition heats up, Amazon and others will be relying on drivers like Mr. Browne, who makes $13 an hour, plus tips, to handle the biggest challenges of succeeding in the online grocery business.

 Every second counts. Grocery delivery companies like Peapod have to calculate exactly how long each individual order will take, and monitor traffic patterns and car accidents for any disruptions. Mr. Browne gets alerts on his phone; on Sunday, he’ll have to avoid crossing Fifth Avenue, because of the Pride parade.

Today, some of his orders are allotted 10 minutes, others 12. Urban areas tend to take longer per stop: 12 to 20 minutes on average, compared with eight to 14 minutes in the suburbs, where Mr. Browne can pull right up to people’s homes.

For all 20 of his orders on this day, Peapod has allotted nine hours and 20 minutes. Mr. Browne thinks he can do them all in eight.

His truck was loaded at Peapod’s warehouse in Jersey City, a massive 400,000-square-foot facility that services New York and New Jersey. About 425 people bustle in and out of the meat room, the produce room, a rotisserie room filled with dozens of rotating chickens. Workers wearing thick freezer suits retrieve frozen foods from the coldest room, loading items into bright green temperature-controlled bins that workers refer to as “totes.” That’s why, despite the vastness of the industrial automation here—there are about 7 miles of conveyor belts in Peapod’s warehouse—people like Amal Afifi are important. As she loads the totes, Ms. Afifi personally inspects some of the 14 million bananas Peapod sells each year.

Her guidelines are relatively simple: Trust your gut. Literally.

 “I shop for customers like I shop for myself,” Ms. Afifi said, pointing to a box of unappetizing-looking, reject bananas. 

—©2017 The New York Times

Published: 25-06-2017 10:19

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