Amazon Gah!

Like most people who work in publishing, I am not an Amazon fan.

I understand the lure of inexpensive books. But that low cost comes at a high price. Amazon sells books close to or below cost in order to attract buyers, collect data on them—the real prize—and then sell them everything else. Publishers get squeezed and independent bookstores struggle as Amazon continues its path toward world domination.

And now it will open grocery stores. Apoplectic describes me best right now.

No lines, no cashiers…and no jobs

The big selling point of Amazon Go? No waiting at the checkout. The stores will have no cashiers. You just download the Amazon Go app onto your phone, check in to the store through a subway station-esque turn style, cruise the aisles, place your items into your bag and walk out. The app can detect what you’ve removed from the shelves and it charges your Amazon account accordingly.

Although Amazon hasn’t revealed which food companies it will work with, judging from the video, the store looks an awful lot like a convenience store filled with processed food and food-to-go, all overpackaged in plastic containers. Without staff to weigh or measure out products—human beings that shoppers would actually have to interact with!—everything would need to be premeasured, prepackaged and prepriced. The store will also carry obscenely overpackaged meal kits, with each ingredient measured out and wrapped separately, for those who want to assemble their meals themselves, kind of like edible LEGO for grownups that leaves behind piles of trash.

There appears to be one employee in the video—the guy making the sandwiches. This new grocery store model has created at least one job.

If Trump wants to blame a region for decimating American jobs, he should look to Silicon Valley (and in this case, Seattle), not China.

Margaret Atwood novels serve as warnings, not business plans

This store looks to me like the setting for a scene from a dystopian novel. Only the few, the young, the hip and the tech-savvy have survived some kind of unnamed apocalypse. Too busy to feed themselves, they shop for food-like substances and meal replacements in sterile stores devoid of (typically) low-wage workers. Those undesirables have been banished to live by their wits outside the highly desired and heavily guarded compound, with its manicured grounds and enhanced life-support systems of purified air and water.

Amazon Go will target techie types—people too busy working at startups to take time to eat. The first store opens in Seattle early in 2017 but would do well here in Silicon Valley. Tech workers unfortunate enough to toil at startups that lack free food would flock to an Amazon Go. Food is just an inconvenient and undesirable reality of life, like death and taxes. Elon Musk wishes he didn’t have to waste time eating, for example. Tech workers can’t be expected to wait in a line. They have apps to develop!

But truly, Amazon could offer many more conveniences other than merely its “Just Walk Out Technology.”

For those too busy to stand in line but in need of calories, Amazon Go stores could install Soylent dispensers outside the store. (A group of San Francisco engineers concocted Soylent, a powdered meal replacement, and adopted the company name—without irony—from the 1973 sci-fi movie Soylent Green.)

No need to enter the store! Just direct your self-driving car to drop you off at the curb, rustle up to the dispenser, wrap your lips around the nozzle which, detecting your 98.6 degree temperature and analyzing your saliva as human, shoots a serving of Soylent into your mouth and charges your Amazon account $4.99 (for a limited time, get 20 percent off a second helping!). The plastic nozzle drops off into the trash and a new one appears to prevent the spread of cooties. You get back to the office and the job you still hold—at least until it’s automated.

You know what else has long lines? Toilets. Adult diapers could solve that productivity problem and Amazon Go should feature large displays of these. People working 12-hour days generally consume vats of caffeine to sustain them, which sends them to the bathroom several times every single day. Four trips can easily add up to a half hour wasted for a bro, not including time spent waiting in line, where someone might brazenly attempt to strike up a conversation. Women of course, waste even more time in the bathroom, but then again, tech companies, with their gender gap, have few lines outside the women’s room.

A Utopian grocery store

Amazon Go depresses me. To cheer myself up, I started to think about what my dream grocery store would look like. Note the word dream. I would need to be independently wealthy to pull this off.

A LEED Platinum building

I will opt for a straw-bale building for my store, with passive heating and cooling, a gray water system, a green roof outfitted with beehives, and an interior fashioned from reclaimed materials. The floors, shelves and checkout stands (yes my store would hire real, live, human cashiers) would be crafted from the wood of old barns. Solar and wind will power the store. LED lights will light it up.

I’ll have many bike racks out front of the store. Around 20 percent of the porous interlocking brick parking lot will be dedicated to carpooling and electric cars. You can park your bike for free but I’ll charge all cars a nominal fee to park. I’ll have a real, live parking attendant to manage the lot and fees. Parking fees will help cover that employee’s wages.

