​​​​​​​The Great American Supermarket Is Not Finished With You, Yet

The digital future is now. So why are traditional grocery stores better than ever?

Wegmans Produce
Photo: Courtesy of Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.

Very recently, in San Antonio, Texas, a little boy named Thomas had a birthday party, and that birthday party went viral. Thomas was turning five, which is kind of a big deal, at least to a four-year-old, and what did he want for his birthday, more than anything? He wanted a trip to the supermarket.

Not just any supermarket, of course — Thomas wanted to go to his neighborhood H-E-B. To the rest of the country, the name may not ring a bell. To millions of Texans, the H-E-B is everything, as much a part of the fabric as Publix in the Southeast, or Wegmans up north, or Hy-Vee in so many places in the Midwest — it's not just a place to pick up necessaries, it is a part of who you are, inseparable from your daily existence. It's H-E-B. Here, Everything's…Better.

Some supermarkets might have found the request just a little bit bewildering — not H-E-B. The company eagerly agreed to host the event, marking this momentous occasion, at one of their suburban San Antonio stores. Thomas got his own little shopping cart, which ended up full of cool toys. The store mascot — the H-E-Buddy, of course, shaped like a bag stuffed with groceries, of course — came out for hugs, and the whole thing was documented with a gorgeous photo shoot, which everyone immediately began sharing on the Internet. The San Antonio media picked it up, then Austin, then all over Texas — everyone, that day, was talking about Thomas. For one happy moment, the bad news had been crowded out. Suddenly, it was Here, Everything's…Birthday.

While anyone with two eyes might have found it difficult to keep from cracking a smile at the sight of little Thomas having the time of his life in a very big supermarket, for Texans, this was bigger. This was about pride. This was H-E-B, their H-E-B, going viral, H-E-B, a place Texas Monthly called "a phenomenon — one that tends to baffle non-Texans who come here from places where going to the supermarket is an errand, not a pilgrimage."

Supermarkets are able to exert this rather unusual hold over us, when done correctly, there are all sorts of little things that can add up — stars, that when aligned, deliver this perfect storm of goodwill to what to many people around the world would be viewed as a relentlessly uninteresting part of life. There is the thrill of a good deal, the calming effect of a good store layout, the feeling of luxury that comes from just the right amount of spaciousness in the aisles (not too much). There are the colors of the produce section, the good lighting in the cold cases, the communal gatherings in the café, chit chat with your neighbors at the coffee bar, the guy who knows your name at the seafood counter, and just how you like things wrapped up. For many of us New Worlders, supermarkets are close to the best we can hope for, in the way of a traditional public square, or a traditional market, two places that have gathered people for centuries. The way we do business may have changed; our desire to gather has not. Food — and the why isn't exactly a mystery — attracts and holds us. Food brings us together, it is where we connect with the people we care about. When a supermarket gets that, the love letters tend to write themselves.

The very first supermarket I fell in love with was the King Kullen around the corner from my Nana and Pop Pop's house, a garden apartment in one of those nondescript Long Island, New York, suburbs where the median income is double the national average, with very little to show for it. My grandparents were never wealthy people, but they lived smart, and they certainly shopped smart, except when their family came to visit. Suddenly, it was all bets off, caution to the wind, and everything we could have ever wanted to eat was on that Formica kitchen counter, waiting for us when we arrived, and if it wasn't, someone would very quickly go out shopping.

Back then, supermarkets were often something straight out of an early Tarantino, or Coen Brothers film — the strips of blinding fluorescent light, the tile floors, the low-slung freezer cases with more chrome than a Detroit-made car, the never-ending Muzak, interrupted only requests for price checks, which in our case, were bellowed in Long Islandese. Not only was there all of that, there was an abundance we could only dream of, us ordinary country folk, who had driven three hours from the other side of New York City to see them. What lucky people, we thought, to have all of this, just around the corner from where you live, close enough that you could sneak out for Eskimo Pies and Bachman pretzels and Entenmann's chocolate frosted donuts, and get back home before anybody knew you were even gone.

