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What cardboard demand says about online grocery

online grocery generic

At first you might not think of cardboard as a bellwether for the economy, but it is.

And cardboard sales are dropping fast.

This is no doubt good news if you’re a cardboard purchaser, but, says Freight Waves, “it’s the latest indicator that consumer demand is eroding following the pandemic. Dwindling savings, inflation, rising interest rates and fears of a recession may all be swaying consumers to spend less.” Cardboard demand is plummeting – FreightWaves

Fears of a recession are so pervasive at this point that you wonder if certain interests actually want one.

I’m not sure about cardboard and the general economy, but it seems likely to me that a drop in online purchasing may be the biggest factor. In December, U.S. online grocery sales were up 2.4 percent over last December, but all the gains were in grocery pick-up, as both delivery and ship-to-home fell. December online grocery sales grow, led by pickup – Produce Blue Book

It makes sense. A lot of people bought groceries online for delivery during the pandemic. Now that it’s (virtually) over, they are going back to stores, either to shop themselves or pick up their groceries that professionals selected for them.

My sense of online grocery purchasing hasn’t changed: there will always be a market for it—among the elderly, the disabled, the agoraphobic—and for them it provides a real and needed service. High-earning people with more money than time are also likely to take advantage of it. And I certainly would if I lived in an urban high-rise.

I’m not sure about everybody else.

First of all, there is the cost. Increasingly punishing delivery charges, such as Amazon announced recently, aren’t helping. The stumbling of Amazon Fresh – Produce Blue Book

There are also many items that I just wouldn’t want to purchase online. Toilet paper, soda, canned goods—fine. But with fresh produce (and meat), I want to see what I’m buying, because no two items are alike. And if you are trusting the clerks at Amazon Fresh to pick the very best items out for you, you are, in my opinion, an extremely naïve soul.

In fact, although it was pretty obvious anyway, Amazon Fresh has admitted it is having problems with its model—to the extent of taking $720 million in charges in the fourth quarter of last year. Amazon still grasping for success with supermarkets, CEO says | Reuters

There is a fallacy in the business world—and in most other areas of life—that people keep falling for, although over and over it has proved palpably false: current trends will always continue.

Online grocery sales soared during the pandemic, so it was easy to conclude that online was the wave of the future. It doesn’t look quite so much like that now.

Analysts only have the present and past to deal with. That means they virtually bound to assume that what is true now will always be true.

But this is never the case. Shocks, disruptions, deviations are as inevitable as changes in the weather.

Smarter analysts understand this fact. They lay out several scenarios ranging from the best to the worst and let the decision-makers choose among them.

Nevertheless, basing the future on past experience is central to human reasoning (philosophers call it inductive reasoning). Despite its treachery.

The English philosopher Bertrand Russell perhaps put it most memorably: “The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.”


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.