Supermarkets Begin To Shrink

The New York Times reports that several supermarket and retail chains, including Safeway, Walmart, and Whole Foods, are beginning to experiment with much smaller store sizes that emphasize things like cafes, prepared meals, and produce. The idea is to emphasize speed over choice, and was apparently triggered by UK competitor Tesco, which has launched over 70 small-format supermarkets in Nevada, Arizona, and Southern California over the past year. Of course, the stores also require less shelf space for products than they did a year ago.

“The average person goes shopping for 22 minutes,” said Phil Lempert, who edits Supermarketguru.com, a Web site that tracks retail trends. “You can’t see 30,000 or 40,000 products. We are moving into an era when people want less assortment.”

“Miles of Aisles for Milk? Not Here “ [New York Times]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    Fewer SKU’s is a trend. MY local Walmart was recently renovated with the result being wider aisles and lower shelves.
    In terms of grocery stores “emphasize things like cafes, prepared meals, and produce” has been around for a while.

  2. tom2133 says:

    I think this could be good. In some cases, the selection of goods can be overwhelming. Do I need to select from 10 different kinds of peanut butter, 5 types of tuna and 25 different toothpastes?

  3. Sherryness says:

    It works for Trader Joe’s. But then, they also make sure that what they put on their shelves is of high quality yet affordable. Safeway doesn’t really seem to have that reputation – maybe they should add that part.

  4. laserjobs says:

    I ♥ Fresh and Easy

    Thanks Tesco!!!

    • howie_in_az says:

      @laserjobs: My fiance and I just went to a Fresh & Easy this past weekend to buy some sliced mango. We walked out with $45 worth of groceries and have since added it to our List O’Food Shoppings. I just wish they sold paneer (indian cheese) so I wouldn’t have an excuse to hit up an indian grocery and overspend there because I have no self control when it comes to paneer, naan, and spices.

      Strawberries were absurdly priced at $0.62 per box, their mango was delicious, and they have Trader Joe’s-style flavored tofu in addition to pretty awesome mock-meats. The fiance informs me that the ‘steak’-kabobs we got tasted nearly identical to beef.

  5. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    It also has to do with that there are fewer large pieces of land in cities to build 80,000 sq. ft. stores, but lots of smaller lots are available.

  6. oldwiz says:

    There’s a local Whole Foods, and they have recently dropped most of their fresh bakery stuff. Their excuse is they have a problem with the bread machine, but it’s been over two months, so I suspect they decided it was too much trouble. A shame really, since they had great store baked stuff, especially rolls and bread. Now they truck the stuff from 100 miles away.

  7. Sam Glover says:

    I applaud the move to less choice in supermarkets, as long as the available choices are better ones.

  8. We’re getting a Fresh and Easy in our urban neighborhood, and most people around here cannot wait. Our neighborhood mailing list is filled with folks complaining about the problems of big stores like the nearby Safeway, which never seems to be able to weed out the expired perishables.

    While I’m not certain a Fresh and Easy would solve that problem, people in my part of the Bay Area are ready to try something new and slightly more personal.

  9. morganlh85 says:

    I think I can live with two or three choices of each product. I went to buy a new toothbrush the other day and I wanted to kick someone in the face.

    While I don’t like the crappy inner city groceries in my area that only carry one choice of each item, usually at a ridiculous high price and everything is nearly expired, I would really appreciate a grocery store with a cheap brand, a middle brand, and a luxury brand to choose from, and that’s IT. I don’t like choosing from 400 types of toothbrush.

  10. mantari says:

    Wal-Mart’s new “Marketside” concept. 15-20k sqft
    [www.eastvalleytribune.com]
    [www.csnews.com]

    Yes, this is different than their Neighborhood Market. It is smaller, and more upscale, they say. Emphasis on pre-prepared meals, organic foods, etc.

    • MadameX says:

      @mantari: I’ll stick with Fresh & Easy over the upcoming Walmart venture. There are several between my work and home. Their prices are very reasonable and the occasional sales are fantastic.

