Saturday, November 04, 2006

Thoughts About Grocery Shopping

Ever been to a grocery store or supermarket? I thought so. Maybe you never paused to think about why grocery stores have the features that they have. And why do we have grocery stores at all? Why don't we just have farmer's markets and bakeries and such? Those things used to be the norm in the United States and in much of the world people still like to shop at specialty stores and farmer's markets even when there are supermarkets to visit.


This is also true in Odessa, Ukraine where there is at least one chain of supermarkets. Those stores are small by American standards but have most of the features we associate with North American supermarkets. Some of the locations feature currency exchange kiosks. The supermarkets also sell whiskey and vodka.


One likely reason for the American love of supermarkets does suggest itself: Americans love convenience! And what could be better than stopping at one store to get a lot of prepared and packaged foods. Yes, you can buy produce and meat and such at supermarkets. Just look at peoples' shopping carts and you'll see how much of the food is convenience food like microwave dinners and cans of soup. A can of soup is a convenience food? Yes.


If you've been alive for a more than a few years I'll bet you've noticed a few commonalities in the North American supermarkets. Here are a few: frequent shopper cards, magazines, tabloids, office supplies, departments (at least a bakery and deli), extra services like money orders, greeting cards.


You may have noticed that other innovations in the supermarket business have spread around the country. Some supermarkets sell organic foods and "health" foods only. Wild Oats and Whole Foods are probably the most famous of those supermarket chains. Some supermarket chains offer online shopping and home delivery.


Why are supermarkets the way they are? Well, three sociological processes are at work. The people who design grocery stores and the people who manage supermarkets are all in social networks (clubs, trade associations, whatever) that foster idea sharing. This could explain why the same sorts, like Fourth of July cookout displays, appear everywhere. Sometimes government regulations determine that stores need to have something, such as a public restrooms. Thirdly, people pay attention to social trends and to the competition. When something seems like a good idea - say frequent shopper cards - the idea tends to be picked up by other companies.


Next time: Escort services!


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