How Long will Grocery Shopping Remain Safe?

Grocery shopper in an aisle
Check those prices; they've probably gone up.

We used curbside pickup during the height of the early COVID panic, and I have used it since at Walmart. My wife prefers shopping in person because she doesn’t like someone else picking out her produce and meats. Some substitutions they make are also annoying. For example, almonds are not a good substitute for pine nuts. (Another brand or size would have been a more acceptable substitute.)

While we are using curbside pickup less and less, our local grocery store is pushing it harder and harder. The question is, why?

I expect the answer is crime. It’s hard to shoplift if you don’t go into the store. People can’t “forget” to scan something in the self-checkout line if they place their order online and its delivered to their car door. You can’t have a flash mob swarm the store if they lock doors.

I think the secondary reason is optics. It’s to prevent people from seeing how few eggs are left on the shelf or how empty the meat aisle looks. If you can’t see the lack of noodles on the aisle, you won’t know to stock up on them before it’s too late. If you aren’t standing in front of an empty shelf, you can’t post a photo of it on social media and create panic buying.

In other words, it’s all about control.

Locked Out

There are liquor stores and convenience stores in bad neighborhoods where you have to get buzzed into the store. Once inside, a Plexiglas screen separates you from the goods. The clerk is like a bank teller. He picks out your order and rings it up. You slide your money into the slot, and he pushed your cigarettes or liquor back out, along with any change.

There is already talk that drugstores in cities like Portland and San Francisco are going to move to that model because of high levels of organized retail theft caused in part by lax laws.

Curbside pickup is just another version of that controlled shopping experience, but dressed up to make it seem like it’s for your convenience. I’ve heard a rumor that Walmart has contingency plans for the day when they do not let customers in their stores.

The Walmart of the Future

Yesterday, I mentioned a store that locals refer to as “the shooting Walmart.” Not only does this location not carry guns and ammo, they don’t sell sharp knives in the kitchen section. How long before that location goes to curbside pickup only?

This is how I imagine it might work.

You pull up to the security shack at the Walmart parking lot and hold your phone up to the car window. An armed guard scans the UPC code on your phone. Your order is ready, so he tells you what parking spot to go to and hits a button. The gate opens and you drive in. If your order wasn’t ready, you’d have had to turn around.

You drive to your assigned spot and notice that they spread out all the waiting cars so no one is right next to each other. This is to give security, you, and the delivery staff room to see what is going on in and around each car.

After a couple minutes, a Walmart employee rolls a hard-shell cart out to your vehicle. You pop your trunk or hatchback, but they won’t unload until you show them your barcode. Only after the employee scans your phone does the hardtop case open so they can access your groceries. “You’re all set,” he calls as he closes your trunk. “Get home safe.”

You call out “thanks,” and give him a wave, knowing he is right. The most dangerous part of your trip still lies ahead. Hijackers and follow-home robbers might target you to steal your groceries. Still, you prefer the idea of curbside pickup over home delivery. You read an article just the other day about a woman who opened her door for a delivery driver and three men with guns rushed inside.

The Trends Look Ugly

I just made that scenario up, of course, but look at the rising rate of organized retail crime, the soaring murder rate, and the lower number of police officers. Then and ask yourself, how many years of those trends continuing might it take before this becomes a common shopping experience in big cities? We are already seeing things we could never have imagined or predicted back in 2019.

Walled, gated developments are common in California. We traditionally see walled private compounds in the Middle East or in developing countries; now they are making their way to the U.S. I wonder how long it will be before we see houses again being built with courtyards where kids can play “outside” yet be isolated and protection from the outside world?

In Venezuela and other South American countries, armored cars with bullet-resistant glass and armed drivers are a common sight. Will you need an armed guard one day, or will you and your spouse have to back each other up? One can drive and the other can ride shotgun. Preferably with a semiautomatic shotgun that holds at least 8 rounds.

Are you prepared for that?