      The smaller store concept is a blessing for me. My husband and I carpool to save gas and he HATES grocery shopping, but he doesn’t mind stopping at Fresh & Easy on the way home. You can get in and out of these stores in just a few minutes–it’s completely painless. All the registers are self-checkout but there is someone there to help anyone who needs it. I have yet to wait in line at Fresh & Easy. The quality of their meats is top-notch as well.

      If you couldn’t tell, I love this store.

  11. razremytuxbuddy says:

    I don’t think Dillons has gotten the memo. They just closed their small neighborhood stores in my town, in order to focus on their superstores. I liked their small stores.

  12. sponica says:

    I like the fact I can go to a supermarket that caters to a variety of needs. My closest supermarket tends to be a de facto organic supermarket, which is all fine and well, as long as you’re willing to pay that much. I still LOVE the 24 hour Pathmark in Brooklyn the most, and I go there if I can get myself out of bed early in the AM on Sundays. It offers the most variety, and it’s usually got the best prices.

  13. Who in hades says this is actually a good idea? I am not convinced.

    Physically these stores are about 3-4x the size of the typical Walgreens building. By time the backroom operations are deducted from the available floorspace and allowances are made for checkouts and crap, the effective floorspace is only 10k. Brand selection will be greatly scaled, breadth of production selection will be scaled down OR inventory depth will be compromised.

    Bottom line, I am not really in the mood to run between 3 mini-stores just to find Philly Cream Cheese, Confectionary Sugar, salted and unsalted butter, a Country Ham, Wheat, Rye and Pumpernickel bread, plus Fuji Apples because the single store lacks adaquate inventory or product selection.

  14. TBGBoodler says:

    This is definitely happening here. Our neighborhood Safeway has turned into little more than a large 7-11. The shelfspace has certainly been reduced and now there are only about two brands of each item (where there used to be several).

  15. jamesdenver says:

    Thanks God – its about time for this trend to start. My Safeway and Kroger are of modest size here in the city. But when I go to the burbs I’m shocked at how far I have to walk just to get from one side to the other.

    And Costco? My mom loves it. I know they’re cheap – but I don’t understand the allure of driving to a warehouse to get groceries.

    I don’t mind paying a few bucks more for the convenience of neighborhood markets where i can get in and out easily a few times a week. I have no interest in filling a pickup truck with canned food, so buying fresh food every few days is appearling to me.

  16. Altdotweb says:

    The shrink ray now includes the building.

    My local Albertsons didn’t shrink the store, they just packed more product selection to keep the prices at bay.

    Really wide aisles are for rich folks.

  17. Rachacha says:

    Apparently some stores did not get the message, Wegmans grocery stores average over 100K feet with their newer stores running about 130K sqft with each store stoking 70,000 products. [www.wegmans.com]

    • mbz32190 says:

      @Rachacha:

      About 1/2 of a Wegmans store is expansive prepared foods however, plus insanely wide isles (unless you go on a Sunday). Despite Wegmans store size, they don’t carry every single variety of everything either. You’ll find Wegmans brand and a few national brands, but nowhere the extent of a typical grocery store. (Which isn’t a problem for me…do I really need to look at an entire isle devoted to toilet paper and towels?)

  18. HPCommando says:

    The problem I perceive is one of homogenization.

    To be blunt, I like ethnic cuisine, often making it myself from a variety of cultures and countries.

    The problem is, most of the source foods, canned or fresh, is disappearing from the shelves. When I ask the store managers, I’m told “we cater to our market area”…which, in many cases, is a lie, especially when you live in a “Little Italy” or “Little Saigon” or “Little Guatemala” area, and the foods of those cultures are being removed.

    Likewise, I’ve noted a “blanding” of the palate. During the past few years, with the height of the “hot pepper” craze, stores were removing “spicy” foods for generic/bland versions. The traditional “Red/yellow/green” color codes for salsa (red=spicy, yellow=medium, green=mild) are now “green/blue”. Spicy and medium are gone, and have been replaced by “ultra-mild”.

    And this is in California, in a highly centralized Hispanic/Asian community that culturally thrives on spicy foods.

    And access to the fresh vegetables to make one’s own properly spiced version is equally being removed from the shelves.

    It’s not that the brands are unavailable or out of business; I can still order much of this on-line, though I now have to pay shipping on top of a higher pricing.

