This week I’ve been wondering what makes a grocery store great? When I travel, I like to visit grocery stores. Not only do I want to see the food itself, I want to observe and absorb the culture. Funny thing is, I do not enjoy the grocery stores in my town. Why? Well, that’s what I’m exploring. I know it feels better to shop in some stores than others. Let’s figure out what makes that so.
Yesterday, I needed a few things in addition to groceries — potting soil, toilet paper, marbles. Wal-Mart seemed like a good place to get everything at one time. I crossed the river to an adjoining town to shop at the nearest Wal-Mart. But as I drove into the parking lot, I realized I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to go in that store. Without even pulling into a parking space, I drove out the other side of the parking lot and to a Kroger nearby.
What pulled me toward the other store?
Both are larger than I prefer, but the second store is smaller. Wal-Mart supercenters average 178,000 sq ft. Kroger Marketplace stores average around 100,000. I really prefer the footprint of The Fresh Market, Whole Foods, or Natural Grocers stores that average under 50,000 sq ft. From this I must conclude that size matters to me…in grocery stores.
As grocery store space expands, it rarely means more fresh produce, meat, or specialty flours. The added space is typically stocked with items that are boxed, bottled, fully prepared, or not food related. There’s nothing wrong with that. I just prefer shopping where fresh food is the focus.
I also like small shopping carts. Believe me, I can fill them with plenty of food. As a short person, tall, deep carts make it annoyingly difficult to reach small items hiding in the bottom near the back of the basket. Most grocery stores have both, but the store closest to my home does not.
When I walk into a store, it’s a pleasure to be greeted with a beautiful variety of produce, but two of my favorite stores (unfortunately, not in this town) have the produce located where it’s not visible from the door. Obviously, seeing produce immediately is not a big factor in a store making my favorites list. And from a practical standpoint, I’d rather stack easily bruised fruit on top of the staples in my basket. If I begin in the produce section, it ends up on the bottom where it’s more likely to get damaged.
More important than location is the variety and freshness of the produce offered. I’m okay with seasonal variations in selection, but only if there is a moderately predictable seasonal rotation or an easily accessed online list of what is currently stocked in a given store. Because stores in different neighborhoods are stocked differently, it sometimes takes visiting 3 or 4 locations to gather the vegetables I need for a recipe.
Once I find the produce I’m looking for, I’d like for it to be fresh enough to last a couple of days. Every other week, I get home to discover that the raspberries I couldn’t see in the bottom of the container are fuzzy or the prewashed sugar snap peas smell foul even though it’s not past the use by date. This recurring issue makes me dread what I’ll find next time I put away groceries.
This may not be true for everyone, but for me to think a store is great, it needs to offer a good selection of fresh meat, poultry, fish, and seafood that is unseasoned, unmarinated, and uninjected. I just want the raw ingredients, please. And I’d like a sell by date to give me an idea how long I have before it spoils.
Organic dairy products like plain yogurt with lots of active cultures and no gums or fillers, dairy alternatives without tons of sugar, high quality butter, and a wide selection of coffee improve my impression. Plenty of raw nuts, dried fruit without added sugar, and bulk spices make things even better.
Other than that, clear and accurate signs, efficient organization, and few empty spaces on the shelves go a long way toward a pleasant shopping experience. If I have to scour the health food section searching for gluten-free cereal amongst other whole grains, I will most likely skip it. I feel the same way about crackers, cookies, chips, and frozen food.
A final consideration is the ambience of the store. When I walk in, is it quiet and lit well but not garishly? Does it smell good? Are the aisles wide enough? Are there plenty of open checkout stations with friendly checkers? Does it feel more like a comfortable boutique than a herd-em-through warehouse? If so, I’ll enjoy being there.
If I could get a small, pleasant store with an adequate cold chain that offers a consistent variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and easy to find gluten-free items that I can put in a small cart within 5 miles of my house, I’d be so giddy I wouldn’t know what to do. All of that together would truly make a grocery store great!
In the meantime, I’ll keep going to multiple stores to get what I need.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”