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Add HEB to the autonomous grocery delivery trend

In San Antonio, at least. Maybe in Houston later if it goes well for them.

Customers near an H-E-B in suburban San Antoni0 can soon get their eggs, fruit and tortillas dropped off by a vehicle with no one at the wheel.

The San Antonio-based company is working with Udelv, an autonomous delivery startup in California, to test self-driving vans on streets around the store starting this fall.

“The world is changing fast and our customers’ expectations are changing,” said Paul Tepfenhart, senior vice president of omnichannel and emerging technologies at Central Market and H-E-B. “We have a growing, thriving online business, and we’re trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to keep up with this emerging demand.”

During the first phase of the pilot, a Udelv employee will drive a van developed by the startup with a H-E-B employee along for the ride to help with deliveries.

As the technology collects and analyzes data and learns the optimal routes, it will eventually take over the maneuvering. However, H-E-B will still have the ability to control the van remotely, Tepfenhart said.

[…]

Kroger, Amazon and other retailers have experimented with autonomous vehicles, and Udelv is also working with Walmart to test its vans at Arizona stores and with XL Parts to try out the technology in Houston.

We know about Kroger. I see that bit at the end about Udelv and Walmart in Houston, but a little googling around did not find anything more on that. As for HEB, much like the Kroger pilot in Houston this is being limited to one store at first, in HEB’s case in Olmos Park, with the program set to begin later in the summer. This is clearly the next frontier for grocery stores, so get ready for a more widespread deployment soon. I still think there will be demand for some old fashioned non-autonomous grocery deliveries, for folks who can’t or don’t want to haul the groceries into their residences themselves. But if there’s enough demand to support this option, I’d guess it will be the bulk of the delivery market in short order. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Here comes the Kroger driverless grocery delivery car

Who wants to order some groceries, in certain selected ZIP codes?

Kroger, the nation’s largest grocer, has launched a self-driving grocery delivery service in Houston, the latest salvo in a hyper-competitive grocery market that has supermarket chains investing heavily in new technology to win over online shoppers.

Company officials on Tuesday showcased the first of dozens of autonomous delivery vehicles planned for Houston: Toyota Priuses outfitted with cameras, sensors and self-driving computer software. Shoppers at Kroger’s Meyerland store who live in ZIP codes 77401 and 77096 can order groceries through the company’s website and have their purchases pull up in a self-driven Prius. The Cincinnati-based grocer plans to bring the autonomous delivery service to its Buffalo Speedway store later this year, with plans to ultimately expand the program citywide.

“We are creating a seamless shopping experience for our customers so they can get anything, anytime and anywhere,” said Marlene Stewart, Kroger’s Houston division president.

[…]

In January 2018, Kroger partnered with Nuro, a Mountain View, Calif.-based self-driving delivery startup, to develop a grocery delivery service. Nuro, founded in 2016 by a pair of Google veterans, has raised $1 billion from investors, including Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners and Japanese holding conglomerate SoftBank, to make autonomous vehicle deliveries affordable for the mass consumer.

“We believe this technology isn’t just for an elite group of people, but for everybody,” said Dan Mitchell, Nuro’s head of product operations and community engagement.

The Kroger-Nuro partnership launched a pilot program in Scottsdale, Ariz., in August. Over the next seven months, the companies made more than 2,000 deliveries to customers living in one ZIP code around a Fry’s Market, a Kroger subsidiary. Mitchell said the autonomous vehicles were well-received in Arizona, with shoppers reveling in novelty of self-driving cars by taking photos and sharing them on social media.

Deliveries cost $5.95, which is less expensive than Kroger’s $11.95 delivery service through Shipt, whose human couriers bring groceries to the door. Customers using the autonomous vehicle delivery service will have to pick up their groceries from the vehicle curbside, notified of their arrival via text message.

Nuro’s autonomous vehicles will have a safety operator at the driver’s seat who can take control in case of emergencies, as well as a co-pilot monitoring the technology. The vehicles had no accidents during its Arizona pilot program, Mitchell said.

Quincy Allen, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, said governmental agencies will closely watch Kroger’s autonomous delivery program as it expands.

“Safety remains our top priority, and we expect Kroger and Nuro to meet our safety standards,” Allen said.

See here for the background. I presume one reason for the difference in price is that the human couriers will carry the groceries to you, while with the autonomous car you have to schlep them yourself. I’d be interested to see if there’s a sufficient market for both options going forward. Those of you in ZIP codes 77005 and 77025 who order from the Kroger at 5150 Buffalo Speedway will get the chance to try this in a few months. Do you get groceries delivered, and if so do you find this appealing? Leave a comment and let us know.

Driverless grocery deliveries

Coming soon to Houston.

Some local shoppers soon could see their produce pull up in a Prius in one of the first forays into autonomous vehicles in the Houston area, a move observers said is sure to spur more robot deliveries in the region.

