Our Remarkably Fast Pivot, ‘Go Local – Connect Global’

Not far from my home in Alexandria, Virginia, is America’s oldest continuously operating farmers’ market. George Washington sent his plantation’s fresh produce to this market around the time of the birth of our Nation.

What is old is new again.

Yes, farmers’ markets had been making a slow, steady comeback over the past few decades, when Something quite unexpected happened: COVID-19.

Along with this life-menacing virus came a resurgence in “old-style” grocery shopping. With most restaurants closed, we collectively increased our buying of food in various different ways.

Grocery shopping is changing.

Our farmers’ market is semi-closed. We can no longer walk through the market, browsing and picking up various items, due to our social-distancing rules. However, we can order our favorite vegetables, fruits, and specialty items for packaged pickup during the normal Saturday farmers’ market hours.

We simply go online and select a box of fresh vegetables from a West Virginia farmer who offers “one-day-old, grown-in-a-10-acre-greenhouse” produce.

On Saturday morning we go and pick up a week’s worth of fresh vegetables. It’s amazing to see how the greens retain their freshness! Even the most expensive, freshest selection of local grocery store produce can’t stand up to these quality standards!

After two weeks of driving by and picking up our pre-packaged boxes from our Mountain State farmer, we are no longer buying “fresh” produce at our local supermarket. Why would we buy produce shipped from up to 3,000 miles away, picked weeks before, then transported to our store and just days away from turning bad?

We’re being habituated. You read that correctly. There is a permanent change taking place in our grocery buying behavior.

Let’s take a look at grocery shopping… at grocery stores.

With the sudden shock of a highly virulent germ in our midst, it became a bit surreal and increasingly frustrating to try to social-distance in grocery stores, with aisles six feet or less in width. Compound that with feeling like you’re Cool Hand Luke carrying your groceries through a Plexiglas social-distancing shopping queue.

Cue the online grocery application.

Today you may know how online grocery shopping works. But less than one year ago, only 10% of the population had tried online grocery shopping, and only 3% consistently online shopped.

So, how exactly does online grocery shopping work? Here is the place where, as my good friend Dean Jackson notes, “Mainlandia meets Cloudlandia.”

Mainlandia is where we do all of those analog things such as driving to the grocery store, shopping, checking out, and driving home.

Cloudlandia, conversely, is a digital realm – the “internet of things.” In this example, it’s the digital interface of online grocery shopping.

Here’s how it works. First, you open your favorite online grocery application on your smart device. You select various groceries while you shop digitally in the cloud. Once you have filled your digital grocery cart, you proceed to select a time slot when you will pick up your real groceries at the real grocery store.

You start at your home in Mainlandia, then drive to your grocery store at the selected time. Your groceries, filled from Cloudlandia, are loaded into your vehicle outside the store. Then you drive home and unload them.

Such digital grocery shopping was already slowly gaining favor in pre-virus days, but today’s pandemic spurred it forward on steroids! Recently one of the top online grocery CEOs noted that the spike in activity makes every day look like Black Friday. It’s estimated that 43% of Americans will try online grocery shopping by mid-June.

There are now keenly observant innovators in this space.

For example, there is a restaurant owner who over the past several years has been collecting emails and other pertinent information about his customers’ eating and dining preferences. When COVID-19 forced him to close his restaurant, he began thinking of another way to pivot and make money in this “new normal.” He quickly noticed, like most of us, the bare shelves for paper goods, eggs, meat, and other essentials at his local grocery store.

He got an idea! Since his restaurant’s supply chain differs from the grocery store’s supply chain, he could order many of those items missing from grocery store shelves.

This is where Mainlandia meets Cloudlandia. Having gathered contact information, along with various preferences of his restaurant patrons, he was now able to text and email them the opportunity to order these hard-to-get essentials from his restaurant!

Just like the West Virginia produce farmer, the restauranteur pre-packaged and boxed his customers’ online orders; they then arrived in time slots and picked up the much needed essentials at his restaurant.

Problem solved…for him and his customers!

There are opportunities in every terrible situation. The horrendous loss of life by those stricken by the virus is unfathomable. The suffering and sorrow of family members and friends is beyond words. During dire times, recessions and economic loss, more entrepreneurs step up to challenges than during prosperous times.

Time and again, Americans have demonstrated the laudable ability to rise to the occasion when under duress. We’re not only coming together to help one another, but also to figure out new ways to solve real- world, immediate problems.

Back to our example: Grocery shopping seems to be going much more digital, but at the same time, going back to our roots. The victory gardens of the World War I and World War II eras have now transformed into organically grown farm-fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs. We are back to the quality of food we experienced a century ago.

What is old is new again.

Today, flour and baking essentials are very hard to find on your local grocery shelves. The classic King Arthur Flour of old is now in very short supply. Isn’t it interesting how cakes, cookies, and bread are suddenly being made in kitchens that until recently rarely saw a loaf of bread rising on the stove top? Our quarantine’s hottest new hobby has taken us light years beyond the holiday sugar cookies and fruit cakes produced by those who still remember how to bake.