Being so closely tied to some of my happiest childhood memories, supermarkets mean a great deal to me, all these decades later. While it took me many years to figure all of this out, I never saw them as places of necessity, of drudgery; in fact, I have always sought supermarkets out, no matter where in the world I find myself, which could, quite literally, be anywhere. As a result, life happened at supermarkets for me, big life moments I'll never forget, from the first trip down the aisles with family, to my first bake sale, leads on terrific apartments posted on the community bulletin board, good talks and bad fights with the people closest to me, the discovery of a favorite new junk food, phone calls with good job offers. They are also points of refuge in strange places, and this goes for anyone; in any state, city or country, supermarkets have a grounding effect, even if their familiarity is only fleeting — they also offer you a fast-track into local culture, like no other. Who are the people in the place? What do they eat? How much does it cost? How do they behave in the aisles — are they polite, are they brusque, are they kind? Some cities, you meet people in supermarkets, you have conversations that you remember for a long time. Others, you remember that nobody saw you.

Central Market
A Flamenco dancer performs at Central Market. Courtesy of Central Market

Supermarkets can be a lifeline, from the Hy-Vee in rural Iowa serving a hearty, $7 breakfast before anything else in town opens up for the morning, to you and a crowd of local retirees whose appetite for gossip is never satisfied, to the Mexican market near the Phoenix airport that stays open nearly until midnight and has a counter selling pretty good tacos, if you're in on a late flight and can't be bothered to do more than grab a bite before rolling into bed. Supermarkets can even be highlights of your journey — the time you shopped for a picnic at the Monoprix in Paris, the first time you tried a Wegmans sub during college, somewhere in Western New York, or the time you saw the most beautiful thing at a Central Market in Texas, a thing that made you cry, when what you really were trying to do was just finish your plate of pasta without making a fool of yourself.

Okay, that was probably just me, the time I stopped for lunch in the busy café at H-E-B's upscale (and equally legendary within the bounds of the Lone Star State) spinoff. Millions of lucky Texans live near a Central Market, which are like Whole Foods, but more extravagant, more abundant, more fun. For whatever reason, the day's live entertainment was offered in partnership with Opera San Antonio. I don't know if you've ever tried to eat lunch with someone belting out, and flawlessly, I'll add, Nessun Dorma, and the like, but it was a lot — obviously, in the best possible way.

The only salvation from utter humiliation? I was far from the only one reaching over for more napkins, and cleverly trying to pretend I wasn't dabbing at my eyes. Outside the café seating area, the store didn't miss a beat, it was a busy lunch hour, which always spells disaster in a never-big-enough parking lot, but in here, everything was perfect, if not birthday. In my own way, I was Thomas, back in the King Kullen with my grandmother, under the fluorescent lights, with the freezers and all of the ice cream, and everything else I dreamed of, and still dream of having.

A Brief History, if You Will Allow It, of the American Supermarket

King Kullen
King Kullen in Rockville Center, Long Island, New York, 1940s. R. Gates/Getty Images

Back in my earliest years, I had no idea that shopping at a King Kullen made us part of history, and while the story of the supermarket really began around a century ago, with wild Clarence Saunders in Memphis, Tennessee, godfather of the Piggly Wiggly brand and the man considered to be the first true disrupter of the grocery space, it was over a decade later, in the Queens borough of New York City, that Michael J. Cullen opened what is considered to be the very first true supermarket. The name? King Kullen. Well, the King Kullen Grocery Company, to be completely accurate. King Kullen wasn't the only store doing cash and carry, but it was the first to most completely resemble that which we now recognize as the supermarket, with its vast array of product, special deals and a completely do-it-yourself ethic. Unless you live or once lived on Long Island, you have probably never heard of King Kullen, which continues to operate — family owned, still — as it has since 1930. If you grew up on Long Island, King Kullen, "America's First Supermarket," was almost certainly a part of your childhood, as much as mine.