Following its launch in suburban Phoenix, California-based robotics company Nuro will debut automated deliveries at Kroger supermarkets on Buffalo Speedway and South Post Oak, with each store serving two zip codes. Officials did not specify an exact date for deliveries to start, only that the vehicles are in place and operation will start before summer.

“We want to learn as much as possible when we are out there,” said Dave Ferguson, co-founder of Nuro.

The zip codes covered will be 77401 and 77096 at the South Post Oak store, and 77005 and 77025 from the Buffalo Speedway location.

Deliveries will cost a flat fee of $5.95 regardless of delivery size or value, said Matt Thompson, vice president of digital business for Kroger. In Phoenix, delivery is to one zip code around a Fry’s market, a Kroger subsidiary.

“We are really encouraged about the repeat rate we are seeing from the Phoenix area,” Thompson said.

[…]

As Nuro did in Phoenix, deliveries will begin using converted Toyota Prius sedans. Customers will order their groceries online via Kroger and choose delivery instead of pickup. The store, working with Nuro, will load the vehicle and notify the buyer the delivery is on its way. Dispatchers hired by Nuro will monitor the trip from an office in Houston.

Eventually, the sedans will be replaced by Nuro’s own all-electric vehicle, the R1, which is built especially for deliveries. The vehicle, with a top speed of 25 mph, is capable of holding six grocery bags in a compartment, with two compartments per vehicle. The company is working on a second generation vehicle capable of holding ten full grocery bags in each compartment, with refrigeration built into the electric vehicle.

As the story notes, using autonomous cars for deliveries rather than for transporting passengers might be an easier path to optimizing the service and getting widespread acceptance, since deliveries are less time-sensitive and the ride experience is irrelevant. This would be the first implementation of autonomous vehicles in Houston, as Metro’s planned TSU shuttle has been delayed. Multiple cities in Texas have been investigating or piloting autonomous cars since the Lege passed a law in 2017 allowing for it. At this point, there have been a lot of tests or announcements of tests, but I haven’t seen any reporting on how successful they’ve been as yet. We’ll see how this one goes. Would you use a service like this?

Beer delivered to your home

Who needs groceries, am I right?

Favor, founded in Austin in 2013, prides itself in delivering almost anything in under an hour. But until now, beer and wine — long the No. 1 request from customers — was among the missing.

Favor finalized all the proper permits and licenses to deliver beer and wine in late 2017 or early 2018. But it was the partnership with H-E-B — and the grocery company’s wide selection — that made the delivery service possible, [Jag Bath, Favor CEO and H-E-B chief digital officer] said.

Favor will offer H-E-B’s entire beer and wine selection with no minimum order size. Because every H-E-B store is tailored to its neighborhood, the selection will vary by city. Houston-area selections will include such craft brands as Buffalo Bayou Brewing, No Label Brewing, Lone Pint Brewery and 8th Wonder Brewery, and wines from the Texas Hill Country.

This isn’t the first beer delivery service in Houston. HopDrop launched late last year to provide local craft and hard-to-find beers.

Oftentimes, it delivers brews that are available only on draft.

HopDrop also provides on-demand delivery in under an hour. Customers place an order online, and a driver is dispatched to a partner bar. That bar fills a 32-ounce can, called a crowler, with beer and gives it to the driver for home delivery. HopDrop has partnered with bars throughout the Houston area, from Spring to Katy, from downtown Houston to Webster, to ensure customers receive their orders in less than an hour.

The delivery fee is $5.99 plus the cost of beer. HopDrop also offers a monthly subscription service that waives the delivery fee and provides customers same-day orders from any partner bars throughout the greater Houston area. This allows a customer in Katy to get beer from a bar in Spring.

Its focus on beers typically unavailable in grocery stores will differentiate HopDrop from the new delivery service provided by Favor, co-owner Steven Macalello said. He isn’t worried about the competition. In fact, he thinks it’s good publicity for beer delivery overall.

I get the market for home delivery of groceries. Not used it myself, but I see why people do. This one’s a little less clear to me – are there really that many people who need an on-draft microbrew brought to their door? Maybe that’s just a failure of imagination on my part. I guess if you’re the grocery-delivery consumer anyway, or maybe if you’re just grocery-delivery-curious, being able to add a six-pack to the order sweetens the deal. Is this something you would use?

Making the Heights a little less dry

From Swamplot:

beer

A GROUP CALLED the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC is hoping to bring about a vote on allowing beer and wine sales in the technically dry section of the Houston Heights. The group published a notice on May 5th announcing an application to the city to start collecting the petition signaturesrequired to get the measure on a local option ballot.

