Grocery Angst

Published July 26, 2018 in Warp & Woof


Grocery Angst
Choosing Where to Shop in Opposite of “Food Desert”
William Sundwick
Retail food shopping is very competitive  in many places these days. If you have access to a car and live inside the beltway in Northern Virginia like I do, there are many choices. No food desert here.
Indeed, there are so many choices that sometimes I make arbitrary decisions. I can easily stipulate that all the stores where I will shop must fall within a ten-mile radius. And even among those, the closest stores get the highest priority when I plan my trips. There are other factors — quality of fresh foods, certain brand preferences, a friendly, helpful staff. But the clincher is usually that I’m not getting any younger, and gas is not getting cheaper!
I don’t mean to minimize the social/economic problem of food deserts in America. I understand that I am part of a privileged class in this country – the class of people that can afford to live in affluent neighborhoods and communities, places profitable for grocery chains to exploit. There is much competition to provide services for communities that are willing to pay. Not so much, places where there isn’t a sufficient consumer base with disposable income. Food deserts do exist, rural to be sure, and in urban neighborhoods that have not seen much gentrification of their population. Grocery angst comes not only from a plethora of choices for me, but my knowledge that many Americans don’t have those choices.
Having a car also enables far more choice. I would not be in the position of deciding which supermarket to put on my semi-weekly “medium-size” grocery trip if I had to walk or take Metro. Much less a bus. The size of my larder governs the size of the trip more than my ability to transport the goods. Not so for many – although Internet food delivery services are growing exponentially. Competition for my time is the luxury I can afford. With fewer choices, others must just make time!
Here are my choices in major supermarket chains — arranged by proximity to my house:


      • ·         BJs Wholesale (0.8 mi. – but, limited selections)
      • ·         Safeway (1.2 mi. to nearest – and biggest)
      • ·         Target (1.4 mi.)
      • ·         Shoppers (1.5 mi.)
      • ·         Harris Teeter (two stores to choose from, 1.7 or 1.8 mi.)
      • ·         Giant Food (2.8 or 3.0 mi. – two stores)
      • ·         Trader Joe’s (2.9 mi.)
      • ·         Whole Foods Market (4.1 mi.)
      • ·         Aldi (4.8 or 5.1 mi. – two stores)
      • ·         Costco Wholesale (6.7 mi.)
      • ·         Walmart Supercenter (8.4 mi.)
      • ·         Wegmans – too far (outside my maximum 10 mi. radius)
Ranked by convenience, BJs should be at the top of my list. I could walk there if I weren’t planning on buying much. But, therein lies BJs greatest weakness – small quantities of many brands (both private and national) cannot be found in their big warehouse store! Also, I don’t have home storage capacity for huge quantities of most items, something that seems to be a BJs specialty.  Target’s grocery department, on the other hand, is developing, but so far has fewer choices and less fresh food than either the local Safeway (in the same mall) or the two Harris Teeter’s within two miles. Hence, if I must drive, the first choice for my semi-weekly trips will either be Safeway, which is a superstore by Safeway standards – virtually all amenities and brands of any competitor – or, one of the two equidistant Harris Teeter stores. It is hard to choose between Safeway and either of those Harris Teeters.
My rationale for consolidating the grocery trips, despite what many would consider extreme geographic convenience, is that I feel that competition for my time. I must include exercise, walking to garner my requisite 10,000 steps, reading and writing (Warp & Woof!), frequent babysitting for my grandson, seasonal activities like yardwork and politics, occasional social interaction – and, of course, eating and sleeping. Don’t want to make lots of annoying short trips to get this or that thing I forgot to put on my last grocery list. The semi-weekly model works well for my schedule and my food storage capacity. 
Neutralizing the convenience factor, I usually choose between Safeway and H-T (my elder son calls latter “The Teat”) based on other characteristics. All the staples of my regular life can be found at either chain. My wife feels that produce at Safeway is often fresher than either Harris Teeter store I frequent, but I tend to consider that evidence anecdotal. There is also no evidence that a longer trip to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods would significantly increase that freshness probability, either. Farmers markets in the area are limited in duration (one day per week for each – hard to schedule).
Then, there are the intangibles – friendly staff, store organization, amenities. Between Safeway and the two Harris Teeters, I have to say staff friendliness and professional dedication seem equal – with a few extra points given to H-T for having more staff available in aisles restocking while I’m shopping (more opportunity to ask questions, make comments, etc.), and some humanitarian points going to Safeway for employing a couple of special needs baggers (one of whom went through elementary and middle school with my younger son in Arlington Public Schools). My interaction with staff occurs mainly at deli counters, fresh meat and seafood, or checkout, and all three stores excel in those areas.
Store organization is something you get used to in any store where you are a regular customer. However, in one of these three cases, the Harris Teeter at Lee-Harrison Center in Arlington, a recent store remodeling has caused an unnatural (for me, at least) division between upstairs and downstairs – the two-level design of the store may be basically flawed, anyway. Since that redo, this store often loses out to the other two for the semi-weekly staples trips – although its garage does have a free EV charge station!
Amenities are related to store layout and organization, but these days all major chains seem to have wi-fi, café seating area, Starbucks, salad bars, fresh bakeries, and full-service pharmacies. If I were interested (which I’m not), the Broad Street Harris Teeter in Falls Church even features a wine bar and sushi bar!


Even so, I have a small spark of curiosity to try other stores, perhaps farther afield, because I hear so much from friends and family who use them. Perhaps I should try Shoppers? They may have the large tubs of Utz pretzels that both Safeway and H-T are lax in restocking. Could be that Target carries Land-o-Lakes spread in tubs, which Safeway and Harris Teeter seem to have dropped. Trader Joe’s might be fun for snacks or frozen food.


But, it’s unlikely that I would change my regular shopping patterns for any of these reasons, unless my wife gets tired of the choices that the “big two” chains offer. When she accompanies me to any of the main three stores – relatively uncommon – I find we buy things NOT on my predetermined list. Is there a future for more boldnessin my grocery choices?
Recently, I made the discovery that reduced fat peanut butter is not healthier, or lower calorie, than regular peanut butter. My research was prompted by the disappearance of all reduced fat varieties of chunky peanut butter from both Safeway and Harris Teeter shelves – this made me wonder. Indeed, the Internet provided the answer. “Reduced fat” was a scam for peanut butter, all along! I might similarly be surprised by further research into other disappearing products from my favorite store shelves. Do the major supermarket chains know best? Could be …


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