Monday, May 16, 2011

Busting Umpteen

Photo courtesy Flickr

I’ve shopped on foot in this neighborhood for years. There are two major supermarkets within ten minutes walk of the house, and over the, egad, decades, I’ve used each of them in turn, a few years at one, then a few years at the other, for no particular reason.

A couple of years ago one chain was sold to a big national outfit, and the transition was not pretty. The local outlet had always led its group in sales per square foot. One of the produce guys said it was known as “the little giant” at headquarters. The new management seemed clumsy for a while, with the staff in transition, robot checkers in the works, and unfamiliar house brands that were not tempting.

Last month I tiptoed in on a routine errand and discovered a tiny miracle of store design. The place is close to a fast-moving, hard-working neighborhood of homes that are far from cheap, and it appears that the space and inventory are modeled after a typical densely urban convenience store, like the one downstairs from my nephew’s apartment in San Francisco. I have to sidle down the aisles in that place, it’s hardly glossy, and there’s little range of choice in the stock. The service is personal, though, and the social atmosphere is healthy. It’s like shopping in a phone booth, if anyone remembers what that is.

The new, improved neighborhood chain outlet has been reconfigured like an upscale version of City Grits. The aisles are narrower, the carts small, the lighting sophisticated, and surprisingly best of all, the stock is focussed on a few alternatives in each category, one excellent, one ordinary, one bargain, and maybe an organic variant, with heavy emphasis on local sources. The produce is as good as I have seen in a chain.

With mind-boggling range of choice under control (the Other Store has what seems like a fifty-foot aisle of dry cereal, and ours is not its largest outlet), I can whip through a shopping list in a third of the time, even before I’m completely familiar with the inventory. The prices compare, and even if they were a tad higher, it would be worth it to shop in a building I can traverse in less than a minute. I swear it’s a quarter mile from one side of the other place to the far end, and lumping through the aisles at the end of a long day is far from rewarding.

The reinvented grocery’s a good example of what economist Paul Hawken calls building more intelligence into a product, or in this case, operation. The Other Store carries most of the same inventory, but every time I reach for something there, a hunk of chaff gets between my fingers.


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