[…]

The group’s immediate goal isn’t to do away with all alcohol restrictions, and the proposed ballot measure wouldn’t get rid of the current private-club workaround frequently employed by area bars and restaurants. But the proposal would lift existing barriers for stores trying to sell beer and wine to becarried away elsewhere — an issue that forced the recently closed Fiesta Mart at N. Shepherd and 24th St. to install its traditionally-in-the-parking-lot Beverage Mart a full 4 blocks away on the corner with 28th St. (across the northern boundary of the zone).

Here’s a map of the dry area, which hasn’t slowed the proliferation of places to dine and imbibe in the Heights. Many of them are east of Oxford, which puts them outside the zone. Others, like the Down House, do the “private club” dodge, while Torchy’s on 19th inherited a grandfathered license from a defunct icehouse. When I first read this story, I thought it would be about repealing the ban for eateries and drinkeries, but apparently not. The Press has since given some clarification about who and what is behind this.

The chair of the [Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC] is an attorney named Steve Reilley, a founding partner of the Thompson & Reilley law firm. He says that the main impetus for this action is that the group simply wants to have “a nice grocery store in the neighborhood.” He pointed out the recent closing of the Fiesta location in the area and says that retailers are unwilling to expand or move in owing to the inability to sell beer and wine. “They can’t make the money without the beer and wine sales. We hope we are able to bring these stores in if we are able to alter the statute,” he said. “We want the same nice stores you see in other parts of town and [to] have them be economically viable in The Heights.”

H-E-B is one of the grocery store chains that are eyeing building a store in The Heights, but nothing definitive has happened on that yet, according to Swamplot. We asked Reilley if H-E-B was one of the members of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition. “I believe they have definitely expressed interest in it and they’re definitely going to support this,” he said. “It is my understanding that if it passes, they are going to very likely move into The Heights. To that degree, yes, they’re part of it, and I believe they will be part of it going forward.” We left a message for H-E-B’s director of public affairs in Houston to see if the grocery store chain has any comment, and will update this article if we receive a response.

Reilley said other grocery chains are part of the special interest group but said he wasn’t able to confirm that. He referred us to John Hatch of Texas Petition Strategies of Austin, a company that has been hired to oversee collecting signatures and, if the issue makes it onto the ballot, stumping for a passing vote. We left a phone message for Hatch but have not yet received a call back.

The press release says, “TPS has conducted over 300 petition efforts in 170 different Texas communities, with more than an 83% the efforts passing — including efforts in Brazoria County, Lumberton, Lubbock, Dallas and Fort Worth.”

I gather from recent activity on the Heights Kids message board that people have been out knocking on doors to gather petition signatures, with an aim of having something on the ballot this November. I also gather that some folks are not clear on the details of this issue – specifically, why part of the Heights is “dry”, what exactly that means, and why there needs to be an election to change it. That may add to their challenge. A this subsequent comment notes that there are some potentially tricky legal issues involved as well, meaning that however this shakes out someone may wind up suing over whatever the result is. Any lawyers in the crowd want to comment on that? In any event, we’ll keep an eye on this. I live outside the “dry” zone, so I (presumably) wouldn’t get to vote on this. If you’ve been asked to sign a petition, leave a comment and let us know. More here from Swamplot.

One less food desert

From the inbox:

With high hopes of more to come, Mayor Annise Parker, Council Members Stephen Costello and Dwight Boykins, the Houston Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and others broke ground on the first project to target a Houston food desert. With financial assistance from the city, Pyburn’s owner John Vuong is building a first-class grocery store to serve South Union and surrounding neighborhoods. The store is scheduled to open the first quarter of 2015.

“An estimated two-thirds of Houstonians are overweight or obese and a high percentage of them live in food deserts with no access to fresh food,” said Mayor Parker. “This forces families in these areas to rely on unhealthy processed or fatty foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. I am excited that we are able to take the first step to address this problem that impacts the overall health of our residents and am confident there will be additional opportunities for grocery stores in other food desert areas in Houston.”

“Everyone should have access to fresh food, no matter the zip code,” said council member Costello. “I am grateful to the Vuongs for recognizing the need and reconfirming their commitment to serving the community. Pyburn’s will not only provide fresh meat and produce to South Union, but will also create jobs for our city’s youth and spur economic development in an area ripe for more industry.”

Vuong and his family own and operate 11 stores, nine of which are located in Houston. They have extensive experience operating in low to moderate income areas. The new venture, which must create a minimum of 25 jobs, will be the next generation of the company’s stores, named Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods. The funding agreement with the city requires that the store be designed to provide customers with a shopping experience equal to that of grocery stores in high income areas of Houston. In addition, there is room at the site for additional complementary development. The loan agreement prohibits uses inconsistent with community revitalization, such as liquor stores and pay-day loan establishments.

“My family purchased the land at Scott and Corder over eight years ago and this opportunity to partner with the City of Houston allows us to realize our dream of bringing healthy fresh food choices to South Union and the surrounding communities,” said Voung. “We are humbled by this opportunity to invest, serve and bring over 25 new jobs to this community.”

