Opinion: The pandemic is changing the North American supermarket – a long overdue reinvention


People wearing masks shop at a grocery store in Moncton, New Brunswick on September 22, 2021.Christopher Katsarov / The Canadian Press

Paco Underhill’s latest book is How We Eat: The Best New World of Food and Drink.

I am not a nutritionist, I do not read food blogs, and I have never cooked professionally. However, for 35 years I have worked on the design and management of grocery stores in 26 countries around the world. As in any organized retail business, there is a plan that governs the layout of a store, what happens on which shelf, what is displayed at the end of an aisle and the design and location of each sign. . The merchant’s goal is to hold your attention longer and get more money out of your pocket.

Since the start of the pandemic, many of us have done part of our shopping online. Yet in-store shopping is still dominant way of shopping for groceries. We like to choose our products and our meats. The basic design of a grocery store has not changed much since its invention in the 1930s. Typically, the dairy crate is in the rear right or left corner of the store, whichever is farther from the door. ‘Entrance. The goal is to pull you all the way through the store. The first section you enter is the products section – the most profitable part of the store. This section tends to be theatrically lit; this tomato looks better in the store than it will in your refrigerator.

I wonder why we are greeted at the door with flowers or fresh bread? We know that while the store (or restaurant) can get your salivary glands working, you are much less disciplined in your purchases. The same goes with sampling – the goal isn’t necessarily to get you to buy what you have tasted, but the simple fact that people who sample tend to spend more. They know 90 percent of us are right handed, so we push the cart with our left hand and pick up with our right. They know the whine factor – kids will stand up for things that have been marketed to their height. They also know that there are logical agreements: this display of barbecue sauce in the meat department did not happen by chance. Shelf position in most grocery stores is determined by placement fees – the money large grocery companies pay to be at eye level. For better deals look up or down.

What we buy falls into three distinct categories. The first is what’s on our list. Second, we see things that we think should have been on our list – for example, that huge Pepsi display by the front door triggers thoughts like, “My kids are home for the summer holidays.” ‘university. Do I want them to drink beer, or is Diet Pepsi better? The third is impulse buying – salsa flavored cookies or ketchup.

My thesis – or my atonement, as some have pointed out – is that if we understand how stores work and what goes into packaging design and marketing, we can become smarter, healthier consumers. Especially since the pandemic persists.

First of all, be more local and seasonal. If you can, visit your local farmers market. If you see something you don’t recognize, ask questions. I discovered watermelon radishes; they are now one of my favorite winter vegetables. Buying and eating things that come within 100 miles of your home is good for you, good for the planet, and good for your local farmers. In January, the freshest fruits and vegetables are often not in the produce section of Loblaws, but in the freezer section. In produce, these blueberries traveled at least 10 days from Peru, while the frozen ones came from Ontario and were refrigerated. a day or two after picking them.

The supermarket in North America is late in reinventing itself. We must reduce, if not eliminate, the use of plastic and cardboard in packaging. They’ve done it in other parts of the world – let’s do it here. With the rise of BOPIS shopping (i.e. buying online, picking up in store), parking lots need to be better equipped. One simple suggestion is to change the pickup process: you book a pickup time, and when you get to the store, go to a dedicated drive-thru structure at the edge of the parking lot, where your order is loaded into your vehicle.

We’re also seeing experiments with rooftop gardens and shipping containers that produce organic leafy vegetables; This way the farm-to-table idea is measured in meters, not miles. The roof of the supermarket becomes a greenhouse with solar panels. The cultivation of shipping containers works remarkably well and they are found on the unused edges of the parking lot.

There are also things we can borrow from grocers around the world. In Milan, a chain of grocery stores opened a ‘cathedral of food’, a store not designed for daily visits but for monthly pilgrimages – a place of education and entertainment. In Mexico, some large supermarkets are designed with shelves that are easy to move with a forklift; during off-peak hours, an entire section can be moved to an area at the back of the store, where it is restocked by a crew – this works remarkably well. In certain from subway stations in Seoul, there are virtual stores with photographic displays; while waiting for your train, you watch and place your order online. Industry calls them chapels.

Our planet needs us to make better and smarter choices. It’s time for some fundamental changes both in retailing and in the way we buy our daily bread.

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