The workers

As I’ve mentioned, my store would require employees to run it. The store will be worker owned, with everyone not only earning a living wage but also owning a piece of the business (after they have worked for a certain period of time and proven themselves an asset to the company). I’d also hire and train at-risk youth. They’ll learn about baking, cooking, marketing or the basics of running a small business. Not everyone in this world will get a degree in computer science (or wants one).

Packaging or lack thereof

The store won’t carry processed or frozen food. It will not feature that middle section in pretty much every grocery store in America (that includes you Whole Foods)—the one with all the dead, overpackaged and unhealthy products that resemble food.

Forgot your jars and cloth bags for produce and bulk bins? I won’t have disposable ones in the store. For a deposit, you can use the store’s jars and reusable cloth produce and bulk bags. Return them for cash. There, I just created another job for someone as dish washer, launderer, and bag sewer and mender.

Produce

I buy almost all my produce at the farmer’s market. You can’t beat the flavor and you support the farmers directly. In my parking lot one morning a week, I’ll rent out stalls to farmers for a small farmer’s market. I’ll also do some of the store’s produce buying that day.

Inside the store, I’ll sell more fruits and vegetables than anything else. Like all the food in the store, the produce will be organic and as local as possible.

Bulk heaven

For staples, I’ll have bulk bins, inspired by my favorite store, Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. Some of what I’ll sell in bulk:

Dry goods
  • Beans and legumes of all kinds. Pinto beans, black beans, navy beans, mung beans, Borlotti beans, butter beans, lentils, mung dal.
  • Rice and grains of all kinds. Basmati white or brown, wild rice, sushi rice, farro, various kinds of wheat berries, oats, steel-cut oats.
  • Pasta in different shapes and varieties. Semolina, corn, gluten-free, whole wheat, with eggs, without eggs.
  • Nuts and seeds of all kinds, for munching on (cashews, tamari almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds), for baking and for cooking (pecans, walnuts, hemp seeds). I’ll also have a nut grinder nearby for making fresh nut butters.
  • Flours like whole wheat, bread, rice, gluten-free, rye, buckwheat, teff, coconut flour, you name it.
  • Sugars like brown, coconut, sucanat, maple, granulated.
  • Baking goodies like sugar of all kinds, shredded and flaked coconut, dry yeast, chocolate chips, wafers and cubes in different sizes (I refuse to give up chocolate), even cacao nibs.
  • Tea and coffee. Earl Grey, puerh, oolong, green, herbal varieties. I’ll have a coffee grinder on the premises.
  • Spices and herbs of all kinds.
  • Salts, baking soda, nutritional yeast, dried bullion, seaweed…you get the picture.
With my daughter MK in just one section of bulk heaven, Rainbow Grocery
Wet goods
  • Olive oil in several varieties
  • Vinegar in several varieties
  • Homemade hummus
  • Homemade pesto
  • Homemade tofu
  • Molasses
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Homemade miso paste (I need to figure out how to make this…)
  • Homemade dill pickles
  • Homemade sauerkraut and kimchi
Wine and kombucha on tap

I’ll have a few varieties to choose from. Bring in your bottle to refill or pay a deposit for one.

Dairy and eggs

I’ll carry eggs, dairy and cheese—all pastured—but no meat or fish.

A bakery and café

To prevent food waste, the menu will change depending on what produce we need to use up. Most grocery stores toss piles of food. Mine won’t. Since I don’t actually have to produce an income statement for this post, I’ll make this bakery and café pay-what-you-feel. At the end of the day, any leftover food will go to a food bank or shelter.

We’ll serve our food and drinks on real plates, with real cutlery, real glasses and mugs and cloth napkins. If you would like your food to go and forgot your reusable mug or container, you can pay a deposit to take one home from the store.

Classes and events

I love teaching people how to cook. It’s such an important skill. My store would offer classes like knife skills, fermentation (sauerkraut, kimchi, dill pickles, kombucha, ginger beer), sourdough bread baking and vegetarian and zero-waste cooking. I’d also host guest speakers and would charge pay-what-you-feel admission. I wonder what Michael Pollan’s schedule looks like 😉

Efficiency can’t be our only metric

I imagine I would be laughed out of a VC’s office if I pitched this shop. My grocery store will cost a fortune to build. Zero-waste shopping, while growing in popularity, has yet to go mainstream. I haven’t presented the most efficient grocery store model. But when you come down to it, being alive isn’t very efficient. Let’s have some humanity in our businesses too.

38 Comment

  1. I love the sound of your supermarket!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Sarah! ~ Anne Marie

  2. This sounds amazing, I want to work here…

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hee hee. Thanks!