Council member Dwight Boykins is excited the new store will be located in his council district. “As a child growing up on welfare, my walk to school took me by this site,” said Boykins. “I am thankful to the mayor, the Voung family and all the other people who worked so hard to secure this opportunity for my community.”

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to purchase healthy food for their family,” said Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Food Trust. “We applaud this initiative by the City of Houston to increase access to grocery stores in underserved areas,” said.”

The City is providing a performance-based loan of $1.7 million for predevelopment, land acquisition, construction and equipment. The total project cost is estimated to be $3.7 million. Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds awarded to the Houston Redevelopment Authority for economic development projects will be used for the project. Funding is available for additional projects and HRA will work with potential partners on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for building or revitalizing grocery stores in food desert areas.

To combat food deserts in Houston, which has fewer grocery stores per capita than most large cities in the country, the Mayor, partnering with Council Member Costello, The Food Trust and Children At Risk, created the Houston Grocery Access Task Force in 2011. At the end of 2012, the Task Force issued their report, Roadmap for Encouraging Grocery Development in Houston and Texas. Economic development tools, such as performance-based loans, were highlighted as key opportunities to increasing access to fresh food. The report can be accessed here.

The Chron story is here. We first heard about this proposal in December. Council passed an update to its ordinance about the minimum distance a retailer that sells beer and wine must be from schools and churches in January to allow supermarkets to be built in some places where they would otherwise have been forbidden. Here’s a Google map link to where this Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods is going up. According to CultureMap, the closest existing grocery store is an HEB at Scott and Old Spanish Trail 1.2 miles away. That’s not that far, but if you live south of Corder it could get to be a bit of a hike, especially if you depend on public transportation. Be that as it may, I think it’s a good thing to encourage this kind of development in parts of the city that don’t have it regardless of whether there are any associated health benefits to it. I do hope someone is going to follow up with a study, however, because if there really are health benefits we as a country should pursue this kind of development more aggressively, and if there aren’t we should at least be careful to not make dishonest arguments in favor of it.

Council OKs ordinance to help bring grocery stores to food deserts

Good.

Supermarkets now can sell beer and wine next to schools and churches, an exemption to city regulations Houston City Council granted unanimously Wednesday, hoping to encourage grocers to locate in neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, healthy food.

These so-called “food deserts” are common in Houston, typically in poor areas such as Third Ward and Fifth Ward that also tend to have a high concentration of churches. Without the rule change, grocers – which industry experts say must offer beer and wine to be competitive – could not operate within 300 feet of churches and most private schools, or within 1,000 feet of public schools.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who helped lead efforts to pass the exemption and long has worked on the food desert issue, said an independent grocer has agreed to open a 20,000-square-foot store in south Houston, and said he has meetings scheduled soon with four large grocery chains.

“We’re talking to them about how the city can help them come into these under-served areas because, obviously, they’re taking a risk. There’s a reason they’re not there in the first place,” Costello said. “This item was one of the last variables we were trying to overcome. We’re figuring out ways to try to peel back the onion to get them to come into these areas.”

[…]

The language passed Wednesday defines a grocery store as covering at least 10,000 square feet of floor space, and excludes businesses that allow alcoholic drinks to be consumed on site and those that derive more than 25 percent of their gross receipts from booze sales.

Jane West, of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, said members of the civic club coalition were satisfied with the amended language. Still, West said the impact of the change may be limited.

“I hope it does, but I’m very skeptical it will actually provide the benefit it’s promised to provide,” she said. “To me, the risk is they’re just going to encourage more of the large convenience stores, the kind of stores they want to eliminate.”

As I said when this first came up, I didn’t understand the restriction on alcohol sales near churches. Be that as it may, this strikes me as a sensible approach, one that will still keep bars and liquor stores out of the affected areas. As to whether or not it will actually provide the promised benefit, the proof will be in whether or not any new grocery stores get built in places that had previously lacked them. CM Costello says one is in hand, and we’ll see when that announcement happens, and if any others follow it. Finally, for those of you that scoff at the whole notion of “food deserts” in the first place, just think of this as the city loosening some regulations in order to encourage new businesses. Does that make it feel better? Texpatriate has more.

Food deserts and booze bans

It’s complicated.

A city ordinance intended to keep alcohol sales at a distance from schools and churches could be relaxed for grocery stores in an effort to alleviate some of the so-called “food deserts” that plague poorer neighborhoods across Houston.

The City Council is expected to take up the proposed revisions this week in hopes of removing one of the many barriers keeping Houston’s struggling neighborhoods from landing large groceries, which experts say must offer beer and wine to be competitive.

The idea is to make more locations available for supermarkets in areas where residents lack access to fresh, healthy foods. Studies have linked food deserts to diet-related diseases, as well as higher food prices for the residents in such areas.

