AUGUST 24, 2033 and it's time to go to the supermarket. Only there are no supermarkets. No, George Orwell is not a venerated prophet, albeit later than he would have expected. No, "1984" arrived and passed and has been long forgotten.
Reality is that you punch a code into your home computer, allowing access to an electronic shopping service, opening up a world far more vast than your forebearers knew half a century ago.
You want camembert cheese, but aren't sure what brand or where to get it, so you punch C-A-M-E-M-B-E-R-T into the keyboard. A list appears on the screen of the warehouses that carry camembert along with brand, size and price information. Super Future is close to home, assuring quick delivery, and has what you want. The cheese materializes on your video screen, it looks good and you indicate electronically that you want it. The cost is instantaneously deducted from your bank account and your order arrives minutes later.
"Teleshopping will largely be a reality," says Graham Moliter, president of Public Policy Forecasting Inc. Except for convenience stores, Moliter predicts that in 50 years, supermarkets are likely "to be gone from the scene."
Some in the industry disagree with Moliter, one contending that people "want the joy of feeling the grapes." But Edward Cornish, president of the World Future Society, predicts that someday computers may even allow that, at much more than arm's length. Tastes and smells of foods available in warehouses could be reconstructed in the home. In the 19th century, said Cornish, "people could hardly conceive of sound or sight projections."
Already, computer shopping is becoming an option. A Phone-In Drive-Thru Market opened in Los Angeles in June. Customers place orders by phone, selecting items by number from a monthly catalogue. A clerk types the order into a computer, the goods are retrieved and packaged from the warehouse, and the customer picks up the order three hours later.
Supermarkets are undergoing terrific transformations. From expanded produce sections to fresh fish departments, specialty food sections to wine shops, salad bars to gourmet stores, mega-supermarkets keep getting bigger. In Oshawa, Ont., a six-acre supermarket that opened in June houses a dentist's office, a meat counter five yards longer than a football field, 45 checkouts and 1,500 shopping carts, according to a report in The Toronto Star.
According to spokesman Jack Cergol of the Food Marketing Institute, recent studies done by the association showed that time, not price, was the highest priority of today's supermarket shopper. "Getting in, buying and getting out was the number one concern," said Cergol.
Thus, one-stop shopping appears to be in the cards; supermarkets will increasingly offer consumers a full range of goods--both food and non-food. Here are some highlights of what those who think about the future think may come to pass before supermarkets go the way of Carrier Pigeon Pie.
* Supermarkets will assume added responsibility to provide nutritional and health information to consumers. According to Supermarket News, by 1990, there will be an estimated 13,400 nutrition centers in supermarkets, with sales of $3.6 billion.
"People have less and less time to digest complicated nutritional information," says Susan Barlow, director of First National supermarket's consumer center. Getting nutrition messages across quickly and easily, said Sue Ann Ritchko, vice president of consumer services for the New York-based Price Chopper Supermarkets, is on the way. The "technology is very much there and it won't be too long until information-based computer systems will be available to shoppers." Ritchko said she has seen a prototype computer system in which a consumer enters the amount of money available to spend, along with dietary requirements and restrictions. The computer prints out a suggested shopping list with accompanying menus.
Molitor, of Public Policy Forecasting Inc., sees this scenario: A man who is recuperating from a coronary bypass operation and has programmed that information into a nutrient data base, buys dill pickles at the supermarket. After he plugs his Universal Product Code card into the checkout and the jar is scanned, lights flash. There's too much salt in the pickles for his condition.
* Proliferation of in-store financial services. Already many supermarkets have installed ATMs (automatic teller machines), and now EFTs (electronic funds transfer) are "just about ready to take off," according to Timothy Murphy of Willard Bishop Consulting Economists, supermarket consultants. The technology for the system--which automatically debits your bank account for the amount of the grocery purchase after your card has been inserted--has been around for about five years, says Murphy. But until recently, it hasn't been cost-effective or accepted by consumers.
In addition to banks (which are becoming commonplace in supermarkets in many areas), ATMs and EFTs, supermarkets are gearing up for full-scale financial services including money market accounts, savings and loan associations and insurance companies. The space would be rented out to the individual institution, not operated or owned by the supermarket.
