Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Supermarket Wars: Giant and Stop and Shop aim for the almighty food dollar

Two big food retailers, Stop and Shop and Giant are both re-vamping their look and their products in order to keep customers from flocking to supercenters like Wal-Mart during tight economic times. The trunk of my van holds about ten reusable shopping bags: about a third from Giant, a third from Stop and Shop, and the rest from Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and miscellaneous sources. That does a fair job of capturing the distribution of my grocery shopping time.

Both Stop and Shop and Giant are my local stores (one in MA, one in PA). I’ve already confessed to being a snob and a skeptic about Wal-Mart, so I’m biased in favor of my two usual spots. I also spend a lot of my food budget at a local farm and the farmer’s markets. But I’ve also been riding the economic waves, one minute a semi-affluent shopper with lots of choices, the next crashed under a tsunami, hoping I might have some unexpired double coupons stashed in one of those bags…

So, is it good that Stop and Shop and Giant are competing mightily for my time and dollar? Absolutely. Despite the numbers that suggest more affluent shoppers are headed over to the big discount mart, I’m doubt it’s saving anyone a whole lot of money – it’s certainly not, in the long run, doing its share to improve the economy. If the folks with disposable incomes are doing the discount dance, who’s left to put dollars back into the system? We should be on their cases for not doing their patriotic duty and consuming at the level at which they are supposed to…

But seriously, regular grocery stores should be doing all they can to keep customers coming in. This summer I was happy to see how much local produce S&S had featured – almost everything in the front-of-store display, in fact. Giant Eagle can’t compete on that score – Massachusetts has an extensive network devoted to promoting local produce.

Among the new introductions are expanded private label offerings, an increased number of fresh prepared foods, including soups, new fresh-flavored rotisserie chickens and more hot and cold side dishes. The store will also offer shoppers a handheld scanner device they can use throughout the store that checks prices, keeps a running total, and generates brand-related coupons for products as they shop. ... A Delivision kiosk allows shoppers to place deli orders when they enter the store, so they don't have to wait as long on line. The company describes the changes as "a further step in Ahold's global strategy to create powerful local consumer brands"
These are interesting, but not all the things I’d feature if I were them. For example, I’d like to see the store brands get better press. My kid are now enamored of a store brand of cereal that mimics Lucky Charms. This is good for both me and them because...

a ) Mom won’t buy Lucky Charms but the generic brand slipped by her in the cart last week because
b) it comes in a big economical plastic bag instead of a box and
c) it cost a THIRD of what the name brand cereal did and
d) it had a cool name (Hocus Pocus!!!)

So, yeah, it’s going to show up in our house a bit more often as a treat even though it doesn’t meet our basic healthy food. A product that makes us feel like we got a lot, got a bargain, and got something we like is key. So much of what’s in the supermarket today is extraneous to the whole idea of actual food, I'm a bit of a softy for treats that aren't completely mired in corn syrup.

At the same time, both Giant and Stop and Shop still has a ways to go in improving store layout and design and in that category, they should take a page from Whole Foods rather than Wal-Mart. My main Stop and Shop was recently renovated but was still fluorescent and difficult to navigate. The “health” foods are relegated to their own ghetto at the very end of the supermarket, near the pharmacy; other than the nice display of local foods, the produce lacks the verve of Whole Foods and the bakery is just a fancy bread counter. In contrast, our renovated Whole Foods has a great new bakery with the smell of fresh loaves and -- who can resist a little snobbery after the Lucky Charms? --- a gelato bar!

Do you think we can get Giant to look into that option?

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