University of Houston researchers have estimated 26 percent of Harris County residents, most in low-income areas, lack access to healthy food, slightly above the national average.

One of those areas is Houston’s Fifth Ward. The neighborhood just northeast of downtown is home to scores of stray dogs, liquor stores, abandoned buildings, illegal dump sites strewn with tires, and many churches. The historic neighborhood is not home to a large grocery store that stocks what residents consider reliably good, fresh produce.

A city ordinance currently prohibits the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of churches, public hospitals and most private schools, and within 1,000 feet of public schools and some private schools.

In Fifth Ward, these restrictions mean full-size groceries cannot build on many of the tracts large enough to hold them, since churches often sit right across the street.

“To have a grocery store with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, everything, it would attract people to move into the area,” Fifth Ward civic activist Kathy Blueford-Daniels said. “It would have a positive impact on the community because people wouldn’t have to travel so far. A lot of the people here still ride buses.”

[…]

Many of the multi-acre sites suitable for a grocery store are on major thoroughfares, precisely where churches and schools tend to locate, said Councilman Stephen Costello, who has worked on the food desert problem.

“We started plotting out all the areas we wanted to focus on and started plotting where the churches and schools were and realized, ‘Wow, we’re limiting exactly where we can put these stores,’ ” Costello said. “Some of these grocery stores, a small part of their sales is going to be alcohol, it’s just a part of their business plan. We had to figure out a way that, if we allow for the encroachment, it’s only for grocery stores that predominantly sell nothing but food.”

Maybe it’s because I’m not particularly religious, but I don’t quite get the restriction on alcohol sales near churches. I get it for schools, but for churches that seems more like a Prohibition-era remnant of official disapproval rather than a piece of coherent public policy. It’s not a huge deal, but this sort of restrictions should not in any way impede the goal of enabling grocery stores to be built in neighborhoods that really need them. I’m sure Council will figure it out.

Working to solve the food desert problem

This is a success story on two levels.

A number of area grocery stores like Jim’s Super might not be around if it were not for a little-known local Vietnamese immigrant family.

John Vuong took over his first store in 1994, and his siblings, in-laws and he now operate 11 locations that are almost all in low-income, under-served areas.

With the help of a city of Houston initiative expected to launch soon, he hopes to open his first built-from-the-ground-up store next year.

It, too, would be in a low-income area, near Loop 610 South and Scott.

The idea of owning a new store thrills him, he said. His existing supermarkets are like “old used cars” in constant need of repair.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who is on the city’s grocery access task force, said approval of Vuong’s application has not been finalized, but he is confident it will be accepted and serve as the pilot for possible future projects in the Third and Fifth Wards, the East Side, South Side and Sunnyside.

For a family living in an area designated a “food desert,” where the only food source might be fast food or a convenience store, getting fresh meat, produce and other staples is a burden, especially if you have no car, said Allison Karpyn, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Food Trust, dedicated to bringing affordable nutritious food to more communities.

A food desert is defined as an area where there is no grocery store within a mile.

About 26 percent of Harris County residents lack access to healthy food, and the majority are in low-income areas, said Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance at the University of Houston. That’s slightly higher than the national average.

[…]

Soon after he was elected to City Council in 2010, Costello attended a meeting on affordable housing in Sunnyside. He recalled, “A 75-year-old woman stood up and said she grew up there, ‘and to this day I still don’t have a grocery store in my neighborhood.’ ”

Costello contacted the Food Trust for ideas and learned the nonprofit was already studying Houston. It released a report that year highlighting the need for more supermarkets in the city’s lower-income areas and the connection between the absence of such stores and diet-related disease.

The Food Trust held meetings with city leaders, members of the supermarket industry, including Grocers Supply, and community development and children’s health experts. Grocers Supply recommended Vuong as the ideal person to open a new store, Arnold said.

Vuong is asking for a little more than $1 million from the city and will invest a minimum of $2.4 million of his own money.

The cost of the initial investment would be too high for him to undertake on his own. The economics wouldn’t make sense, said Lance Gilliam, a partner at WSG Real Estate Advisors who served on the task force, because grocery stores have such slim profit margins, especially those in low-income areas.

The city is reviewing Vuong’s application, and Costello anticipates the city, its Housing and Community Development Department and the Houston Housing Finance Corp. will greenlight the proposal by year’s end.

See here for some background, though unfortunately that Food Trust report on Houston appears to be offline now. John Vuong is a classic American success story on his own, as an immigrant from Vietnam who built a thriving grocery business in traditionally underserved parts of town. The fact that he is seeking to expand on that success, and that the city is willing to partner with him to help improve the availability of fresh food in low income neighborhoods adds an extra dimension to his success. I wish them all the best in this venture.

Check this out

Scan while you shop, and other technological advances to get you checked out faster.

