What features would you like to see in future supermarkets?

by on September 21, 2006 at 7:20 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

So asks The New York Times (TimesSelect).  Randall Williams responds:

I like to try interesting recipes which often have exotic ingredients.  But I often don’t need a whole bottle or bunch of a spice or other ingredient that I might never use again.  It would be great to have an “assembly area” similar to the deli section where I could take my recipe and get a tablespoon of this and an ounce of that, measured into little plastic cups that I could take home to cook with.

The excess bundling is a form of price discrimination.  If you can’t be bothered to go to an ethnic market, which is both cheaper and sells in more flexible quantities, they figure you will pay the higher price.

As for me, I used to wish for shorter check-out lines, but now usually I get them.  Dark chocolate is there too.  I still would like ready-to-buy, truly fresh cooking stocks (beef and chicken), better magazines, and home delivery. 

We should expect supermarkets to overinvest in encouraging impulse purchases.  (Wegman’s should put a given item in only one place and yes I will learn where that is.)  Maybe that is the economic problem with home delivery.  Smells, squeezes, and full-size items — not Internet links — sell profitable foodstuffs.  The boring bulk stuff which is easy to order over the Internet also brings the lowest profit margins, I believe.

Here is a (non-gated) article on how supermarkets are evolving.

What do you wish for, and what is the analysis behind your wish? 

1 joan September 21, 2006 at 7:44 am

You can get home delivery. Go to safeway.com

2 Brandon Berg September 21, 2006 at 8:39 am

The store at which I most often shop, QFC (a subsidiary of Kroger found AFAIK only in Washington state), does sell bulk spices. You just spoon it into a bag, write the code on the twist tie, and take it to check-out.

3 DaveH September 21, 2006 at 9:19 am

I would assume larger families, specialty cooking, and a greater likelyhood to cook at home contribute to Hispanic households spending more. Just a guess though.

4 mr. Yawn September 21, 2006 at 9:48 am

i actually shop at a wal-mart in texas thats predominatly hispanic. It would seem that they are definitley purchasing for a larger household. For insance its not uncommon to see up to 3 gallons of milk in carts. Where as i buy maybe a dozen eggs the other carts have 2 dozen. The fact their doubleing up on staples like milk, eggs, and bread to me seems like it would mean a larger home and not just that their eating that much more.
i have more goofy assumptions so i guess ill share them. I see lots of guys that are still dressed as if they have been doing construction loading up on like on particular item like only purchasing soda. another one will load up on like sandwhich stuff his cart will be all stuff for tons of sandwhiches and thats it. So what im assuming is that they have an agreement at work where like one guy brings the drinks for the week the other brings somes sandwhiches and they kinda split things up like that, if you were trying to track purchases i would have to imagine that kinda data would really skew things…

5 JohnDewey September 21, 2006 at 10:19 am

brandon: “You just spoon it into a bag, write the code on the twist tie, and take it to check-out.”

In a post-9/11 world, I’m reluctant to purchase food items that are not factory-sealed.

6 Dan Maas September 21, 2006 at 10:34 am

I want RFID checkout, so I can just push my cart through a scanner to have all the items totaled instead of having to scan each item individually.

I really like the self-checkout devices at my local Tops. I tend to wait a lot longer to check out at Wegman’s (which does not have the devices).

7 Barbar September 21, 2006 at 10:43 am

When the terrorists gain the ability to start working inside factories, JohnDewey will just starve to death.

Because he is a very serious person.

8 Chi September 21, 2006 at 10:56 am

I don’t pay any attention to food costs over sequential weeks, objective specialness of specials, total cost per trip. I would like to be able to access the same data that they associate with my discount card, to track how they’re trying to fool with me. Market it to families (it will never happen, but would certainly be faster than even scanning barcodes at home). Pair it up with that “Grocery Game” website I remember reading about and it’s a consumer’s dream.

9 eddie September 21, 2006 at 11:01 am

What do you wish for


10 JohnDewey September 21, 2006 at 11:16 am

Ross and Barbar,

You guys may not take the threat of food contamination seriously, but others have.

“The malicious contamination of food for terrorist purposes is a real and current threat, and deliberate contamination of food at one location could have global public health implications.† World Health Organization, 2002


“In the aftermath of those incidents, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took steps to improve its ability to prevent, prepare for, and respond to, incidents of food sabotage.†

“Acts of deliberate food contamination have already occurred in the U.S. In 1984, for example, the members of a religious cult contaminated salad bars with Salmonella typhimurium in order to disrupt a local election. This incident caused 751 cases of salmonellosis and resulted in the hospitalization of 45 of the victims.† Food and Drug Administration, October, 2003


‘Deliberate contamination of the food supply could have a devastating public health and economic impact. †¦ The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act (Bioterrorism Act) of 2002 provides authorization for a series of federal actions that will help protect the American public against terrorism. .† U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, September, 2005


11 Ross September 21, 2006 at 12:10 pm

JohnDewey: look at it this way. You’re a terrorist. You want to create public terror. Do you

a) Go to individual supermarkets (at high risk of discovery) putting poison into unsealed spice bins, which would kill a few people cooking a curry.

b) Put poison into a factory-line, where you can have your canned food zip out all over the country, poisoning thousands.