  3. I agree! Your supermarket sounds wonderful!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you 🙂

  4. It sounds perfect and lovely. I love your solution to forgetting reusables–a deposit! It gets around that issue of forgetting in a way that is sustainable for the business but doesn’t hurt the customer in the long run (if they choose to return!). I would probably hang out at your store just for fun (and of course do all my shopping there). Maybe next door someone can have a shop for reusables and other non-food goods? And next to that is a fantastic thrift store? I dream of a thrift store that looks like a “regular” store, with everything organized and displayed nicely. And near this block of stores, there would be a park and a dog park. And a library of books and of things. Maybe a recycling station for paper and glass too. I’m getting carried away!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I love it!!! This would be a vibrant, wonderful neighborhood to live in. Let’s add a repair cafe and a senior residence, where students can live for free in exchange for helping out the residents. I read about a place like that in Holland–it’s been a big success for both the seniors and the students 🙂

      1. Yes! Those are great additions.

  5. Love this post! Thanks for the horrifying information, and for several laughs for the day.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Michelle 🙂

  6. Wow, this is crazy, I like yours much better!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Christina 🙂

  7. Oh, and you could have a delivery/buying service for those who can’t go to the store themselves. I’m a new mother and that would be so helpful. Customers could drop off their own containers labeled with which food to put in which container, and specifying how much to fill (labeled with a wax pencil or washable crayon!). More jobs created!
    And while I’m still dreaming, a gluten free, dairy free bakery and cafe. My celiac, lactose intolerant husband would be so happy to eat at a completely safe restaurant.
    I have so many other ideas for this community and shopping center (art gallery, music venue, tailor, cobbler…) but I’ll go write about it in my journal. 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I love all these ideas! I want to move to this neighborhood! My mom is at the point where she needs a delivery service and I remember being a new mom–you need a lot of help! If we thought more about helping people, we’d create tons of jobs!

      1. Helping people really should be the goal of most jobs.
        Oh, and we forgot the compost station!

      2. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        Oh right! Have to have compost too 🙂

  8. I have discovered, to much horror, that many of my fellow cooking instructors get those meal kits, because they are so busy teaching others how to cook, they don’t have time to do it for their families every night. I know, right? Hey, my family might not get the best meals on the nights I teach, but I do make sure they have something. I am convinced that “Oryx and Crake” is slowly (or not so slowly) becoming our reality….

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hahaha! I think some scientists and/or businesspeople read Orxy and Crake and rather than finding it horrifying, thought Atwood has some great ideas in there for them to try out. The NIH recently lifted its ban on research into part-human, part-animal embryos, for example. Researchers are starting with human-pig combos. What could possibly go wrong? :/
      http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/08/04/488387729/nih-plans-to-lift-ban-on-research-funds-for-part-human-part-animal-embryos

  9. I love your Utopian grocery store!! I can’t believe those Amazon Go stores would really work – how many times have you used those express checkouts and you still need to call an assistant as there is an “unexpected item in bagging area!”

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you 🙂 There will be so many glitches at Amazon Go stores! Plus, my boss said hacker types will figure out how to get free food :p You’re right about the self-checkouts, they have lots of problems. And I think some people just avoid them because of that.

  10. “….It’s PEOPLE” …. man, thought I was the only one remembering that movie! Can’t believe they’d really name a product that
    Anyhow, just think of the data Amazon will have.

    Love your Utopian store! I fantasize too, usually when I come across an ingredient I can’t find in bulk.
    I also fantasize about, instead of having ALL bulk as serve-it-yourself, having some behind the counter so that you HAVE to interact (that’s my only complaint about Rainbow, the you’re-on-your-own modality). Besides, watching others retrieve tofu from a bin full of water = yuck.
    One can always dream!

    Oh, also, a mobile bulk refill van! Think laundry, dish detergent, whatever…. It could go around the community, parking in church lots, whatever, once a month or so…
    And, you probably have never seen these, but in some rural communities, “in the old days”, a huge van would periodically come around offering high quality canning facilities/instruction. So Cool.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      OMG I love all of this. You’re right, it would be nice to have some bulk items already measured out in reusable jars. I’ll add that to my wish list. I haven’t ever seen those vans. That would be awesome! A while ago I read about a woman in the New York Times who teaches fermentation in a converted school bus. I didn’t realize that used to be the norm!

