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Prime Now a throwback to the 1920s

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POSTED August 29, 2017 1:41 a.m.

Before the arrival in Manteca of the technology that experts proclaimed would change the world — telephone service invented by Alexander Graham Bell — there was just one place to shop for groceries.
The Manteca Cash & Carry had a footprint that rivaled a 7-Eleven in size yet was the Target store of its day. You could buy everything there. Keep in mind that this was 1898 and “everything” a consumer could desire at a general store was in the hundreds of items as opposed to the “limited” offerings of 25,000 plus items planned for the Amazon distribution/delivery center targeted to open in the next few months on Louise Avenue in Manteca.
Going back 119 years, most people shopped general stores to secure supplies they couldn’t grow or make. A trip to the general store was an adventure of sorts. Very few people lived around the Manteca town site. It entailed for most hitching a horse or two to a wagon and heading into town. You didn’t shop in the evenings or on Sundays.
The advent of the automobile and extension of telephone lines first strung along country fences for the most past as if it was barbed wire, started changing the dynamics of the marketplace.
By the time the 1920s rolled around and America was 45 years away from a new generation stunning their elders by going grocery shopping with their hair in curlers and wearing pedal pushers, the Model T and more muscular phone service disrupted the retail food world. Also the concept that Piggy Wiggly pioneered in 1916 in Memphis — self -service shopping instead of having a clerk fill your order — was spreading.
The Model T allowed an increase in the frequency of trips to the store. Retailers wanting to get one up on the competition started offering phone orders. You called the store with your order. A stock boy filled your order in a cardboard box and then delivered it to your home. Your bill was put on a tab that you paid once a week or so.
The post-World War II economy accelerated the spread of supermarkets where dry grocery goods, meats and produce could be bought under one roof in a place that offered ample free parking.
Supermarkets were considered the driving force behind lower retail food prices. It took less people to serve more consumers while offering more products. Delivery service at such stores originally known as drive-in markets was non-existent.
Buying groceries in Manteca didn’t change drastically again until the 1990s when Safeway opened a Pak-n-Save store on South Main Street that offered consumers the ability to shop 24/7.
The coming of Amazon’s Prime Now in the next few months to Manteca and the surrounding region is as much a step backward as it is a step forward.
The two hour delivery service after placing an order is nothing new. It was done for decades by stores who placed your order in boxes for teen-age stock boys to deliver. Instead of dropping the order on your porch, or if you are lucky, handing it to you at the door, they’d lug the boxes into to your kitchen table and place them on the table. And you didn’t have to pay $99 a year for the service or have a minimum order.
Granted today you can use an app and not have to talk to a human when you place an order. And paying is devoid of risk for the retailer since you pay via an ATM, credit card or PayPal before the order is placed instead of having it go on your tab.
Whether it is ultimately cheaper after Amazon rips a page from its playbook to cut into the competition’s revenue stream by taking losses on items they sell until they hook people on the convenience has yet to be seen.
Three things, however, are for sure. It will retard the growth of brick and mortar supermarkets and eventually the relationship between consumer and retailer will evolve making Amazon Prime Now seem primitive. The third is of less concern to consumers but it will happen. Wages at places like SaveMart and Food-4-Less will either stagnant or recede in order for the stores to stay competitive while the Godzillas and Mothras battling for online market share bring havoc to the retail landscape in a bid to establish supremacy.
The fact Manteca is growing may blunt to a degree how deep of an impact Prime Now will have on the marketplace. And certainly the people using the service as well as paying extra for one-hour delivery can afford it.
But to assume Prime Now is the end all would seem as foolish to say as anyone a century ago stating emphatically that telephone service was the ultimate pinnacle of mode for human communication.
As for me, I’d have a tough time trusting someone else to pick out my apples, bananas, and other fresh fruit and veggies let alone pay more for convenience than I already do.
 Prime Now is designed not to bring lower prices to consumers forever but ultimately to fatten Amazon’s bottom line. Just like Walmart, 7-Eleven, Target, Dollar General, Raley’s, Food-4-Less et al Amazon at the end of the day has to make a profit. How that works out for consumers 10 years down the road is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, be careful out there as soon there will be hundreds of other “pizza delivery” folks on the streets playing beat the clock.

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