07 April 2006

Grocery Shopping

I have a dirty little secret that I'd like to share.

In the month of March, I had someone else buy my groceries. Me, lover of food, ambler of the grocery aisles. I paid someone else to do it for me.

This came about because I was pondering what to do when I just don't have all that much time. Now, those of you out there with kids may laugh at me, but there are times in my easy-going child-free life (that's sarcasm) that I don't have time to get to the grocery store. And as the "guy who holds the house together" married to a busy fairly new lawyer, it's up to me to get those groceries anyway.

There are two grocery stores within two kilometres of my house. One is priced right, but bag your own. The other is a lousy I mean "super" store. And there's a produce mart. And a few other small places. One of the larger stores is even directly on my way home. So it's not like I couldn't stop there quickly.

We do a grocery shop every two weeks, and fill in with extra fresh stuff every week in between. Sometimes you just need more bananas, or green peppers. Or perhaps chicken breasts are on sale, and you don't want to miss out on that deeply discounted lean protein. I can't make myself do a full shop every week, because I'm just not interested in sacrificing an hour and a half each week to the function. I don't mind spending that hour and a half tooting around to buy specialty items, though. The problem is, I do that on top of the grocery shopping, most times. So two, three, four hours are given to shopping for food. That is a lot to give up every week.

But doing the major shopping every other week means that the trips to the store to get the food are taking over an hour and a half (two or more hours at the not-so-super "Superstore", of which 25 minutes is waiting in line to check out). And with a cart crammed to the gills, at a "bag-your-own-to-save-the-store-$9-per-hour-in-wages" kind of place, it's a little hard to enjoy the process.

Now please bear in mind that I do love food. I love looking at it, dreaming up ways to use it, preparing it, and certainly eating it. Grocery stores give me inspiration, almost as much as farmers' markets or butcher shops do. But when it's becoming a chore and life is picking up speed, well, perhaps it's time to look at the options.

Since I didn't want to commit to a weekly shop, I thought I'd try the local delivery option. There's a company here called the Country Grocer, that I had read about a few years ago. They do local delivery, but also fly food up north to Nunavut, where grapes cost so much it's actually cheaper to buy them and have them shipped up from Ottawa. The company offers a great on-line ordering service, flexible delivery times, and is receptive to suggestions. So after a fair bit of thought, and with a whole lot of curiosity, I ordered from them.

That first order took about two hours to compile, which means I might as well have gone to the store anyway. But by creating a list of favourite items, I planned to save time in the future. I estimated how many kilos of pears and apples we needed (supplemental information can be provided, such as notes like "ten apples, please"...or "green bananas only, please"), or what size of dish soap we normally would buy. I selected my options for delivery, for the packer to swap items in and out as needed, and sat back to await delivery a day later (my choice, because they could have delivered the same day).

Some guy went through the store from which Country Grocer operates (in Ottawa's Alta Vista region), packed all the food into boxes, and brought them to our house. For this, we paid a $5 packing fee, and a $7 delivery fee. Upon delivery, we had the chance to peruse the items in case any weren't suitable (should've rejected the over ripe pears, in hindsight). Payment options were cash, debit card, or credit card. Tada, groceries in the house, and nobody left it.

Now came the guilt. Who was I to pay someone else to shop for me? What kind of high-falutin' lifestyle was I leading? Luckily our dinner guests that weekend were willing to help process the guilt. Their theories? My time is worth more than $12 an hour at this point in my life. Not only that, but a guy has a job that pays him to do what isn't exactly the worst work in the world (like inspecting septic tanks could be considered).

Still, I was wary. Not too sure.

Till two weeks later, when I found myself lacking the time to shop in a week that found the fridge and pantry quite empty. So back I went to the website. Less than half an hour later, groceries were ordered.

The convenience of the service is, I admit, offset by some consumer frustration. There's tweaking to be done on the ordering interface, and as well, my directions to the packer. Substitutions are easy when you're making your own decisions, not so when it's someone else doing it for you. And being able to pick your own produce and meats is decidedly better than trusting someone else's judgement on what's rotten, vs. ripe. As well, the store in question doesn't carry much off the beaten path, so finding anything outside of "ordinary" or even beyond a single label of certian items is out of the question. But in all, it's an issue of convenience vs. perfection. If someone else does it, freeing me up to go to specialty shops instead, or to do other things, well, I can handle a few rotten pears. And I can cope with whole wheat kaisers instead of dinner rolls (anyone need any kaisers? I can't stand the things!).

The end of this story goes like this: yesterday I stepped back into the grocery store for the first time in four weeks. With the deliveries, and trips to the produce mart, Italian food shop, and Asian market, I haven't had to go there for a month.

And I have to say, I enjoyed that grocery store all over again. I strolled through the aisles, stocking up on everything I couldn't buy on-line. I fondled vegetables and fruit to the point that people were staring. I sniffed fresh herbs and poked roasts, shook bottles of sauce and read expiry dates like I had nowhere else to go. I came up with meal plans on the spot, planning weeks ahead from the spot where I stood ogling eggplants.

Will I order on-line again? Sure, I suspect I will. The $12 is offset by the savings of not making impulse purchases. And the time saved.

But will I go completely on-line, and forsake my local food stores? No way. There's still fun to be had in the grocery store. It's just nice to have options beyond sending my poor wife to brave the craziness of a Sunday afternoon of shopping because I didn't get to go on Thursday or Friday.

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