      1. Yeah, the Extension Service* ran this program (included actual canning – with cans!!), along with sponsoring the 4-H, etc. They might still do it, I just am not in that kind of area anymore.
        I can only imagine how popular a modified version could be: no need to purchase your own equipment, learn from the pros, trade recipes, so forth.
        Suppose they collaborated, in urban areas, with Farmers’ Markets, YOUR market??
        Dreaming ….
        *the Service is a cooperative effort between fed, state & local govs, usu associated with a “land-grant” school -bet their funding’ll be cut.

      2. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        Hmmm…thanks for all these ideas. I could see myself with a kitchen classroom on wheels. And it wouldn’t cost that much to set up, being a mobile location. I bet you’re right about funding being cut. Cuts all around very soon, I’m sure.

  11. I love your description of the perfect zero-waste store! It sounds similar to the People’s Co-op in Portland. I believe they have most of what you described except the LEED certified building part (their store is in an old “repurposed” house that has been expanded over the years). They have a lot of bike parking, a community space for classes, and host a weekly farmer’s market on site. Your vision is definitely feasible since they are already doing it!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for letting me know! I will look that up. I thought since it was a dream, I may as well go for the straw-bale building (I dream of living in a straw-bale house) but I would go for a repurposed old house too. The store sounds awesome.

  12. Actually have you been to any tech trade show?? Or any trade show in general? The number of leftover promotional cloth bags could provide 3 or 5 or more free cloth bags for each family for most of my town over a few year period of time. I have seen a fair number thrown away. I collect what I can and hand off to my local food pantry.

    I think we should make a concerted effort to encourage more companies to purchase the heavier cotton or canvas ones that can be washed and our local city convention center to provide organized collection.

    Some stores could easily implement a ‘need one take one, extra leave some’ process for those extra bags.

    Again, dreaming.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I have been to tech trade shows. You almost need a shield to deflect the swag people attempt to thrust onto you from their booths! I like the canvas bags best too. I have one from a trade show in 1994 that I still use (says 1994 right on it). I love your idea of “need on take one, extra leave some.” That would work in my dream store 😉 Good for you to collect the discards. It’s crazy what we throw away! I say keep dreaming 🙂

  13. Amazon Go sounds like a sci-fi horror… The company is trying to get into groceries here too – there’s even talk of drones for swift delivery – but there is thankfully little interest as yet in this on-demand approach to food. It’s bad enough at the moment with the delivery service companies that have flooded the market in big cities to allow more restaurants to do take-aways. The restaurants have to keep their prices low to attract custom in the first place and the delivery cyclists have no job security and are paid a pittance. As you can imagine, it is no way to get a nutritious, healthy meal!

    I don’t know about you, but it feels that in the last six months all the battles we are fighting on the food, health and safety, environmental and labour regulations front are about to get a whole lot harder! I’m digging in for a long battle…

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I think it sounds like sci-fi horror too, Meg. The announcement received such positive press but I watched the video in horror. We’ll have drones here too. What could possibly go wrong? All so that we can have our useless stuff even faster. I’ll just have to move to the woods… The last six months have been a non-stop assault of bad news. It’s about to get worse here, which is hard to imagine. I’m trying to stay positive but also not stick my head in the sand. I think you’re right–a long battle ahead but also I hope the last gasp of the old, white, rich, male political establishment. Their last hurrah.

  14. Eliot Coleman describes something very similar to your dream grocery store in The Winter Harvest Handbook. I believe he calls it “Holier Than Thou Foods” as a play on Whole Foods.

  15. Excellent article! I teared up a little when I read about the real humans you would employ. What a lovely dream! Your store sounds very doable, and the cafe could feed the tech workers yearning for real food in an automated world. Find a backer and make it happen!!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks so much Amy 🙂 I’m glad you liked the article. I think as the world gets more automated and more tech-driven (it’s so tech-driven as it is!), people will need spaces like this to socialize. Maybe I could start small… ~ Anne Marie

  16. I loved this rant. Amazon Go sounds like everything wrong with society. For all the worrisome things in the “third world country” where I live (as my uncle visiting from Florida – who grew up here – has been referring to it), Amazon Go would not become a reality anytime soon. Hopefully, it’ll outlive its usefulness before it can spread.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Alisa. I’m glad you liked the rant. I hope Amazon Go doesn’t spread far and wide, like a virus. Things are pretty worrisome here at the moment! I’ve had many sleepless nights since the election. ~ Anne Marie

  17. Oh gosh, this is scary! Thank you for sharing – I had no idea that this was in the works. I am in Australia so I’m not sure if it will spread this way any time soon…I just hope it doesn’t spread at all, full stop! I love the sound of your store, Anne Marie. There is always hope!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      My pleasure Lisa. Thanks for reading the post 🙂 I hope this type of store doesn’t spread either!

Leave a Reply