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Look What Supermarkets Have in Store for You

The search is on for ways to make shopping a quicker and more pleasant experience

By Kirsten A. ConoverStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 1997


Star Market in the Allston area of Boston is a cutting-edge grocery store.

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In addition to a florist, Starbucks, juice bar, cheese shop, and huge prepared-foods section, it has a natural foods oasis, a pharmacy, a pet-supply section, Top-100 CDs, and a child-care center.

At checkout, if you have 10 items or fewer, you can scan them, bag them, run your ATM card through the machine (get cash back if you want) - and presto, you're out of there without even being asked "paper or plastic?"

Such technology and in-store conveniences are part of continuing experiments and market trends that grocers, retailers, and consumers are eyeing.

One-stop shopping

Looking into the future, all have the same question in mind: How can the shopping experience be better?

Indeed, if manufacturers and retailers are after sales and consumers seek the best price, quality, variety, and convenience, both would agree that a pleasant shopping experience means repeat business.

This is nothing new. But as lifestyles change, so does the definition of the good grocery store.

If you're after convenience, the buzz phrase is "one-stop shopping." If you're after pleasantries, then it's "experience shopping" which might include live piano music, cooking lessons, and impromptu taste-tests.

According to a new Consumer Reports survey, key issues of concern to shoppers about their stores include cleanliness, courtesy, prices, and checkout speed. Not surprisingly, key complaints are slow checkouts, specials sold out, congested aisles, prices missing, and scanning errors.

At a time when Wal-Mart stores and superwarehouse clubs are adding to their food inventories, one of the most talked about trends in the supermarket industry is home-meal replacement, HMR for short.

"Shopping patterns have changed. People don't plan ahead as much, and they shop more on a daily basis," notes Barbara Barker Brown president of Off-the-Wall Design, a company in Telford, Pa., that specializes in store design.

Time needs are being addressed at every turn, and supermarkets now see their competition not as other supermarkets, but any place that sells food.

It's referred to as "share of stomach," explains Ms. Brown. One commonly accepted statistic is that for every food dollar, 60 cents is spent in the supermarket and the rest is spent elsewhere - such as fast-food restaurants. "Twenty years ago this would not have occurred," Brown says. Now, more women are in the work force, and the proliferation of eateries being in prominent places - malls, for example - has made it easier to eat wherever, whenever.

Industry observers often cite Boston Market when they talk about the HMR concept and competition. The home-style "fast food chain" has bridged the gap between prepared food at a reasonable price and restaurant food.

Mike Wright, chairman of the Food Marketing Institute, whose member companies operate 2,000 retail food stores, said in an interview with Supermarket News, "... We're finally recognizing that probably the biggest competitor we're having - in terms of losing market share - is restaurants."

The upshot is that consumers will see more central kitchens and more home-meal replacement options in supermarkets, ranging from ready-to-eat roasted chicken to sushi. The Allston Star Market, for example, has an entire station devoted to pizza. With this emphasis on take-away food comes increased concern for food safety.

"This trend is part of the blurring of food-service genres. The success [of these supermarket kitchens] is going to be dependent on people's ability to prepare food well," says John Dranow, founder of the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Montpelier, Vt.

Michel Leborgne, vice president for culinary affairs at NECI, adds that too many people treat food like "lumber." Proper food handling will become a sought-after skill in this emerging industry. "Service is key," he says. Also, the demand for organic food will rise, he predicts. Already, mainstream supermarkets are attempting to win natural-food customers away from the likes of Trader Joe's and Wholefoods with lower prices.