All Commentary
Friday, May 5, 2017

This Grocery Store Is *So* You

Do you want your customers to leave feeling fancy, or efficient? You have the power to decide that.

The problem with food is that it disappears. There’s less of it every time you eat until finally you’re hungry and there really isn’t much left. Then you have to go and buy more and the whole thing starts all over again as you eat some of it on the way home. I swear I spend half my life buying food.

If I wake up energetic enough, early enough, and it’s the right season, I’ll go to the farmer’s market, but that doesn’t happen often enough to be a reliable source of food for me. Even ordering food online for delivery takes a while. There also aren’t as many options yet as I’d like there to be, and it’s more expensive, and I like being able to see my options right in front of me and having them right away, that moment, instead of waiting. Plus, how am I supposed to buy produce or fresh meats or fish online? They’d probably keep the best ones for themselves. Rude.

So I keep going to the store. But I’ve become one of those people who goes to different grocery stores for different things, like I do with everything else I buy. I’d love to only have one, me-tailored place, but unfortunately we don’t have stores offering both 99-cent macaroni and cheese and bourbon-brined salmon. (Someone start that chain of stores, please.)

Ramen Versus Salmon

In bouncing between stores, I’ve realized that different places make me feel very different, and even make me react differently to the foods. Fresh Market, the almost laughably high-brow ~healthy~ grocery store (who knew a grocery store could be aesthetically tasteful?), makes me feel like I should dine al fresco on antipasti and wines pressed from the vineyards just beyond the patio.

How did I go from feeling like I should dine al fresco to feeling like I should gulp microwaved ramen in a truck?Target makes me feel like I should eat quickly on my way to the gym, after running errands, while answering emails, while calling a friend to check up on her life.

Walmart makes me feel like I should gulp 20-cent microwaved ramen out of a solo cup in an old pickup truck while listening to pop country music.

How did I go from dining al fresco in a vineyard to gulping microwaved ramen in a truck?

Sure, it depends on what foods each store sells: Fresh Market literally has an antipasti and olive bar, which looks like a romantic Italian street vendor’s cart. Target sells a lot of grab-and-go foods. Walmart sells a surprising number of varieties of 20-cent ramen. But these feelings hit me the moment I enter the stores, not when I’m looking at the antipasti cart or the ramen.

It really comes down to the presentation of the store itself.

In other words, marketing.

The general attitude towards marketing is that it’s out to get your money. I mean, sure, but you’re out to get their products, and your transactions are voluntary, so it all evens out to the point that you’re not a victim. You’re a beneficiary.

When most people think of marketing, they think of advertising, sleazy car salesmen, and hawking. But marketing incorporates many, more subtle things as well. Like the actual atmosphere and design of a store.

Setting the Mood

Every store is designed the way it is in order to fit each store’s goals. Each layout and atmosphere attracts a particular audience, who shop at a given place because that one in particular best suits their needs. Big box stores’ looks and feels reflects the huge assortment of products, which are all offered at low prices. Organic grocery stores spend more money on looks, which partly contributes to their higher prices. Their goal is to feel more personal, so they have fewer options in order to have a small, more intimate space.

As Marge says in The Simpsons, “We can’t afford to shop at any store with a philosophy!” Organic stores definitely have a philosophy. And maybe you don’t want to pay for that. I usually don’t. Or maybe you just could not care less about food philosophy or whether your food is organic. I don’t. I just like the way the food tastes. But either way, there’s a store for you, and they’re catering to you in every way, from their food options to their lighting.

Whether you want a store with as many inexpensive options as possible or one with a philosophy, there’s a store for you, and they’re catering to you in every way.Think about how Walmart is set up: it’s not really decorated and it’s very large, with high ceilings, white industrial metal shelves, concrete floors, and very bright fluorescent lights. It plays the popular music of wherever that particular store is located, and there are bins of bargain candy and movies in the main walkways. Everything is very stripped down, without frills and without much presentation – except for the mosaics of sports logos built with 12-packs of soda. It’s set up this way to help keep costs down, which is a plus, but it all feels rather cold and impersonal.

Meanwhile, at Target, the floors are linoleum and carpet, depending on the area. The lighting is less bright, and the ceiling itself is lowered and covered, rather than left open to reveal the supports like in Walmart. The shelves and space are more decorated, there are more product displays, and the music is softer, playing a wider range of songs even within a single store. It feels less like a warehouse than Walmart, but I still feel like I should be multi-tasking and walk as quickly as possible.

Then there’s Fresh Market. It’s a whole other species, and you can tell before you even get inside the store: there’s a standing chalkboard outside the door, with the day’s specials written on it. Granted, Fresh Market is a dedicated grocery store, but even if you isolate the grocery sections of Walmart and Target, they can’t compete with the atmosphere of Fresh Market.

When you walk in, you’re greeted by the smell of flowers and coffee beans. The ceiling is open, but it’s painted a very dark color so you don’t have the building’s structure competing with what’s in front of you. The lights are dimmer and much lower, hanging exposed like in a café. At light-level, just above the shelves, running all around the perimeter of the store, there’s a wider shelf arranged with flowers and woven baskets.

The non-refrigerated shelves are wood, and the floor is a warm brown tile. Combined with the smaller number of options, it felt more like a pantry than a grocery store. Classical music drifts out of the speakers and floats around the antipasti and seafood bars. A wooden trellis stands over the checkout section, next to a wine section that looks like it belongs in a wine cellar. I even feel like I should be carrying my shopping basket more delicately. It’s all kind of ridiculous for a grocery store once you start really paying attention to it all, but it still feels pretty good, and I’m all about that.

The Mood’s Effects

Do you want your customers to leave feeling fancy, or efficient? You have the power to decide that.I realized that in each of these stores, I not only felt different, but I also shopped differently. At Fresh Market, as compared to the others, I took more time, even though there weren’t as many options. I didn’t hate being there, trying to rush out as quickly as possible. I could’ve sworn the air itself had organic cruelty-free antioxidants in it.

I looked at all the things I like to keep on hand – milk, bread, sandwich stuff, pizza, etc. – but ended up not buying any of it. In the end, it all looked very appetizing and so on, but I’m not picky enough (yet) to prefer fancy-store basic foods to those at a more mid-range store, especially if it’s the exact same thing. Milk is milk, and I’ll rush through buying it. But I’ll keep going to Fresh Market for particular things I can’t find at mid-range stores, like bourbon-brined salmon. And I’ll take my time soaking in the smell of flowers and coffee while I’m there.

So if you’re planning on opening a business, ask yourself before decorating: do you want your customers to be motivated to take as little time as possible, or do you want them to linger? Do you want them to leave feeling like they can cross something important off their errands list, or do you want them to feel somewhat renewed? Do you want to make them think of a vineyard or a pickup truck?

One suggested improvement if you decide to go the more organic route: wine tastings would be amazing. Just saying.