Paco Underhill’s latest book is How We Eat: The Brave New World of Food and Drink.
I’m not a nutritionist, I don’t read food blogs, nor have I ever 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 all organized retail, there is a plan that governs how a store is laid out, what goes on what shelf, what is displayed at the end of an aisle and the design and placement of each sign. The merchant’s purpose is to hold your attention longer and get more money out of your pocket.
Since the pandemic began, many of us are doing some of our grocery shopping online. Yet in-store shopping is still the dominant way of buying groceries. We like to pick out our produce and meats. The basic design of a grocery store hasn’t changed much since it was invented in the 1930s. Generally, the dairy case is at the back right- or left-hand corner of the store – whichever is farthest from the front door. The purpose is to pull you all the way through the store. The first section you enter is produce – the most profitable part of the store. That section tends to be theatrically lit; that tomato looks better in store than it will in your refrigerator.
Wonder why we are greeted at the door by flowers or fresh bread? We know that if the store (or restaurant) can get your saliva glands working, you are much less disciplined in your purchases. Same goes with sampling – the purpose is not necessarily to get you to buy what you tasted, but the simple fact that people who sample tend to spend more. They know that 90 per cent of us are right-handed, thus we push the cart with our left hand and pick up with our right. They know about the whine factor – kids will advocate for stuff that has been merchandised at their height. They know too that there are logical pairings: That display of barbecue sauce in the meat section didn’t get there by accident. The shelf position in most grocery stores is driven by slotting fees – the money the big food companies pay to be at eye level. For better deals look up or down.
What we buy falls into three separate categories. First is what’s on our list. Second is things we see that we think should have been on our list – for example, that huge display of Pepsi by the front door triggers thoughts like “My kids are home for the holidays from college. Do I want them drinking beer, or is Diet Pepsi better?” The third is impulse purchases – cookies or salsa-flavoured ketchup.
My thesis – or my atonement, as some have pointed out – is that if we understand how stores work and what goes into package design and marketing, we can become smarter, heathier consumers. Especially as the pandemic lingers.
First, get more local and seasonal. If you can, visit your local farmers’ market. If you see something you don’t recognize, ask about it. I discovered watermelon radishes; they are now one of my favourite winter vegetables. Buying and eating stuff that comes from less than 100 miles from where you live 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, those blueberries have travelled at least 10 days from Peru, while the frozen ones came from Ontario and were chilled a day or two after they were picked.
The supermarket in North America is overdue for reinvention. We need to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of plastic and cardboard in packaging. They have done it in other parts of the world – let’s do it here. With the rise in BOPIS shopping (that’s buy online, pick up in store), parking lots need to be better designed. One simple suggestion is changing the pickup process: You book a pickup hour and, when you arrive at the store, go to a dedicated drive-through structure at the edge of the parking lot, where your order is loaded into your vehicle.
We are also seeing experiments with rooftop and shipping container gardens that produce organic leafy vegetables; this way the idea of farm to table is measured in metres, not miles. The roof of the supermarket becomes a greenhouse with solar panels. Shipping container growing works remarkably well, and they sit on the unused edges of the parking lot.
There are things we can borrow from grocers around the world, too. In Milan, a grocery store chain has opened a “cathedral for food,” a store not designed for everyday visits but for monthly pilgrimages – a place for education and entertainment. In Mexico, some big supermarkets are designed with shelving that is easy to move with a forklift truck; during off-hours, an entire section can be moved to a zone in the back of the store, where it is restocked by a team – it works remarkably well. In some subway stations in Seoul, one finds virtual stores with photographic displays; as you wait for your train, you look and place your online order. The industry calls them chapels.
Our planet needs us to make better and smarter choices. It’s time for some basic changes both in retail and in how we acquire our daily bread.
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