In February, San Antonio-based H-E-B invited customers to try out a new scanning “tunnel” for the first time at its McCreless Market location on South New Braunfels Avenue.

The company spent about three years developing the so-called Fast Scan technology, which lets cashiers at the end of the register focus on bagging the already-scanned items, said Jaren Shaw, H-E-B’s vice president of customer service. She said the company is in the “very early stages” of testing the checkout system and will wait to decide on expanding the concept.

“We were introduced to the concept of 360-degree item scanners in Europe a few years ago and have been watching the technology emerge since then,” Shaw said in a statement. “H-E-B took an inclusive approach and developed the checkout fixture based on feedback from customers” and employees.

[…]

Like H-E-B, Wal-Mart cited customer feedback as the catalyst behind the development of its mobile scanning app that it has piloted at more than 200 locations across the U.S.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer offers its Scan & Go service at stores in the Austin, Dallas and Houston areas.

There, shoppers can scan items on the Wal-Mart app, which then transfers the shopping list to one of the store’s self-checkout registers so customers can pay without re-scanning the products.

Wal-Mart plans to roll out the app to other mobile devices in the near future, spokeswoman Hardie said.

“We began testing the feature late last year in two markets, and so far this year, more than half of our customers have come back to use the technology a second time,” she said.

Recently, H-E-B has pulled the self-checkout registers from some stores.

“H-E-B’s top priority in checkout is to offer the best customer service while getting our customers through the line quickly,” spokeswoman Dya Campos said in an email. “We are not completely satisfied with the technology of self-checkout and the satisfaction of our customers as they interface with it.”

Eliminating self-checkout lanes follows a trend in other supermarkets. Wal-Mart is going the other way, with more reliance on self-checkout. That figures, since it means they can pay less on labor, which is the Wal-Mart way. That said, I like the idea of being able to scan purchases with one’s cellphone while shopping, so that when you’re done all you have to do is pay. Someday, that will be handled by your smartphone, too. I think that’s great as an option, but it’s not going to be for everyone, and it will be smart of retailers to give people more than one way to do it. What do you think?

“Zero waste” grocery store set to open

Coming soon to Austin.

The idea for a package-free organic grocery store started years ago when brothers Christian and Joseph Lane were discussing a simple business idea: refilling beer and wine bottles.

From there, they decided to include other basic grocery store offerings — meat, dairy, produce, bulk items and bread.

Next thing you know, the concept of a “zero-waste” grocery store was born.

The Lanes and a small group of partners are putting the finishing touches on their modest-sized store, called “in.gredients,” at 2610 Manor Road. The store is scheduled to open this summer.

Their idea is to cut out as much extraneous packaging as possible, with customers encouraged to bring their own containers for things like bulk items.

While there are some limitations as to what can be sold unpackaged because of health codes, “that’s part of our ethos, is to reduce waste and reduce unnecessary packaging,” said Brian Nunnery, head of business development. “And we would say that a lot of packaging that is out there right now is unnecessary.”

[…]

“We can’t open fast enough,” Joseph Lane said, adding that there is a desire for such a grocery in East Austin.

“You see a lot of folks in these neighborhoods that, you have to travel across (Interstate) 35, through campus and the nearest thing is Wheatsville (Co-op),” he said. “Wheatsville’s a great place, great people working there, but you’ve still got to go through all that to get there.”

See here for some background and here for their website. I’ll be very interested to see how this goes. I believe that if it’s successful there it ought to be viable in Houston as well; there are certainly plenty of parts of town that could use a real grocery store. Any Austin folks out there that are excited about this?

Wayside Wal-Mart update

From Nancy Sarnoff:

The East End of Houston has been called a “food desert” for its lack of grocery stores. But come next year, the area will be a little less dry.

Wal-Mart Stores said it will open a store at the corner of Interstate 45 and Wayside around the middle of next year. The company had been eyeing the spot for a 150,000-square-foot Supercenter for a while.

Construction details are still being completed, according to a spokeswoman.

“We are very excited about moving into and partnering with the East End community,” said Wal-Mart’s Kellie Duhr.

The store will be the second Walmart Supercenter inside the Loop. The first is being built near the Heights on Yale Street and should open this fall.

Source: Swamplot

We first heard about this almost exactly a year ago. Far as I know, there hasn’t been anywhere near the hue and cry over this location, which I daresay (and said at the time) is almost certainly because there are very few residences in the area, unlike the Heights Wal-Mart. I don’t know what the folks in the Idylwood neighborhood, on the other side of Sylvan Road, think about this, all I know is that if they hate it or love it, I haven’t heard it. This fits my perception of where big box retail belongs – adjacent to a highway, with direct access from the service road, and with separation from residential neighborhoods. I can’t quite tell from this Food Trust report on food deserts in Houston if that area qualifies as such, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s not exactly oversaturated with grocery options. Be all that as it may, here it comes whether you like it or not.

