The hottest trend in retailing is something called “omni-channel.”
The big example that disrupted the whole industry was when Amazon bought Whole Foods. Though this combination of “Bricks and Clicks”—or physical stores and online purchases—is often what is spoken of when talking about Omni-Channel, it can also mean many different sales venues and delivery options.
The explosion of both digital and Omni-Channel options can be seen as a boon for specialty cheese. The defining characteristic of the Internet is its ability to offer consumers almost unlimited product availability. Amazon.com started with books, and it practically drove most bookstores out of business. The implication of the Internet’s “long tail” is simply that any one physical store can only carry so many options. A typical chain book store might carry 15,000 to 20,000 titles, but on Amazon.com, one can buy over two million print titles.
In the scramble to offer consumers online ordering and delivery options, many supermarkets have made arrangements with organizations such as Instacart and Shipt. Under these options, consumers order on line, dedicated pickers shop the local supermarket and the delivery is made. So, the assortment available is exactly what is offered in the local supermarket. Other systems, though, such as Amazon Fresh, Fresh Direct and Kroger’s new alliance with a British online grocer named Ocado, involve large, heavily robotic warehouses that serve as delivery hubs for large areas. Because one of these warehouses may serve regions that include millions of people, these retailers can offer more specialty cheeses than any single grocery store can offer.
It is also true that retailers can offer deep information online about each one of these cheeses. They can have videos with the cheesemakers and lots of nutritional and care-and-handling information. One can learn about the terroir and the cultural significance of each cheese; the upside is substantial.
On the other hand, how many people are sufficiently motivated to do all this research so as to discover and understand about specialty cheeses? Maybe for most of us, there is a big win in having a friendly face in the store who will just tell us about something great that came in this week.
It is my hope that, somehow, we can get the whole world of cheese at our doorstep, while maintaining the human contact that makes learning, and eating, such a joy.