We’re learning to stay local – to shelter-in-place, stimulate our instincts, and expand our insights.

You know – bake a batch of blondies and brownies, knock on your neighbor’s door, set them down, stand back, then offer them when the door opens – since everyone is social-distancing. How about the get- togethers in cul-de-sacs and on side streets by neighbors who until recently just waved from their cars as they drove into their garages and closed their electronic doors?

We are walking more. Some of us are biking more. We are gathering, albeit in groups of 10 or less, at least six feet apart, to expand social relationships with our neighbors.

In the past two months, I’ve had more interactions with my neighbors than the last five years. It feels like yesteryear. That past time when we knew all of our neighbors, their extended families and who they were, whether we wanted to or not.

The summer season is fast approaching. We will reject, at least partially, flying with strangers who possibly have the virus, traveling inside an enclosed aluminum tube for multiple hours just to reach our favorite faraway destination.

Indeed, many of us may revert to the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when the majority of family vacations were driving vacations — often visiting relatives along the way, tent and cabin camping, falling asleep under the stars after roasting marshmallows and enjoying s’mores around a campfire. Indeed, there’s probably much more “glamping” in our near future — upscale camping with amenities and comforts such as beds, electricity, and access to indoor plumbing.

But it’s still too early to tell exactly how we will be habituated.

As a result of COVID-19, we definitely are becoming more globally connected through technology. My coach, Dan Sullivan, co-founder of The Strategic Coach®, stresses the revolutionary importance of this “go local, connect global” phenomenon via technology. Who hasn’t tried the cloud-based Zoom video-conferencing app yet? Not too many of us, unless one’s unfortunate not to have a camera and a microphone-equipped smart device, laptop, or desktop computer for online social chats, telecommuting and distance education.

At Coyle, we have been using Zoom for the past four years. As with many new technologies – from the Alexa smart speaker, to texting, to smartphones – it takes time, sometimes years, to change our habits. What is absolutely amazing is the seemingly instantaneous adoption of video communication in March-April 2020. We no longer have to cajole, plead, entice or reward our family members, friends, and others to join us for frequent video communication. New-tech adoption happened overnight!

It’s simply amazing how an existential, invisible foe has suddenly connected us in an otherwise disconnected world — challenging us to find innovative ways to stand together by staying apart. The technologically global part of this “new normal,” this new habituation, has rocked our world. From online family reunions and business conferences to education, exercise classes, grocery shopping, and restaurant takeout, we have transformed our lives. A remarkably quick pivot, with scant resistance.

Out of adversity comes opportunity.

It has happened before. In 1918, when the global influenza pandemic broke out, few Americans had telephones. And for those who did, telephone capacity problems from call congestion quickly became a systems-engineering nightmare. Using Danish-born engineer Agner Krarup Erlang’s formulas to better manage “teletraffic,” by the early 1920s 1 in 8 people in the U.S. had a phone connection. Phones began ringing with national news, family announcements, health reports, weather updates, even lullabies sung by grandparents.

“Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.”

– George Washington

Adversity reveals character. Out of adversity can come triumph.

Recall the contributions of scientific pioneers Edward Jenner (smallpox vaccine), Robert Koch (tuberculosis, cholera, anthrax), Alexander Fleming (penicillin), Max Theiler (yellow fever), and Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin (polio). Consider how chemical engineer Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau transitioned penicillin from a petri-dish discovery in 1928 to its widespread lifesaving use in World War II.

The Nobel-winning physician who discovered mosquito-borne malaria transmission, Ronald Ross, once noted that it takes a decade or more to understand a new idea. But today’s COVID-19 pandemic urgently tightens that calendar.

Americans have always come together in a crisis.

We band together in new ways to support each other and defeat an enemy. This time, it’s a treacherous, unseen one with the front lines established by valiant healthcare professionals instead of by soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen.

We plant our victory gardens, reconnect with our neighbors, adopt new social-distancing technology, and try to be helpful and kind in this time of radical disruption. As we quickly adapt and deftly respond, we write a new narrative about our lives and livelihoods.

Poet Tomas Roberts, in his YouTube blog, “The Strangest of Times,” emphasizes that this is by no means the apocalypse: We are survivors by nature / And coming together is how we overcome danger.”

To repeat — we’ve been here before. Today’s COVID- 19 may remind historians of the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic that caused 20,000 people, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and much of the federal government, to flee the city. A tenth of the capital’s residents, some 5,000 people, perished in this ghastly outbreak.

Yet out of this plague came greater civic cleanliness, incoming-vessel inspections, stricter quarantines, construction of a city waterworks system, and the building of new hospitals and orphanages.

Out of adversity can come innovation and hope.

Thanks to the courageous service of Dr. Benjamin Rush and other medical workers during the 1793 plague, Philly soon revived and thrived……eventually enabling George Washington, later retired to his Mount Vernon home in Virginia, to bring his farm-fresh produce to nearby Alexandria’s open-air market.

Our founding fathers’ “Great American Experiment” continues.


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