* Present-day superstores could be further formatted into "superstore shopping centers." Departments will take on the look of a separate store; a chain drug store or designer clothing store could be located in modules within a mall-like supermarket.
Food-related departments are already sectioned off in some stores. Customers can take french cooking classes or microwave lessons at a cooking school in McCartney Foods, an Oklahoma City supermarket. And several supermarkets around the country house restaurants, according to Supermarket News--anything from Kroger's white tablecloth eateries in Atlanta to Polynesian fast food in Houston to a Millersburg, Ohio, supermarket where an Amish cook serves up homemade date pudding and shoo fly pie.
Besides the familiar drug departments, cosmetic counters and automotive centers, supermarkets are housing extensive fabric, clothing and garden departments. A Marble Falls, Tex., supermarket even stocks rifles and pistols. Non-foods, which are growing in sales, say industry officials, will become even more important in the supermarkets of the future.
* By 1985, more than a third of all the food sold in the country will be checked out at a scanner. Murphy of Willard Bishop Consulting Economists says that is a conservative estimate; right now there are about 7,500 markets equipped with scanners. By 1985, he projects almost 12,000 of the country's 29,000 supermarkets will use scanners.
* Besides EFTs, ATMs and scanners, additional computers will offer a wide range of services. Ultimately, one in-store computer could allow consumers to purchase theater or airline tickets, lottery tickets or make off-track bets, said Richard Shulman, president of Industry Systems Development Corp., a supermarket technology consulting firm.
Currently, said Shulman, some California supermarkets are experimenting with computers that dispense cents-off coupons. Instead of clipping from the newspaper, consumers choose free coupons displayed in a case on the machine. The coupon is redeemable only at that store.
Several Giant stores in Washington are presently using computers in their pharmacy sections for patient profiling. Consumers' medical histories and prescription purchases are stored in the computer, helping to prevent drug interaction problems.
As far as eliminating clerks and checkers, said Shulman, that's not going to happen--at least in the next five years. Tests so far have shown that automatic packing machines are not economical. In fact, said Shulman, at least in the meantime, the new supermarkets are requiring more personnel. The boutique shopping experience needs more employes to run the pasta counter or grind the coffee.
* Hydroponic fruits and vegetables may be grown right in the supermarket. Sometime, said Cergol of FMI, hydroponic gardens (a no-soil, water-only growth system that can involve relatively small amounts of space) may be located right in the supermarket.
* Store formats will be modeled after European marketplaces. According to John Farquer, vice president of science and technology at FMI, American supermarkets are taking on more of "an open-air atmosphere." Whole gutted fish embedded in ice within touching distance of the consumer (sneeze guards in between) and bulk foods are becoming increasingly popular.
* Continuing ethnic specialization and made-to-order products will be available in supermarkets. Ethnic sections are being expanded presently in many conventional stores, a trend that will continue, say supermarket sources--and not only on a few shelves. In four of Safeway's California stores near Hispanic sections, the chain has built in-store tortilla factories, where consumers can watch tortillas being made, and then buy them fresh and hot.
In addition, prepackaged "fashioned for you" products may be commonly ordered from supermarkets, said Cornish of the World Future Society. Vitamin and nutrient contents of processed foods could be made to your specification.
* Back to the old way. The superstore boom could someday backfire. There "is some dimishing point in which they will grow too big," said Murphy of Willard Bishop Consulting Economists. Many people "don't want to shop in a 100,000-square-foot store that takes them two hours to get in and out of."
But with people increasingly using their homes as their workplaces, eventually people will have more time, projected Cergol. That time may not be used in the supermarket, though. Food would be ordered via computer and then the consumer would spend two or three hours preparing it at home, Cergol hypothesized. Or, furthur down the line, an android might be programmed to prepare southern fried chicken, after "looking deep in the recipe books."
At some point, the consumer may not even have to leave home to shop at all. Old-fashioned food delivery may come back, although not the way of the milk man. It's not unreasonable, says futurist Cornish, that "automobiles will drive themselves."