Essay: I Don’t Hate Grocery Stores, but I Wish They Were More Lovable

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2019 10:00:11 PM
Modified: 1/8/2019 10:00:17 PM

A few weeks ago, during my weekly trip to the grocery store, I observed a mother exploring the produce section with her three young children. I say exploring because, though I recall that she had a list in hand, she moved and spoke with the unhurried tempo of a tourist and was either savoring the chore or putting on a darn good show for the sake of her brood. Weighing grapes and selecting overpriced strawberries never looked so absorbing.

I used to see people like her a lot. Sometimes I was her, although I admit I was more often the sort of mom who moved through the store like a high-level military operative, determined to spare myself and all within earshot the howling that might ensue if I lingered too long in the cereal aisle or ran into someone I knew (look down, look down).

Now that I shop in the evening after work, and now that online shopping and delivery services allow busy families to shop from home, I see fewer of these tourist-style shoppers. Evening and weekend shoppers are, by and large, a get-in, get-out bunch, and I suppose I fit that description.

What is it about grocery shopping that keeps me trooping back through the automatic doors, aside from the need for sustenance, of course?

Is it because I care that much about selecting my own avocados and bananas? Nah.

Is it because I worry about my local grocery store’s profit margins? Not really.

An increasing number of shoppers are expected to buy at least some of their groceries online in the coming year — more than half, according to a recent survey (though that’s probably lower in this area, where online options are less plentiful; see related story). I think I’m holding out on the trend for reasons similar to that mother of three, or at least what I imagine her reasons to be.

I want it to be fun. I want it to be … more.

It’s a weird time to be a human. For the better part of our existence, we, like other members of the animal kingdom, devoted most of our energy to the pursuit of food. Then came refrigerators and combines and take-out windows and microwaves, and now, grocery delivery services. For most of us, filling our bellies is as effortless an activity as we want it to be.

Of course, not everyone wants it to be. In few places is the mindful eating esthetic more evident than in this manure-slathered region of New England, with its bustling farmers’ markets and farm-to-table restaurants and agri-tourists frolicking around the breweries, wineries and creameries that dot the landscape.

Peeling potatoes is now a task as transcendent to some as it is pointless to others.

But whither the grocery store in this strange world?

For all but the true food purists, grocery stores remain a necessary destination, online or otherwise. The question, then, is whether today’s shopper wants a streamlined experience or a memorable one.

The answer, maybe, is both.

Me, I want grocery shopping to be easy. I really, really want someone to paint traffic lines in the aisles, complete with slow lanes and passing lanes for grocery carts, and while they’re at it, install yield signs at the end of each aisle. I don’t care how you make oblivious people get out of my way, just do it.

At the same time, I want grocery stores to surprise and delight and inspire me. When I was home with small kids, grocery shopping was a much-anticipated activity, a reason to get out of the house. Now that I spend large portions of my day staring at a computer screen, I guess it serves a similar purpose. I don’t really want to spend another hour in front of a computer, blandly clicking through a cyber store. Like that serene mom and her kiddos cluttering up the produce aisles, I want to explore and touch and even make an ill-advised impulse purchase or three.

Earlier this year, grocery consulting firm Brick Meets Click published an article suggesting that grocery stores create displays that will wow the young crowd and inspire them to Instagram their experience.

Um, no.

But the sentiment behind the suggestion makes sense. In our hurried world, consumers demand convenience, but they also crave experience. Why can’t an errand also be an outing, part work, part fun?

Food co-ops and some hipper grocery stores are doing this, to varying degrees. Some host events ranging from cooking classes to kid-oriented activities to theme nights. Many have cafe tables where you can sit down with your fussy kid and that friend you ran into and enjoy a muffin and coffee.

Let’s have more of these diversions in grocery stores. I don’t want samples of the newest Oreo flavor. Okay, that’s a lie. I actually do. But I’d really love a little courtyard where I can take mini lessons, sample recipes featuring foods that are on sale, sit down with a cup of chai and maybe view some agriculture-themed art. At the very least, I’d like hipper music and maybe some playful labeling.

I know we shoppers can’t have a two-for-one deal on cake and eat it too. Frills cost money, money that could, in theory, stay in my wallet. But if my teenagers and I spend two hours and an extra $20 in the grocery store because we’re having fun, that excursion might prevent me spending more money elsewhere on entertainment. Especially now, with three more months of winter spread out in front of us.

Not only that, but stores that inspire creativity might even make shopping easier and cheaper in an alternate way. Most weeks, I think I come out better, budget-wise, with a bare-bones list and an improvisational shopping style built around store sales than I would if I’d planned my meals with military precision and any number of genius shopping apps. Court me with simple, clever ideas and tools, and I’ll keep coming back.

Of course, the Oreo samples won’t hurt either.

Sarah Earle can be reached at and 603-727-3268.

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