I think that the rational terrorist would pick (b), which makes you primary concern about unsealed food a little off the mark.

Of course, I ‘take food contamination seriously’. When it occurs. But 45 people being hospitalised (not dying) in another country (I’m in the UK) when I was less than one year old (1984) doesn’t register too highly on my threat-radar.

Besides which, if this has been going on since 1984 (and before) what on earth is the relation with 9/11? Has food poisoning ever been a weapon of Islamic terrorists?

12 Noah Yetter September 21, 2006 at 12:23 pm

A Wegman’s store in greater Denver, that’s all I ask!!!

13 Megan September 21, 2006 at 12:30 pm

I’d like to see something I saw in markets in SE Asian. They had assembled packages of all the ingredients in the quantity necessary for one dish. You could buy, for example, an assembly of one onion, one tomato, several mushrooms, two stalks celery, a couple stalks of lemongrass and a bag of mixed spices. Fresher than a pre-made soup, but already put together, so that you could grab that and know you had what you needed for that dish. It would be very useful for a beginner cook. It would be handy but less useful for experienced cooks with a stocked kitchen.

14 Michael Adams September 21, 2006 at 1:17 pm

I frequently live the bachelor life, due to my or my wife’s travels. I wish it were possible to easily and quickly get smaller/single portions.

For example, it’d be nice to be able to easily/quickly buy a single, fresh chicken breast when putting together dinner for one.

Yes, I’d expect to pay more for such products, but it would still probably be cheaper than going out to eat, and less wasteful than throwing out the excess, when you’re trying to dine while on the road.

Of course, for some things, I’m glad that single-servings aren’t available. Walking through the baked goods section of a grocery store, it’s very easy to resist temptation by observing (for example) that that whole cake or those dozen cookies are far more than you need. If single slices of cake, or two-packs of cookies were commonly available in the stores I shop, I’d be doomed!

15 Brad September 21, 2006 at 2:02 pm

I’d love to see some cookbooks for perusal in the store, maybe bound like the yellow pages in a phone booth. I often go to the store looking to be inspired by what is fresh in the produce section or on special or just strikes my fancy. I’m usually good at coming up with a recipe on the fly, but it would be great to be able to look up that one ingredient I’m sure I’m forgetting or find a recipe for that intriguing new vegetable I’ve never tried before.

16 eweininger September 21, 2006 at 2:22 pm

Here at Wegman’s ground zed (Western NY), I find I long for a Trader Joe’s….

17 Sol September 21, 2006 at 4:19 pm

Peter, your local store may have issues with self-checkout, but that’s a problem with your store, not the concept. It has been working fine for 5+ years at all the larger stores in our region; several of them have recently doubled the number of self-checkout stations. I almost always use them when possible.

On the other hand, I’m a little bemused that Tyler says an ethnic market “sells in more flexible quantities”. That certainly does not seem to be the case in our area — witness all the odd ingredients my wife purged from our cupboards recently, mostly things I bought years ago from local Asian markets so I could use a little bit of them to try a recipe. In my experience, most of these sorts of ingredients aren’t sold at regular grocery stores at all.

18 Lee September 21, 2006 at 7:54 pm

My local HEB has self-check out. If I have less than 8 or so items (not uncommon), I prefer it to an attended checkout. I’m on a mission for milk not chit-chat.

RFID would be a dream for the same reason.

All chips and cereals ought to come in a giant tube like oatmeal does. Bread should should come in a sturdy, closable box. I leave that to the engineers.

Analysis: Old people can’t work self-check out. The bulk of them won’t die until after the introduction of RFID, which even they should be able to handle. So maybe scanning your own stuff will never catch on. Cereal, chips, and bread are packaged the way they are because people aren’t as innovative as me. Or something to so with cost.

19 DB September 22, 2006 at 9:29 am

1. A Computerized map at the entrance that is product specific.

2. Delivery dates for seafood and vegtables

3. Fresh Cheese.

4. Goose.

20 Joe Smoe September 27, 2006 at 9:36 pm

What I’d like to see in some of our supermarkets is a change in the self checkout concept. In NC we have Ingles Grocery stores predominatly and many of them offer 4 self check outs. The problem with these self check outs is that they normally take longer for you to check out or you’re waiting on someone else to check out in front of you. There really isn’t an advantage to using the self check out unless it is completely empty and you have 1 or 2 items. I think the use of self check outs should reward you with a 2 or 3 percent discount considering you’re saving them a cashier and a bagger on average 30-40k a year.

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