There was Coke, but there was also Pepsi, and a million other also-rans — King Kullen today is mostly relevant to a history most people don't think all that much about; for my family's part, our little King Kullen was not long for the world; by the time I was old enough to remember shopping there, a larger, more spacious Waldbaum's had opened down the street. The space would lie empty for a time, then it would become another, not very good grocery store; years later, it would become a badly lit, cavernous CVS store that stayed open late into the night. Other early brands met the same end — there was the A&P, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, once famous for same-day delivery, seen as such a threat that they ended up being investigated by Congress for monopolistic practices.

A&P grocery store. Bettmann Archive

Others from that earliest era have fared far better — Publix, which started life as a glorified general store near Orlando, Florida, grew to become one of the country's favorite brands. Kroger, which predated King Kullen as a company, remains the largest of them all, operating in 35 states under a series of different names, just weeks ago, shares were up higher than they'd been in nine years, and the quarterly earnings report, which was very good indeed, had Wall Street sitting up and paying attention.

A Kroger supermarket in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1948. Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images

We created the thing, and then, for the most part, we got complacent. For the vast majority of Americans, supermarkets became a necessary evil, an endless string of same-same, anodyne, repositories of convenience foods as delicious as the cardboard boxes or plastic packaging they were sold in; small wonder, then, that the twelve-of-everything-under-one-roof, the dazzlingly-super superstores, the Walmart, the Costco — perfect for our new SUV, McMansion-owning lifestyles — were able to so easily lure so many of us away from our nearest grocery store.

Not that there have not always been bright spots, depending on where in America you lived — in the late 1980s and early '90s, most towns around New York City weren't exactly living at the pinnacle of supermarket culture; so many depressing Shop-Rite stores, so many poorly-maintained Pathmarks; in my town, however, we got a glimpse of the glorious future when a new, flagship-level Grand Union made its debut in the local shopping center. We didn't know about all of the developments in the supermarket world in other parts of the country at the time — by then, Trader Joe's was a part of life in many West Coast cities, grocery shopping as entertainment had already been established by people like Jim Bonaminio in Cincinnati, and Stew Leonard in Connecticut, Whole Foods had been around for nearly a decade, expanding from its Austin, Texas beginnings out in the wider world rather quickly; our biggest cities had iconic destinations like Zabar's in New York, Treasure Island in Chicago, the forward-thinking (by now, long gone) Petrini's in San Francisco.

Our relatively humble Grand Union, with its big footprint, its larger selection of baked goods and prepared foods, the improved lighting and the twenty kinds of potato chips — it felt so luxurious, so modern. Most kids in their teens wanted to be on the other side of town, up at the not very special (but to us, mightily impressive) shopping mall; I preferred time spent wandering the aisles of the Grand Union — so much did I enjoy my time there, I even called the store management one day, all grown up at age 14, and convinced them to let me start running occasional bake sales in the store foyer. I was a somewhat avid home baker during the pubescent years, and I had been taught by extremely capable people how to make a pretty mean Challah. (I sat there all Saturday, by myself, and I always sold out, skimming my profits to feast on macaroni salad from the store delicatessen.)

Soon enough, the Grand Union would be overtaken by other stores, just like always, something bigger, better, and brighter; while it and the King Kullen and all the other supermarkets that were so important back then now seem positively dismal by comparison, they were a part of who I was, they helped shape me. Then again, I would soon learn, and so would all the other hopeless nostalgics, that everything was about to get better, or, at the very least, more interesting, and in the process, we'd find something else to be nostalgic over.

For me, and for many others, that something was Whole Foods. The first time I set foot in one of their incredibly attractive stores, I can't say I've ever looked at a supermarket the same way again. After years of wandering in the desert without knowing it was actually a desert, this was a homecoming. Once, I wandered the aisles, trying to blend; here was a store that actually wanted me to stick around, and get comfortable, all day long, if I so desired. Three meals made from quality ingredients, all catered for, plus whatever I needed to take home at night — put down a mattress, and I could have moved in.