    I see these as equal dangers to the consumer as the Grocery Shrink Ray, when the brands are whittled down to one company and the store’s in-house ‘generic’ version of the same product.

    • revmatty says:

      @HPCommando: That’s funny about the salsa. Here in the midwest people like to overspice/sauce everything so much you can’t find mild anywhere. Your choices for everything are medium (too much for my wife’s ulcer), spicy, or extra spicy.

  19. bagumpity says:

    I have been to the UK lots of times, and the one thing the absolutely bugged the heck out of me more than anything else was the grocery stores. Frankly, while it’s possible to get a meal together quickly at Tesco, you will get the same few sets of meals together the next day, and the next, and the next. When I have UK friends over, they see a regular Piggly Wiggly and nearly burst into tears. It’s a moving experience, quite different from the usual movements you see on the floor of the Piggly Wiggly.

  20. magic8ball says:

    Cafes, prepared meals, and speed over choice all = more expensive. If this is a trend, I’m not looking forward to it.

  21. Invective says:

    This is purely about overhead. More overhead = less profits. So send it to the sales department and you make it palatable for our board and sell it to consumers. A conscious effort to bring the high cost of paying for a building, insurance, electrical, water and so on, then present the cost benefits of reducing overhead. This also means ‘forced choice’ for the consumer! Yippie!
    This will be the long predicted death of the large chain. Eventually the music stops. If large companies like Wal-mart would put best efforts towards a lobby for cheaper electricity and insurance. How about Wal-mart investing in bringing Fuel Cells to market. No more grid, no more high costs for electricity and now they can keep their ‘golf course sized’ storefronts open. I’d give anything for an original thought these days. Instead B.S. is repackaged and sold over and over…

  22. madanthony says:

    The thing about choice is that for a lot of people, there are a number of product categories they don’t really care about, but a few they are passionate about.

    So while I don’t need a feature-rich toothbrush, I do have an insatiable love for Barilla hot-pepper pasta sauce, and go to a different grocery store than where I do most of my shopping just to buy it.

  23. balthisar says:

    What are “prepared foods”? Are we talking hot rotisserie chicken at the meat counter, or Hamburger Helper?

    My absolute favorite grocer hereabouts is a local chain called “Nino Salvaggio,” primarily due to the produce. Sure, there are lunch meats, but there are also prime meats, fresh fish, an amazing olive bar, and their little “prepared foods” area that’s kind of like a café. Bakery with excellent breads, ethnic foods, and no Hamburger Helper to be found.

    Most of the prices are reasonable, although $5/lb. for tomatillos is ridiculous, when they’re $0.99 in Mexican Town, which is my favorite second shopping spot (specifically, E&L Meats, also known as El Supermercado, which is dirt cheap and has all the good, real Mexican stuff).

    The point is, both of these are rather small in square footage. The first one thrives on superior quality goods at a price I can luckily afford, and the other is just dirt cheap, ethnic oriented, but still good quality. In my book, they balance out to normal Meijer levels of price. I want to serve an excellent cheese with an excellent wine, but I won’t pay $2 ea. for avocados, either.

  24. guroth says:

    While I think SOME of these smaller sku’d stores would be nice, I don’t want our gigantic supermarkets to become extinct.. choice is one of the things that makes America so great.

    Oh how soon ye forgetful.. forget.. your own preferences when the “majority” speaks

    [consumerist.com]

    I want my extra chunky spaghetti sauce dammit!

  25. Triborough says:

    Wait, there are Tescos in the US?!

  26. guroth says:

    Oh and because no comment is complete without an analogy, this would be like replacing all restaurants with fast food joints.

  27. emilymarion333 says:

    This is why I love Trader Joes! I do have to go to Costco once every few months for the staples like paper towels, toilet paper, dog and garbage bags….

  28. HooFoot says:

    I live near a small grocery store and I just can’t see this becoming wildly popular. For a simple item like a box of pasta, they only offer one brand, one size, and god forbid you want a type that isn’t spaghetti or ziti. And that’s assuming the pasta is even in stock because the shelves are small and can’t hold many boxes.

  29. dragonfire81 says:

    It’s funny how in the 80s most grocery stores were smaller, then in the 90s the supermarkets starting popping up everywhere and now…we’re going back to smaller stores again.

