Reliance on food delivery apps is nothing new, throughout history essentials have been brought to our doors

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The rise of delivery apps for emergency groceries seems unstoppable. Think Deliveroo, Gorillas, Gopuff, Zapped, UberEats and Getir. No longer just for the occasional takeaway, these apps now encourage us to order everyday essentials and have them delivered to our homes, often in a matter of minutes.

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The shift began before the pandemic – countries like Turkey and the US had budding platforms pre-2020 – but two years of stop-start lockdowns and shopping restrictions have spawned more. But how do the e-scooters and bikes of app-led delivery companies compare to the past? Is this a seismic change in our shopping habits, or have we all been here before?

We think of home delivery as relatively new, but it isn’t. Online deliveries from supermarkets only got going in the late 1990s, yes, but go back 100 years and customers (or at least wealthy ones) could order remotely and expect daily deliveries. You couldn’t ring for a bottle of wine and expect it 15 minutes later, but you could expect a responsive shopkeeper and deliveries to the door.

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Country houses were enthusiastic early adopters of the telephone, but even before then you could always send a servant with a note. Settling up was done at regular intervals, and if you were wealthy enough, no need to even enter the shop: instead the shopkeeper would come to you, sitting in a carriage outside. Not quite PayPal, but not exactly onerous.

Prior to the mid-20th century, however, shopping itself was very different. Shops were based on counters and personal service. Whether you wanted tea, bread or gloves, you’d enter, sit down, chat over your needs, and wait while things were measured out and packaged up. Self-service came in during the 1950s, and it caused quite the furore. The personal nature of shopping was removed, and the shopper was stuck with what the manufacturer wanted them to buy, in the quantities they wanted to sell in, rather than choosing the exact quantity you needed: think prepacked parmesan versus cut while you wait. Shop staff were deskilled. But it was quicker, less subject to the vagaries of the shopkeeper, and while some hated it, others embraced it. By the 1960s supermarkets seemed unstoppable.

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When it comes to modern day and these delivery apps, it’s very easy to overstate their importance. Very few deliver outside major urban areas – I live in a small town in East Anglia, and with the exception of Deliveroo (which has groceries via the One-Stop) the apps don’t deliver. However, small towns do face similar challenges to bigger ones – today’s denuded high streets don’t make emergency shopping easy.

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A town of 8,000 people in 1900 would have supported at least 10 butchers, greengrocers, a fishmonger, and several general grocers, many open long hours. Shopping locally was part of life. It’s entirely possible you’d have been able to get your sausages faster in 1900 than in 2022 if you don’t live in London – at least if you were prepared to step outside the door.

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One of the charges levied at the likes of Deliveroo is that they’ve made us lazy, unable and unwilling to plan and buy accordingly, or to walk to a local shop. But surveys of shopping habits in the past show that very few people ever did one big shop a week with no top ups. It was the ideal in 1970s and 1980s, when out-of-town supermarkets boomed, and the car was king. But there were always those without cars, those who couldn’t afford a weekly (or monthly) shop or those who preferred to shop on an ad-hoc basis.

Even in the 18th century, when well-stocked high streets were in their infancy, and many goods needed ordering from urban centres – tea, spices, chocolate and other luxuries especially – not everyone was a planner. Some people stockpiled: others paid for expedited delivery and others just cursed their lack of organisation.

It’s easy to decry the rise of fast delivery services as pandering to a cash-rich, time-poor user base who don’t care about the high street and can’t plan ahead. But we shouldn’t forget that app-based ordering is a massive boon to those with mobility issues or who can’t get to a shop: it’s not just about drunk people who need crisps or cooks who forgot they were out of soy sauce. How we shop has always changed depending on our needs, our wealth and our geography.

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There are genuine concerns – over worker welfare, environmental sustainability, consumer choice and other issues – but let’s not pretend that change is something new. Ultimately, the way we shop is driven by the way we want to shop, whether it’s perched at the grocery counter choosing between stoned and unstoned sultanas, or clicking between beers from the comfort of the sofa.

Dr Annie Gray is a food historian



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