Whole Foods, Miami / photo: Juanmonino/Getty Images

Everything was like catnip in these stores, back when it all began — the lighting, the flooring, the smell of smoked meats, the endless supply of good cheeses, the salads too many of us were too lazy to pull together at home — Whole Foods, in those early years, was nirvana. While hardly the only game in most towns where it opened, and while it had been tried successfully before on a much smaller scale, the company, which mostly sold itself on the quality of its product, managed to successfully hook a growing customer base on the concept of grocery shopping as theatre, just as Starbucks had managed to lift coffee out of subsistence territory, rebranding and peddling it as an everyday luxury.

Better still for us consumers, Whole Foods ended up just one player on an increasingly crowded field; Costco kept growing, Walmart discovered the grocery sector, Target was along for the ride, traditional supermarkets saw what the competition was doing, and began to work harder to compete with everyone, increasingly adopting many of the same techniques and features that made Whole Foods such a smash hit. In town after town, city after city, state after state, slowly but surely, there were what felt like more options than ever. Better options, too. Whereas in the old days, the lucky few could choose how to shop for groceries, a growing number of Americans were now being given the option to vote with their feet, and they did, but even with all of the growth and the change, it would be years before any kind of industry-wide transformation. For that to happen, something even bigger, more momentous, would have to take place.

Hello from the future, which is now

That something, turns out, would be the complete overhaul of the way Americans think about food. My career as a travel writer began back in 1999 with a life-changing trip to the Bay Area, a place where they had already been busily piloting the future of American food for decades. Within a few short years, I would end up traveling to each of the fifty states, most of them many times over, and while there were stirrings all over, it was, at that time, relatively easy to divide America into two. There were the places that really got food, celebrated it — California of course, the Pacific Northwest for sure; Louisiana, forward-looking Midwestern towns like Ann Arbor and Madison, not to mention the cities in the Mid-Atlantic region lucky enough to live in close proximity to the Amish and Mennonite farmers and entrepreneurs that kept the historic local markets vibrant and alive. Toss in those living in the luckier zip codes in big cities in Texas, where, by now, many shoppers could choose from both Whole Foods and H-E-B's Central Market, or New York, where Upper West Siders could choose from specialty markets like Zabar's, Fairway and Citarella, or Chicago, where Treasure Island promised a "European" shopping experience, and that was about it; the rest of America — much of New York included — was still one, two, sometimes a thousand steps behind.

Getty Images

In 2003, San Francisco offered yet another glimpse of our possible future, with the debut of the Ferry Building Marketplace — here, they had turned a decayed historic commuter terminal into a shimmering, modern temple to fine, local food, the likes of which most of us had never seen on this continent, the sort of place that makes you never want to set foot in an average American supermarket, ever again, and why would you want to? So bowled over we were — myself included, the market was my first stop in the city for years afterward — that the Wall Street Journal all but scoffed at other cities trying to copy the thing, in a 2009 article. Don't bother, they said, in so many words. You'll never match up.

Then again, they perhaps had not figured on the outcome of the Great Recession, a momentous event already well underway. Those aforementioned stirrings, those signs of life, were suddenly everywhere. During that uncertain time, many people in large cities like New York began to slow down, often not by choice, and in the process, taking a good, long look at the way we had been eating. Americans, who once largely thrived on convenience, and in so many cases, ate to live, or even just to survive, seemed to stop merely admiring the more easy going, less dysfunctional relationship other cultures enjoy with their food, and began discovering the joys of living to eat well.

For many of us, eating local, eating organic, went from niche fad to the new normal. Upscale food halls, some of them modeled directly on San Francisco, began to crop up all over. Farmers markets were more in fashion than they had been in generations, and not just for those with lots of disposable income. In a time of economic stress, being around food was suddenly the comfort everyone was apparently craving, and the supermarkets that were prepared for the rush, such as Whole Foods, were soon being nipped at the heels by the rest of them. All this was happening in tandem with the tech revolution, not to mention the revolution involving Americans having less time than ever before.

