We’ve all probably used the phrase “money doesn’t grow on trees” a time or two haven’t we? But as funny as it may seem, it kind of does in the form of food we shop for! Even though you can find food growing all around you on farms and orchards, even in densely populated places like New Jersey where we live, rarely if ever do we run out to go pick our own fruits and veggies or cut corn cobs or gather eggs from the chicken coops (or if you do, kudos to you for living off the land the way our ancestors did for thousands of years).
We live in an age that provides the convenience of the neighborhood supermarket, or supercenter as many are frequently called. It’s been this way for quite a while now, really booming with the development and growth of suburbia after World War II and has continued to grow and develop and morph into the supermarkets that we know and use every week today to feed our families.
I’m going to give you my ranking of the best supermarkets in America today, but first…
A Brief History Lesson
Before the early 1900’s, food was basically either grown at home on the farm or purchased in city neighborhoods at small “groceries” that were owned by your neighbors and friends (think of the general store you might see in an old TV show or movie). The cities were full of them and after all you either lived in the city or out on the farm back then, so that was your choice. Many of them were very specifically ethnic like an Italian market or a Kosher grocer in places like Manhattan or Philadelphia or any big city or town. The competition wasn’t particularly fierce, and there were lots of other specialty stores like a butcher shop down the on the corner and the produce stand nearby. Your dairy products were mostly delivered to your door by the milkman and basically that’s the way things were for the first half of the 20th century. I can actually remember some of that myself as a small kid growing up in the 1950’s and having the Abbott’s milkman deliver to our front door (it was 108 years old when it shut down in 1984).
There were some interesting developments along the way, particularly in the 1920’s when automobiles became so very popular. The “convenience” store became the newest big thing and you could buy your food when and where you filled your gas tank. It still is one way you can get your shopping done, but it’s not really very cost effective and today it’s more about coffee or doughnuts then buying your weekly groceries.
After WWII, suburbia became the way we would live and with that came the flight from the big cities and the development of the supermarket and big shopping centers that are all over the country today. The combination of prosperity, the growth of the nuclear family, the number of cars on the road, and the increasingly busier lifestyle of commuting and time pressure made the larger markets not only appealing as a one stop destination, but a necessity. But enough of this “ancient” history. Let’s talk about food shopping today in 2016.
What We Want Out of Supermarkets Today
Today there are hundreds of large retail supermarket chains, some national and some regional. Places like Safeway, Kroger, and Publix have hundreds of locations around the country. What makes them so popular? What makes them great? What are people really looking for today in their weekly shopping quests?
The general answer to those questions has been a constant for decades and it probably will be forever as long as we continue to shop the way we have over the past 50 or so years.
We want convenience.
The choice of where you go to buy your food is still somewhat dependent on how far away it is from where you live. In most cases, people have choices and competition is fierce. Today’s supermarkets are open extended hours to accommodate busy families and have added tons of one stop shopping add-ons like coffee cafes, dry cleaners, in-store banking, eyeglass outlets, fast food restaurants and even things like appliances and seasonal items so that you can almost do everything you need to do in one location. We also like self-service checkouts that can help speed our trip. Plus we look for pre-made meals and upscale dishes. People love the convenience and it continues to grow and grow.
One new trend has been noted during the last several years. Millennials, who are looking for lifestyle healthy foods increasingly these days, are starting to venture further from home than their parents do in search of the right places to get the foods they seek. Organic, international, and upscale convenience foods rank high on their list. Usually they are shopping for just one or two people so they can spend a bit more luxuriously than their parents as price doesn’t seem to deter them.
We want variety.
Shoppers want to be able to find everything they need and use. With diversity so prevalent today, you’ll find unusual fruits and veggies as well as an international vibe in almost every supermarket. Items you may have never seen before pop up all the time and are becoming basics and best sellers. If your supermarket is doing this, you can bet it means high ratings from the consumer.
We want freshness, cleanliness, and friendly staff.
These 3 qualities may be the easiest in theory to achieve and yet often fail to impress shoppers. We won’t tolerate dirty shopping conditions and we’ll change where we shop if it’s a problem. Same for unfresh products like produce and meat and unfriendly, unknowledgeable staff are a big turnoff. An occasional miss is forgivable but repeated issues will cause a loss of customers, poor reputation, and maybe kill the business entirely. Stores spend lots of time and money to try and prevent that from happening.
We want 21st century improvements.
Personal shoppers, shop from home and home delivery, internet shopping, loyalty card privileges, pharmacies, rewards programs, and healthy organic options are all a part of the expectations of shoppers today. Additionally, every store must offer brand names and low price alternative private label choices to help keep shopping costs down. Which brings us to what may be the forever single most important want of all time…
We want great value and low prices.
While it is definitely true that you get what you pay for, prices and value are so important. Since you will go to the supermarket on average (according to Consumer Reports annual rankings) about 88 times a year and spend about $6,000 for a typical average family, you can see that this is a huge part of your budget and saving money is important. That means that weekly sales have to be sharp, coupons accepted and doubled or tripled, rebate centers are convenient, prominent and easy shelf pricing and price per unit comparisons. Competitive pricing and price matching is also essential. If your store does all that, you will give them high ratings like I do.
The Best Supermarkets in America Today
The results of research done by recent surveys from leading magazines like Consumer Reports and Business Week determined that only 60% of all supermarket shoppers were highly satisfied with their stores fresh meat prices. Even less, 50% were satisfied with fresh produce and bakery prices. Store conditions for customer service and cleanliness and variety were major sources of frustration or praise depending on the particular company.
I myself have experienced a large number of supermarkets, in part as a consumer and even more so as a contracted auditor over several years before my retirement. This has given me a unique perspective in having visited many supermarkets outside of my own neighborhood. So here I give you my own rankings for best and worst supermarkets based on the criteria I’ve outlined above.
The Best Supermarkets
- Wegmans (stores in states like PA, NJ, VA, MA, and NY)
- Trader Joes (400 stores throughout the USA)
- Costco (over 700 stores throughout the USA)
- Publix (over 1000 stores in 6 states including FL and the Carolinas)
- Whole Foods (400 stores across the USA)
The Worst Supermarkets
- Walmart Supercenters (across the USA)
- Pathmark (Northeast USA)
- Sam’s Club (across the USA)
- BJ’s (across the USA)
- Target Supercenters (across the USA except VT)
For my wife and me, despite the fact that I love Wegmans and Trader Joes, we generally shop at ShopRite here in NJ because of the great prices and varieties and convenient locations. They are a regional chain located in our area and are ranked #1 in sales in Philadelphia where I’m originally from. Our back up store when we’re being a bit lazy is Stop and Shop which is located around the corner (I could literally walk there if necessary). Stop and Shop is based in MA and is primarily located in the Northeast and New England.
Why would I choose two supermarkets that don’t make my own list of best supermarkets? Well it depends on which criteria are the highest priority for you. Convenience of location and value pricing are very important to me. Each of us needs to determine out of our local offerings which best meets our own personal criteria. And this may change over time based on store openings and closings, as well as changes in management. Don’t forget to reassess your choices every once in a while to make sure you are getting what’s best for your household.
So where do you do your grocery shopping and what are the most important criteria for you when you make that decision? Are you loyal to a particular store or are you a bargain hunting “cherry picker” of the best items all over the map? Is your store on my list?
Image courtesy of murphychen at pixabay.com (with changes)