The town of Wilcannia, at the edge of Australia’s Outback, has never been big enough to attract the attention of Australia’s supermarket oligopoly. There is a single market in the town center, privately owned, and frequently accused of price-gouging. As the nearest supermarket is 200 km away in Broken Hill, unless Wilcannians favour a four-hour round-trip drive, they have had to make do with what was on offer.
On the 8th of August, ABC News reported that Wilcannia’s grocer had locked its doors – without any warning, or any explanation. Suddenly, townspeople were unable to buy over-the-counter medicines (including insulin, a real worry), to say nothing of fresh produce. No one had any idea when or even if the grocer would reopen, a blow from which Wilcannia could not easily recover.
Australia’s gigantic supermarket chains – Coles and Woolworths – both offer online shopping experiences: select your items, go through checkout, and arrange a convenient delivery time. Unfortunately, neither company’s delivery area covers Wilcannia, but that’s a problem easily solved by aggregating individual purchases into a single delivery (perhaps one delivery every other day) which would easily cover the transportation costs.
The biggest issue overall would be one of access. Wilcannia’s residents are generally not well-to-do, and many don’t have smartphones. The town may not even have 3G mobile broadband. The number of Internet-connected computers would be low. Here, there’s room for a service that used human power to aggregate the order-taking; order-takers could travel from household to household, helping each household place and pay for an order, in return receiving a payment for this work. Between the distributed order-taking and the additional transportation costs, purchases would be a bit more expensive than if made directly in Broken Hill, but when time and petrol are factored in, it would probably be a bit less expensive than an individual trip to Broken Hill – and far less expensive than the now-closed town grocery store.
This is the kind of vertical specialization that can thrive in connected markets. Everyone needs food, making it possible to create a framework to aggregate and fulfil that need. In this case, it doesn’t even require that everyone have a mobile, or the latest mobile, or access to high-speed networking. Human networks can fill in where telecommunications do not yet (and may never) reach.
This co-operative model could work for any community in rural Australia which wants the benefits of big-city markets within the comfort and community of a small town, bringing jobs to those areas, providing needed competition to monopoly vendors. It would take a bit of groundwork to bring such a system to Wilcannia, but once perfected there, it could quickly be replicated across the nation. It’s the appification of the supermarket.