What for years had been an outlandish idea to most Americans, this notion of delivery — what were our cars for, after all — was suddenly back in style; beginning in the big cities and slowly fanning out, third-party and store-managed delivery services were suddenly the rage. Whole Foods, which had enjoyed quite the moment in the sun, was finding the market increasingly competitive; with activist investors nipping at its heels, founder and CEO John Mackey flew to Seattle and took a meeting. Within a matter of weeks, the deal was done. Amazon, widely held as responsible for the decline of brick and mortar retail, was now a major player in the grocery business. Was the American supermarket dead? It's... well, it's unclear.

Ask any analyst, and they will tell you that somebody, and that somebody is probably going to be Amazon, unless of course it's not, is going to break Americans out of their rut and successfully digitize the entire industry; what they will also tell you, however, is that it is as yet unclear when or how this is going to happen. This is one very satisfying explanation as to why the industry is taking the ball and running — they've got time, and they're not wasting a second.

A year after Amazon purchased Whole Foods, Whole Foods is essentially the same store; whatever tumbles the stock of the competition might have taken, a year later, things are looking good. Not that the shockwave wasn't needed; it's been a busy year for the industry, and according to Bloomberg, Amazon is still under five percent of total grocery spending in the country; one 1,800-square-foot test store selling mostly packaged foods might have been a good news story, but it's still just a convenience store in one city.

400tmax/Getty Images

Meantime, Kroger, the country's largest grocery conglomerate, announced just weeks ago that they had pulled out ahead of Amazon for market share on delivery, and in the wake of this year's Prime Day, when Amazon reported shipping approximately 100 million products within a 24-hour period, Kroger, reached for response, pointed out, rather politely, that it sells around 110 million items on the average day. "It's easy to take for granted the scale of a company like Kroger," the company spokesperson said in a statement.

Not that Kroger isn't doing its furious best to keep up, or ahead — even though more than one analyst has been quoted saying that Amazon, at best, could hope to take roughly ten percent of the business away from the other players; that's too much, it turns out, in a business with notoriously narrow margins, and it's who's in that ten percent, the fickle buyers with the most money to throw around, that really matters. Still, while Amazon plays with its new toys and studies the business it clearly has designs on overthrowing, the industry has been given more time to figure out, what exactly in the hell they're going to do, going forward.

Wegmans, Natick
Wegmans in Natick, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.

There's delivery and pick-up, for starters — if it's not being offered yet where you shop, chances are, it will be, soon. Walmart, for example, the largest seller of organic groceries now, is partnering with Doordash to offer delivery to nearly half the U.S. population, by year's end; Wegmans has partnered with Instacart for delivery, in addition to its pre-existing pick-up service; Target acquired Shipt, a grocery delivery startup, Kroger, the second largest retailer of groceries after Walmart, ran out and bought a stake in British grocery delivery service Ocado, which had investors rushing to buy Kroger stock, and consumers rushing to place their orders, pushing Kroger past Amazon as a leader in grocery delivery.

The list goes on — the amount of changes, in a short period of time, is nothing short of stunning. Simply put, it's open season. Just recently, Bloomberg's Sarah Halzack noted that online grocery is just now reaching the tipping point, that many Americans that will soon rely on delivery as part of their lives have not yet adopted. "There are going to be millions more dollars up for grabs in this channel in the next several years, and habits aren't yet ingrained for who gets them," she writes. Simply put — there's a lot that's still up for grabs, and may the best man win. Amazon might do its best to take the industry down, but the industry is making it clear they're not going down without a fight.

Wegmans, Natick
Wegmans in Natick, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.

