Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
One of the vivid memories from my childhood was our regular weekly trip to the grocery store. We lived in glorious suburbia, an area where a 5-story building was considered a high-rise. We always went on Friday night, payday for my Dad. It was a fun time for me because they let me redeem the week's worth of soda bottles. I got 18 cents, which in those halcyon days was enough for a comic book and a Hostess Twinkie.
While I was engaged in picking out my weekly reading material, my parents walked the aisles, picking up those miriad items that fed our family for the next seven days. Money was always on their minds -- I remember my Dad leaving the store one day, grumbling that ten dollars of groceries now fit in one bag. He's gone now, but I'm sure he'd shake his head to know that ten dollars of groceries doesn't even require a bag anymore.
A grocery store was kinda boring for a kid. I was far more interested in the consumption end of the food chain, so wandering the aisles tended to make my eyes glaze over. But what I remember clearly were aisles and shelves, coolers and freezers, and a deli. That was a grocery store.
How things have changed.
In recent years, grocery retailers have realized that survival in a gritty high-competition environment has meant being nimble and flexible, stretching the definition of a grocery store. In some cases, you have minimalist warehouse-type stores that sell off-brands directly out of the packing cases they came in. And then there are the others.
One of the inevitable things that happens when you relocate is finding things like a reliable and honest mechanic, new doctors and dentists, and a new grocery store. Such it has been with us. It was here in the big city where I realized just how far the grocery store has evolved.
Exploring the area around our temporary housing (an extended stay motel), we've tried out several grocers, but last week we found one that truly has taken things to another level.
To avoid the appearance of advertising, I won't tell you the name of the place, but I don't think that's really relevant, since I've seen enough of these elements in other stores to call this an honest-to-goodness trend.
The decor of the place was not the semi-industrial motif I was used to. There is extensive use of woods in the shelving, which in some places takes on the look of a small building. The net result is the look of a neighborhood shopping area; a quaint village. It's easy to imagine that you're outside walking along sidewalks, rather than inside. In fact, the height of some of the partitions make you feel like you're in a town.
Along the aisles are the usual assortment of products. There are still freezers and coolers. But when you walk into the produce section, I'm instantly reminded of those farmers markets that set up in downtown areas, selling produce out of home-built kiosks. This place has that feel to it. The quality is first-rate, although the bananas always seem a bit green for my taste.
But the big surprise lay ahead.
Most grocers have a deli section, a lot have a small steam or ice table for hot food and building a salad. But his place...
There are 9 steam tables holding pans of food under the usual red lights. Not only is there the usual selection of traditional American food, there is also Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, as well as a collection of hot tureens holding home-made soups and the usual salad bar. And despite the mass-production look of the presentation, the food is good! My wife is hard to please when it comes to Asian food, having been born and raised in Hawaii, but she found the food pleasing. The soups are all good, and I'm afraid Campbells will never taste the same.
They also sell flowers, books, magazines, and there's a full-service pharmacy as well.
I think the primary inspiration for all this was Wal-Mart's entry into the grocery field, making the case that there was no reason to go anywhere else for anything else. In my old home town, I saw three old-time grocers go bust when the Wal-Mart Supercenters hit town. These were not fly-by-nighters, but established grocers who had been around for over a century. That development has forced grocers across the country to expand or face extinction. Some will try to do it on the cheap, adding a few aisles and shelves and some new product line. Others, like my new store, will completely redraw and rebuild, changing the decor and the feel into something new -- and old.
Retailers must learn to be nimble, to change with the times and try as much as possible to stay on the crest of the wave of consumer preferences. With grocerey stores, this means that good product at low prices won't always be enough. People want something positive, even adventurous to make their weekly shopping more than a chore.
They want an experience.