Studemont Kroger update

The Heights Life brings news about the proposed Kroger at Studemont and I-10. Of particular interest is this bit:

The property on which Kroger plans to build lies on the east side of Studemont north of Arne’s. The store will be at the south end of the property, facing the main customer parking lot to the north of the store. A fuel center will be placed at the north end of the property together with a small, secondary parking lot needed to fulfill code requirements.

Delivery docks will be located on the east and west faces of an extension on the south side of the store. The three main delivery dock doors will face east toward an industrial area. A small dock door will face west toward Studemont.

Hicks will be cut through to meet Summer Street on the east side of the property. The City’s intent is that this will become a through street, but there are some unspecified impediments. The portion of the block that is now Hicks will be improved to current City standards, and the whole block will be built like a City CIP project. Kroger will eventually dedicate that property to the City as street Right-of-Way in exchange for a smaller area of water/sewer ROW that the City will dedicate to Kroger. Access to the delivery docks will be from Hicks/Summer. An employee parking lot will occupy the portion of the lot south of Hicks/Summer next to Arne’s; Kroger expects that Arne’s will also use this lot at some point (possibly for its employees).

Couple things here. First, there may be “unspecified impediments” to extending Summer Street, but that doesn’t mean they are unknown. Behold, the view from where Summer dead ends heading eastbound at Oliver Street:

Presidential Heads Rear View

Yes, it’s the Giant Presidential Heads. And in what may be fortuitous timing or a harbinger of their doom, there’s this:

Now a source says that the [Alamo Drafthouse] plans to open a new central Houston location in the Sculpturworx compound. The 78,175-square-foot former studio of artist David Adickes (the man behind the giant president heads) was sold to Bartlett Lofts developers Phil Arnett and Chap Chapman in 2010, according to Swamplot, with plans for artists’ studios as well as significant commercial space.

That report may be a bit premature, but never mind that for now. Having an Alamo Drafthouse in there would greatly increase the need for and the value of a connected Summer Street. It also nearly guarantees a traffic light at the Studemont intersection, which I predicted in February. If nothing else, having Arne’s employees, and possibly its customers, park there will necessitate a stoplight, as the pedestrian crossing at I-10 isn’t really safe due to the right turn from the service road onto Studemont, which isn’t controlled by the light. Given what a mess that area can be during the evening rush hour, I’d hold out for a pedestrian crossing bridge as an alternative, but I don’t expect anyone to listen to me on that.

Anyway. As both Swamplot and Houston Politics note, the development is up for a 380 agreement this week. If that happens, and if the extension of Koehler Street to 2nd at the Heights Wal-Mart happens, you will be able to travel directly from one 380 agreement location to another, without using I-10 or Washington to get there. Just take 2nd to Harvard and turn on Hicks, then follow it along – see this Google map for the details. Note that Hicks passes over Studemont – it’s what on top of that underpass you pass under – and voila, there you are. Keep that in your back pocket for when you might need it.

Self service checkout at supermarkets

This AP story about supermarkets scaling back on self service checkout aisles, which was recently in the Chron business section, has been making the rounds in the progressive blogs.

Market studies cited by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute found only 16 percent of supermarket transactions in 2010 were done at self-checkout lanes in stores that provided the option. That’s down from a high of 22 percent three years ago.

Overall, people reported being much more satisfied with their supermarket experience when they used traditional cashier-staffed lanes.

Supermarket chains started introducing self-serve lanes about 10 years ago, touting them as an easy way for shoppers to scan their own items’ bar codes, pay, bag their bounty and head out on their way. Retailers also anticipated a labor savings, potentially reducing the number of cashier shifts as they encouraged shoppers to do it themselves.

The reality, though, was mixed. Some shoppers loved them and were quick converts, while other reactions ranged from disinterest to outright hatred , much of it shared on blogs or in Facebook groups.

An internal study by Big Y found delays in its self-service lines caused by customer confusion over coupons, payments and other problems; intentional and accidental theft, including misidentifying produce and baked goods as less-expensive varieties; and other problems that helped guide its decision to bag the self-serve lanes.

It’s interesting that this story comes out at a time when Kroger is running billboards that feature its checkers saying things like “We’ll open an extra checkout lane for you”. Nice to know that providing good customer service is still seen as a competitive advantage at least some of the time.

I’ve used the self-serve lanes at supermarkets, but only when I have a small number of items – basically, I find it to be a quicker option than the Express lane, mostly because there’s almost always a self-serve kiosk available. At Kroger, there are four of them in a given lane. But for someone with a week’s worth of groceries in their cart, there’s no way this will be a time saver, because you have to bag your own items in addition to checking them. I don’t see how the chains could have viewed these as anything but a supplement to their existing setup, not a replacement for it. If they did make that mistake, they seem to have learned from it.

