bulk food

Several months ago in the early evening I had an little design revelation in the local grocery store–New Season–shopping for some bulk ingredients.  It was a busy time of the evening, rush hour type traffic through this part of the market, about six p.m., people busily gathering supplies to take home to their families for dinner.  It was so busy that I could not easily access a few of the containers I needed to get to.  I backed up and watched the scene for a minute.  People were in a rush, scooping food, hurriedly scrawling codes onto twist ties, returning to the bins they needed, food was going onto the floor, employees were trying to re-stock several items (probably by request), and some people were coming to the top or bottom of the isle, looking at the congestion and continuing on, not wanting to engage in the crowd.  I looked carefully at what was going on and had an epiphany.


I know many people for whom the bulk food section is their favorite part of the store.  It is certainly one of the most tactile and intuitive: you go there, see what you want, and take EXACTLY as much as you need.  In this way it is as raw as the deli, the meat department, or the produce department: you take only what you want and use minimal packaging.  The means and methods for delivering the product to the customer seem to be a holdover from the old days, like the old fashioned hardware store, where you slip all the bolts you need into a paper bag, and tell the cashier what’s in the bag; he or she weighs it and checks you out.  It is based on the honor system and seems to work better when there is no real rush.  There are several places where significant delays occur: procuring the right code–which means remembering, if only for a short time, the code for the thing you want–getting a bag, and then most often SCOOPING material into a bag and tying it off.  There is also the chance that a code could be misremembered or even intentionally misconstrued, adding confusion and possible loss of revenue.  There is the additional risk that when people are scooping, they make an error and spill food onto the floor.

Standing there, watching this display of modern food gathering, the epiphany I had was this: that about 95% of all the food in the bulk section could be gravity fed.  Basically all of that which is currently scooped could be put up overhead in gravity-fed dispensers and fall through a supply channel to a demand faucet or sluice.  Additionally, if there were a ticket with a pre-printed code on it for each item, dispensed with the item, and bags obviously displayed, the customer could much more easily procure the food, label it and be done.  With this design innovation, almost none of the bulk food would be stocked from the ground.  All stocking could take place overhead, where bulk food could be stored, easily accessed, and re-stocked at basically any time of day, without employees getting in the way of the client. Notice the tremendous real estate over the bulk food area.  A significant volume could be stored over the bulk food section. Only the essential items such as pineapples, dried pasta, dried apricots and so forth would be stored below, where tongs or scoops were needed.  Everything else would flow from above.  If scoops and open containers were eliminated, the system would likewise be much more hygienic, with virtually no chance of spreading germs to the product.

A couple of drawings I generated along the lines of this idea:


And some precursory solutions:


Thus ensuring that human hands touch as little of the bulk food goods as possible.  I think we like the experience of the interactive media as well: grasping a bronze handle and watching the food tumble out.