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Remember when $20 worth of groceries would fill the back of a station wagon?
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

The lady ahead of us in Costco spent just under $20 for three jars of food items.

For starters I’m sure anyone who leaves Costco without spending at least $100 is probably flagged by Homeland Security for what is clearly an un-American act.

If god hadn’t intended for a quick trio to Costco not to cost at least $100 he never would have inspired the folks in Kirkland, Wash., to come up with the idea of selling to the masses 105-ounce containers of French’s Classic Yellow Mustard, $8 bags of pre-popped gourmet popcorn or the idea of marketing bedroom furniture to people making a trip to the store for roasted chicken and toilet paper.

It got me to thinking what $20 used to buy during a trip to the grocery store.

Growing up my mom would head to Carnival Market in Roseville, fill a shopping cart and end up with four to five large bags of groceries to feed a family of five for almost a week. This was back in 1963 when Roseville was still an honest-to-goodness railroad town with the same population Ripon has today.

Today $20 will barely buy enough to fill a somewhat smaller bag that you have to provide on a trip to Food-4-Less.

I actually cringe when there is someone ahead of me in line grocery shopping and the bill comes to almost $200 yet they still have room left in their shopping cart as they go out the door.

A lot has changed in how we buy groceries today. Most markets no longer have a meat counter where butchers custom cut meat to a customer’s request. We no longer haul empty soda bottles back to the store. The concept of a courtesy clerk — a position that once provided teens their first job experience — that not only bagged your groceries but actually loaded them into your car has gone the way of statewide Republican officeholders in California. Grocers no longer give kids free candy and there are no “game pieces” with each trip to the store to piece together a puzzle for prizes.

Today supermarkets are fighting for market share in a changing world that includes dollar chains, drug stores selling groceries, and even inroads from online shopping.

The fear that online shopping for groceries will ultimately wipe out brick and mortar is a fantasy fueled by the assumption once Amazon et al manage to lay waste to them they will go the way of the Model T.

There are only two problems with that. Free or subsidized shipping and prices for select items that may be below cost is a strategy that will disappear when enough people are hooked on the convenience and shareholders who have patiently bankrolled the online juggernaut start demanding a reasonable return instead of being tossed table scraps.

If you think remotely placing an order and having it brought to your door is a new concept that will survive the ages, guess again.

Before supermarkets started popping up in large numbers after World War II, the standard business model of many grocery stores relied heavily on phone in delivery service.

After placing an order, a delivery boy would collect the items from shelves in a store, put them in cardboard boxes that were used to deliver food goods to the store, and then drive them to the customer. More often than not they would walk the boxes of groceries into the customer’s kitchen and would even unpack them to take the boxes back for reuse instead of the customer trying to figure whether they go into a brown or blue cart. They never left boxes on front door steps. You could usually count on the same delivery boy showing up each time and you knew them on a first name basis.

It also wasn’t unusual for people to have standing orders meaning they didn’t need a $3,000 smart refrigerator and an app to automatically have a food vendor replenish their shelves via a delivery service.

The delivery model and smaller groceries went to the wayside with the advent of families with multiple cars and the explosion of suburbia set the stage for self-serve supermarkets where you could get food cheaper and could actually pick out your own produce.

The bottom line that ultimately drives everything is price. Convenience is nice but if you can’t afford it or suddenly realize what you thought was an incredible time saver is actually preventing you from being able to afford things like a roof over your head, you change your tune.

The odds are the Door Dash model will eventually worm its way into online grocery shopping once a critical mass of hooked customers is obtained. Not only does Door Dash charge you a delivery fee but they will also jack up the price of items you order. It’s a great way to stretch that $10.50 Taco Bell order into $18 because you simply don’t want to make a run for the border.

We will bellyache about the price of things and not having any money but we won’t think twice about eating out or — worse yet — eating in and paying someone who delivers it that also bumps up the price of food.

Small restaurants and delis had delivery services in many places long before Door Dash or even Domino’s Pizza popped up. The big difference is before e-commerce, restaurants that delivered food to your home or office charged you the same as if you were an in-restaurant customer with the only extra charge being a tip for the delivery guy that you would have left as a tip for a waiter if you had dined at a restaurant.

Convenience may be a necessary evil, so to speak sometimes, but unless you’re flush with money it is a big budget buster.

Making it all the more rich is the fact we will moan and groan about the price of food going up when it’s often  our own actions making it do so. You could actually argue it would go down if we didn’t insist on others doing the work of fetching it whether it is in the form of groceries or prepared food.

Underscoring that are United States Department of Agriculture statistics that show since 1930 when the typical American household spent 24.2 percent of its annual income on food  that was prepared at home or eaten out, the cost of food for families dropped steadily before dropping down to under 10 percent of a household’s annual income by 2000. That’s even with the advent of convenience food and more dining out. The USDA statistics in recent years have started inching upwards toward the typical household once again spending double digits when it comes to food as a percentage of annual household income.

You can thank our growing reliance on things such as Door Dash and other strategies and not the American farmer. To make more money, farmers have to grow more per acre. For the bottom feeders on the food chain — delivery services — they have to convince you to pay more for what you can get for less.

“Innovation” may seem so trendy and wonderful but it is often simply reworking the same-old products in such a manner that consumers gleefully fork over more regardless of the impact to either their personal short or long term financial bottom line.