Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Beyond the Supermarket

When I stopped buying milk in February, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was part of a movement. Around the same time, millions of people, in the United States but also in countries as far removed as Belgium and Argentina, looked at the soaring prices of milk and cut back sharply on their purchases, or stopped altogether as I did. Prices have fallen somewhat since then, but are still very high by any historical comparison, and milk sales have shown no sign of rebounding.

If milk is no longer a grocery staple for millions of consumers, though, this changes the shape of the supermarket. The traditional American supermarket layout is built around the milk. It places milk in the corner farthest from the entrance, in order to lead shoppers in a circle around the whole store. (This arrangement also allows milk to be moved in a very short trip from the loading dock to the display case.) Milk is so central to the supermarket experience that if you stop buying milk, it is logical to ask whether you still need a supermarket.

That reaction might seem extreme — is milk so important that it is the defining product of the supermarket? But it turns out it is. The short shelf life of milk is the main thing bringing supermarket customers back once or twice a week. Without milk, it becomes very easy to plan your supermarket visits just once or twice a month. Fewer visits, of course, means fewer impulse purchases, and a smaller selling opportunity for the supermarket. And some people will just stop going. If you aren’t buying milk, it is easy enough to skip the supermarket entirely.

I thought about this when, at one point this summer, I postponed my planned supermarket trip week after week until more than a month had gone by. No pressing need to make the trip ever came up. I had always thought of the supermarket as the source for a variety of fresh food, but:

  • Most supermarkets take a half-hearted approach to produce, and are a poor substitute for an actual produce market.
  • Meat is not affected by freezing nearly as much as the meat industry would want us to think — if it were, the average restaurant would have a hard time operating.
  • Other popular perishable food items, such as eggs, cheese, and orange juice, can last for weeks.
  • Ordinary groceries and toiletries have a shelf life of months or years.
  • It’s not so hard to make bread at home in a bread machine, with a food quality that no factory can duplicate.

Last week I got a mailer from a discount store that said, “Look how green we are now.” It wasn’t a reference to their environment achievements, but to their new produce section, which is part of their expanded emphasis on groceries. It truth, a discount store could easily handle produce nearly as well as the average supermarket. Discount stores have always sold candy and household cleaning supplies, so why couldn’t they add many of the standard non-perishable and frozen groceries too? It’s not really the same as buying food in a supermarket, but if you’re buying half your food at the produce market anyway, the discount store is probably good enough for everything else you need in an average week.

Under pressure from both sides, supermarkets will surely have to change in the coming years. Perhaps some of them will start taking produce more seriously, while others will compete directly with the discount stores. And I won’t be surprised if a few of them close down, or get bought out by discount store chains. Because there’s one change I’m sure of, and that is that more and more households will not find the need to go to the supermarket nearly as often as they have been.