Phil Lempert, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based food industry analyst, noted that supermarkets have a few other motivations to get rid of the self-serve lanes beyond customer service.

They will eventually need to replace their checkout computers to read newly emerging types of bar codes, so there’s little business sense in keeping and replacing those self-serve machines if they’re not well-used anyway, he said.

Perhaps more important, he said, the growing trend toward using bar code-reading programs on smartphones is likely to change everything in supermarket shopping over time.

Maybe someday you’ll be able to scan while you shop and have the total automatically billed to your credit card, or debited from your bank/PayPal/Google/whatever account. Bring your own bags with you to put stuff in as you pick it up and you can leave directly as soon as you’re done. I can get behind that.

Food deserts in Houston

If you listened to the interview I did with CM Stephen Costello, you would have heard him talk about “food deserts” in Houston, which is a problem to which he has turned his attention. This Chron story goes into some detail about that.

[Costello] wants Houston’s city government to lure supermarkets to neighborhoods with few places to buy produce. He is talking about tax breaks, sales tax rebates, utility subsidies, even using public dollars to buy the land for a private business.

“When you look at bringing in a grocery store into an under-served area, you improve the health of the community and you improve the quality of life of the neighborhood,” said the At-Large Position 1 city councilman.

During budget deliberations last month, Costello tried unsuccessfully to insert an amendment that would have given priority to projects that bring healthy food to under-served areas as the city decides which developers deserve subsidies and incentives. The city, he argued, should take action to eliminate “food deserts” — areas where healthy and affordable food is difficult to come by.

The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to making healthy food available to everyone, issued a report last year that found Houston to have a shortage of supermarkets and said that the shortage is most acute in low-income neighborhoods.

The Food Trust says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted more obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health problems in neighborhoods that have no supermarkets.

You can find the Food Trust report on Houston here. It should be noted that the problems associated with these neighborhoods that lack supermarkets are more complicated than that, but that is a big part of it, and it’s something local government can do to ameliorate.

The city is planning a supermarket summit this fall, according to Laura Spanjian, Houston’s sustainability director. Costello is seeking grocers interested in opening up shop in Sunnyside, the Antoine Drive area and the East End. He also is searching for foundations that fund public health initiatives. He is researching economic development tools the city could use to encourage supermarkets to locate in the neighborhoods.

Spanjian praised Costello’s efforts, which complement such city initiatives as community gardens and farmers markets in under-served neighborhoods. Spanjian said a local nonprofit has submitted a proposal for grant funding for a fleet of produce mobiles that would cruise the city like ice cream trucks. The city also is trying to pair convenience store owners with produce vendors to get more fruits and vegetables onto limited shelf space.

All of these ideas sound pretty good to me. Some may work better than others, but you won’t know until you try.

“Zero waste” grocery stores

This is a really interesting idea.

That environmentally friendly canvas shopping bag you proudly lug to the grocery store is about to get a lot more full, if you do your shopping in Austin, Texas.

You’ll need to fill it with your own reusable containers, because cereal boxes and beer bottles will be a thing of the past at In.gredients, a new-age grocery store opening in Austin later this year.

The company behind the idea says the concept is to create a shopping experience that forgoes any kind of packaging and instead lets customers buy as much or as little as they need by filling their own containers.

“Essentially it’s a very simple model, a throwback to old times,” said In.gredients co-founder Joseph Lane of Brothers Lane, LLC, which consists of Lane, his two brothers, and a friend of the family. “We were looking at a way of using these old methods to make it more convenient and easier for customers to participate in a zero waste lifestyle.”

[…]

Another component of the project, said Lane, is to follow a trend that he says is leaning toward Americans wanting to buy in bulk as opposed to traditional quantities. He believe that shopping this way will also be a cheaper option for shoppers.

“If you look at bulk foods, they are 35 percent cheaper than their packaged food equivalents. You’re not paying for marketing, or additional packaging, and you can also buy as little or as much as you need,” said Lane.

The Daily Texan notes another wrinkle to this idea:

Rather than open next to a major chain grocer for competition, the store targets areas known as food deserts, where healthy, affordable food is hard to come by; it plans to open in East Austin, which has more taquerias per square mile than grocery stores.

“We want to bring back the neighborhood grocer and get into areas where good food is missing,” Lane said. “There are convenient stores filled with junk food, but not neighborhood grocery stores with good quality food.”

See the Texas Green Report for a brief video overview of the In.gredients model. Sure, the idea of package-less food is a little radical, but I think this could work, especially if it allows In.gredients to compete on price. Whole Foods is many things, but your low cost option is not one of them. Combine that with locations in underserved areas and they may have a winner on their hands. According to the Trib, the Lane brothers have raised over 60% of their target capital and have enough to launch the store in the fall. If this works, they will look at expanding. I’d love to see them take a crack at Houston if that happens. What do you think about this?