One year after that seismic event, the event, everything is still changing; while on the one hand, the industry is scrambling to get past your doorway, on the other, they seem to be investing a whole lot of energy into making sure you don't forget to darken theirs. Full-service restaurants, wine bars, full-blown food halls, community rooms, children's play areas, arcade games, much-improved cheese sections, proper pizza ovens churning out Neapolitan-style pies, not to mention all sorts of innovations for the do-it-yourselfers, including a growing number of partnerships with the growing meal kit industry, and even, in some cases, the creation of store brand meal kits — there are all sorts of come-ons, all sorts of ways to get you to engage. Staples of life across the Atlantic for generations, Aldi, and now Lidl are blowing up market after market with their often extremely appealing prices on quality, mostly house-brand items; both are now offering delivery, at least in select markets. (The bakery you will find in a Lidl store, a direct cop from their European model, offers American shoppers access to some of the best cheap croissants to ever bake up on these shores.) Walmart is tinkering with restocking robots. The startup AiFi is partnering with Visa to rollout cashier-free checkout, the same technology Amazon is using in its Seattle pilot store, anywhere retailers decide to give it a chance.

Wegmans, 1960
Courtesy of Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.

Maybe today's grocery stores are yesterday's bookshops, the ones that threw everything at the wall in hopes that some of it would stick, and very little — if any of it — did. After all, the decline of the average American shopping mall from its peak to its current, deathly hallows happened in what feels like a few short years. Could these glammed-up grocery stores, with their dizzying distractions, vastly improved designs, streamlined operations and irresistible take-home meals be trying too hard, too late? Whatever the outcome, whatever hammer is going to fall, it's unlikely to come in any kind of hurry — in the United Kingdom, renowned for both its supermarkets and its pioneering on the delivery front, less than ten percent of shoppers currently opt to bring in, preferring to go out themselves. In the United States, depending on which study you pay attention to, the number still hovers around five percent. Americans, it turns out, may not like going to supermarkets, but they're still going.

Meanwhile, where we are now looks good. On a hot Saturday afternoon last May, when many New Englanders were making their way out to the beaches, many of them most likely for the first time that year, plenty of others, myself included, were headed to the mall.

Not just any mall — the Natick Mall in Boston's western suburbs is one in that lucky group that have survived the Great Decline, having the good fortune to be located in one of those parts of the country where there is still a great appetite for high-end retail. The place was not particularly busy, in keeping with the unseasonably perfect weather; not the Nordstrom, the Neiman Marcus, or the Apple Store — but there was one wing of the mall that was positively jammed with people, the wing where the newest, and one of the most impressive Wegmans stores ever to open had just made its long-anticipated debut.

Wegmans, Natick
Wegmans in Natick, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.

A carnival-like atmosphere had taken over both levels of the store; at ground level of the space, a defunct JCPenneys, there was something that looked a lot like any other Wegmans supermarket, while upstairs, a full-blown food hall, from the usual store offerings to a seafood market with demonstrations to a sit-down Mexican restaurant with a bar and cocktail specials, for which there was a long line, waiting to get in. Like so many of the food halls that are now so fashionable these days, this was a place to come and gather, to hang out, to grab a bite, or a full meal, but unlike too many of these same food halls, it is also a place selling more than $10 pairs of fusion tacos and clever cocktails. This is a place to properly shop, to pick up fresh fish, to select from a dizzying array of cheeses and charcuterie — it was Harrods in London, it was those department stores in Tokyo, but without many of the bells and whistles, and the endless stream of tourists.

While the Wegmans in Natick might be one of the more dazzling examples of how American supermarkets have evolved, you will see this sort of thing in varying degrees, everywhere from downtown Des Moines, Iowa, to small suburban towns near Seattle, Washington, to tony suburbs of Los Angeles — the stores we love the most are the ones willing to do more, more than supermarkets ever did. We live in a strange and often stressful time; is it any wonder that consumers are looking to feel good? Make them happy to be at their local supermarket, and chances are they'll show up. Whether that's with cooking schools and live demonstrations and artisanal baked goods, or even if its just an ample range of unique, good value store brand product, the chains that are thriving, the ones we're talking about, are so often the ones that deliver something special, something different.

Let the analysts discuss delivery and technology and market share and whether or not people still want to go to grocery stores — here in Natick, and in so many other cities, the evidence is right out there, in front of anyone who is looking — Americans still love the supermarket, they just want them to be better. Luckily, the industry has never been quite so eager to respond. Don't count the supermarket out. Not just yet.

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