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Milking a virtual cow? : institutional and consumptive implications of online grocery shopping Murphy, Andrew

Abstract

W(h)ither online grocery? In this investigation of electronically-mediated food retailing and consumption I seek to determine why and how firms and individuals become involved in ecommerce projects, and how these projects become instituted and embedded. I re-conceptualise what constitutes the firm, using a stakeholder framework to redefine the social relations within and beyond it: to portray the firm as fractured, porous and conflictual. I use qualitatively rich and 'thick' material from in-depth interviews with stakeholder-actors (managers, employees, customers and suppliers of three "e-tail" companies in Vancouver and Auckland, New Zealand) to provide multiple perspectives on what it means to transact for food through the internet. From these multiple perspectives a holistic interpretation of what firms are, how they operate, and for what and for whom they function is constructed. The case study firms, and the individuals who work for them and who transact with them, have a variety of motives for their actions: technological curiosity, cost-minimisation, convenience, diversification, and a moral imperative to "build a better world through business". Electronic-mediation is a key innovation in reducing the costs of interaction between retailers and customers, and provides more targeted information about customers and their behaviour. I argue that engaging in e-commerce requires a redefinition of what a retailer does, and a re-engineering of how they operate. E-commerce requires considerable investment in trucks, warehouse or backroom space, call centres, and in branding. E-tailers seek to minimise logistical costs, and yet maximise flexibility for customers. E-tailers therefore balance competing economic and socio-cultural objectives: to be the cheapest, biggest, most flexible and trustworthy food retailer. I also argue that online grocery customers are in a vanguard of e-commerce converts: committed to virtual shopping, they are large spenders, early adopters of broader-band internet access technologies, and use the mundane act of shopping for food as a springboard to other online consumptive practices. While a number of high-profile online grocers have ceased operations, others continue to expand, locally, nationally and globally. This thesis provides case study material in the processes of innovation, institutionalization, and in the transformation of consumption, as seen through the multiperspectivist stakeholder approach.

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