    Vicious cycle anyone?

  30. mac-phisto says:

    i prefer the smaller stores over supers – especially asian grocers. you can find all sorts of awesome stuff in there you would never find in a super & it’s dirt cheap.

    i only buy my meat at a small meat market anymore – their quality, selection & prices beat the crap out of the supermarket. aside from the meat counter, the store only has about a dozen aisles, so it’s certainly not the place to do the bulk of your shopping.

    & for seafood, i’m lucky to have a guy that drives down from maine/new hampshire/massachusetts every friday with fresh off-the-dock fish. he even gives you free recipes & wine/side dish recommendations with every purchase! he puts the supers to shame what with their amazing frozen cod, cod & more cod to choose from.

  31. DantePD says:

    @dragonfire81

    A vicious cycle that’s going to result in many empty and run-down strip-malls towns owners refuse to tear down.

  32. quail says:

    I’m torn as to whether I like the trend or not. Smaller stores are nice on the environment and they keep overhead down. But I do like selection. If my recipe calls for reduced fat tortillas or jicama or any number of things I’d like to be able to find it.

    Ideally, I’d love to see a row of grocers on main street like in my grandparent’s day. A shop for fresh bread, one or two meat markets, a health food store, a dry goods store, etc.

  33. I would like one of these near my house within walking distance. A few small markets in older small commercial districts in my city would be fantastic. I know the big supermarkets out in the newer, more spacious parts of town would survive, and I’d do my “big shop” there, but I would love to be able to walk 8 blocks to a corner market (or more likely, make my husband walk) to pick up a bottle of wine and some pita chips and a bag of sugar. Even if the prices are a little higher, it would be worth it, and would add a lot to my neighborhood, I think.

  34. sicknick says:

    I work for a place called Papa Joe’s Market in Birmingham, MI. They also recently built a totally new, from the ground up, location in Rochester Hills, MI. We’re completely into this line of thinking, with a Gormet to Go area right as you walk in featuring everything from premade Osso Bucco to City Chicken to free water Salmon with various glazes and such. Take it home, pop it in the oven for five to ten minutes, gourmet meals.

    We’ve had investor groups in from the Northwest, Japan, and Texas looking our store over. The Rochester store ha been billed in the industry as one of the most advanced markets in the country. People who leave the Detroit area come back and tell me almost every day how they miss the store because they can’t find anything like it in other parts of the country.

    Bottom line, it’s still overpriced food you could do cheaper if you had the time/skill/inclination, but for the high end areas they are located in, we make a killing with stressed out, no free time high class types who see no problem in paying 20 bucks a person for a meal you take home to reheat. Of course, that 20 bucks gets you Kobe Prime Rib with various side dishes made fresh in the kitchen.

  35. Barney_The Plug_ Frank says:

    Selection is a good thing! Now the grocery chains have more reason to raise priced on any particular item due to reduced selection in each category. Not only are the chains shrinking product, but now reducing selection. Not a good thing!

    • cozynite says:

      @danno50: Bingo. I’m more worried about the price increases than anything. If the grocery stores were to be more like Trader Joe’s that is one thing, but I have a suspicion that the stores will just jack up the prices of the products they carry.

  36. SkyeBlue says:

    I don’t know if it has anything to do with it but I’ve noticed in the past few weeks here at the Walmart in the small town I live in that they haven’t been carrying some of the name brand products I usually buy, or restocking them anyways. As an example, the microwave poopcorn section has been pretty much empty for about a week.

  37. Miguel Valdespino says:

    It would be good if they kept the same selection but reduced the amount of non-grocery type stuff. My local grocery store has a couple of aisles of drugstore/pharmacy type stuff, two aisles of paper products, an aisle of “Seasonal specials” (i.e. fans and pool toys in summer, halloween candy in fall, christmas stuff after that) They even sell patio furniture there.

  38. julienne says:

    They’re dead on with the 22 minute limit. I definitely start getting twitchy the more time I spend in the store. I had chalked it up to my natural ADD and the fact that I won’t taste 95% of the food I hurl in the cart since it will be hoovered up by my teenage boys.