NewsPub Notes

Can Grocery Delivery Bring Good Cantaloupes?

Have you tried home grocery delivery yet? It’s interesting that technology has made it possible for supermarkets to resurrect a service they killed when they first came on the scene.

Supermarkets originally were all about cost savings through self-service. Since they didn’t have to pay clerks to fill your order or drivers to deliver it, you could buy your groceries for less than you paid at the traditional store, where a clerk took your order and filled it while you waited in the store or at home.

I was one of those clerks. Our family store prided itself on currurating your grocery order, and we knew the preferences of our customers, or if we didn’t, they would remind us. “Three baking potatoes, but medium size, not like those footballs you sent me last week.”

I was junior to a cadre of experienced clerks, who were always willing to up my game with critiques of my work, usually in the form of laughter at my lapses. “That chicken you cut up for me to take home last night, the bones were so busted up, I thought I was eating fish.” These helpful hints were always delivered in the presence of all the other clerks, for maximum effect.

We had to wait on customers as they came in and also take orders over the phone when it rang. Things could get hairy, especially on a Saturday, when customers were waiting for us to wait on them and the phones demanded answering. 

In those situations, there were some customers we dreaded hearing on the other end of the line—those who ordered a week’s worth of groceries at a time. Catch one of them, and you were tied to the phone while customers stood around. We used little order books with a carbon, and some of the country ladies would fill up three or four books, while we scribbled furiously. Trouble was, you had to be able to read your writing, when it came time to fill the order. On a busy day, it might be a while before you got back to it, when your writing would be cold. Finally, there would come a break in the flow of live customers—mostly women, except for a few men, like Cousin Miles, who would come down from his upstairs law office to order a few items to take home, such as a “fifth of milk.” Then you had to jump on your phone orders, some of which had to be delivered in time for meal preparations. 

We filled our own orders, unless it involved a cut of meat the butcher had to handle. We cut up the “fryers,” pulled mullet and mackerel from their icy bins, cut a pound of “rat” cheese from the big round in the cooler, selected the potatoes, figured out which head of cabbage qualified as medium and which squash were “not too big, not too small,” grabbed canned vegetables and fruits from the shelves, all the while assembling our orders on the long back counter. When they were ready, we checked them off from the list as we placed each item into a metal delivery basket, sometimes helped by another clerk, if he was caught up. It was a man’s world. Men waiting on women.

The delivery man would be anxious to get going, knowing he’d be blamed if a cook didn’t get her fryer in time to transform it for mid-day dinner. We helped load the baskets into the pickup truck, and he’d be off, with the admonishment, “Hurry back, but don’t drive fast.”

When the first supermarket opened, our more cost-conscious customers began to drift up the street, but our home delivery held enough regulars to keep the grocery going. Now, thanks to technology, supermarkets can offer delivery, too. You order and pay online, somebody at the store fills it, and a contract delivery service brings it to your home.

Me, I’m still old-fashioned. When it’s my turn to buy groceries, I want to pick out those squash myself. I want to see the chicken and the kale and sniff the cantaloupe and make sure everything meets the instructions I have been given. And if I get confused, technology helps me, too. How did we ever shop for groceries without cell phones?