Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Urban Foraging Stations

Ed Note: This post originally appeared on The Urban Ethnographer. I'm working on something new that involves a bit of historical investigation, but doubt I'll have it ready today. In the meantime, I invite your thoughts on urban supermarkets.

Are you wearing comfortable walking shoes? If not, best go grab a pair of sneakers—we're going foraging! Well, it's not quite foraging because we actually have to pay for our finds, but I figured that telling you that we were off to forage might pique your interest more than if I were to admit that we're actually going to the supermarket.

Well, we are going to the supermarket, and I still think you'll need those shoes because I tend to wander the aisles when I'm there even if it's just for one thing—if I don't have a list, I tend to wind up with more than I intended to buy (which happens sometimes even with a list, I admit). Anyway, one of my early posts explored an ethnic supermarket and considered the ways food can help immigrants retain a connection to their native countries. I have some plans to continue this series—it's really a matter of writing the posts—but in the meantime, I've been thinking more about how people obtain groceries in urban centers, and how their experiences are shaped by the services they use.

One option for urban food shoppers is Fresh Direct, an online grocer that promises grocery deliveries to your door, just seems strange to me, as someone who has always visited a grocer or a supermarket for food supplies. From my perspective, it's unnatural to have someone else choose the fruits that you will eat. (How can they possibly know how ripe I like my plums?) But for others, it offers convenience in environment where shopping can be difficult. For example, managing bags of groceries on the subway can quickly become a chore. The urban dwellers that I prodded for information revealed that they shop more frequently, and have to plan for more extensive trips (e.g., bringing a backpack if they're planning to purchase more food than normal). These types of behaviors definitely influence the ways markets are arranged. As you'll see, the layouts and products are designed for efficiency and convenience—people are meant to move in and out.

So what does a city supermarket look like? Let's take a look. I'll show you images from a Manhattan-based supermarket and images from a Long Island-based supermarket—and then you can tell me how your experience may differ (or whether it's similar). But first a few notes about the supermarkets shown below:
  • both serve comparable economic groups
  • both are "full" supermarkets—meaning, they both have produce sections and on-site butchers
Also, this post doesn't cover farmers' markets, which adds an option for folks seeking fresh produce. I wanted to look at supermarkets specifically.

Apples and Oranges
Produce display in Manhattan-based supermarket.
Produce display in Long Island-based supermarket.

So one of the first things that you notice when you enter a Manhattan supermarket is the use of space. Space is at a premium and so more gets packed into less. Order is important—where we can have huge bins of fruit in Long Island, the displays are tightly packed and ordered in New York City. The benefit to this is that there may be less spoilage. I have definitely had the experience of reaching into the fruit bin and coming up with a plum that was too soft for my preference. Urban shoppers indicate that they tend to buy more frequently to get fresher items, so there may be a higher rate of turnover—because more product gets sold there are more frequent deliveries, so grocers can stock less of an item.

It also may reduce the number of folks who handle the produce. Whereas in my local supermarket, you can pick through the fruit displays, the ordered stacks seem to discourage this kind of handling: You see what you're getting—there's little reason to go digging through the pile.

Left Turns Only
Aisle view in Manhattan-based supermarket.
Aisle view in Long Island-based supermarket.
Space becomes another consideration when it comes to navigation. In New York City supermarkets, the aisles are much narrower, and proprietors have maximized display space by hanging seasonal and other hardy items from the ceiling over the aisle. It's a little claustrophobic; I had some trouble imagining two carts in the space on the left. You're very aware of others needing to pass and you're interrupted from your perusals by requests from others who need you to shift so they can get by. It doesn't lend itself to lingering much. Then again, supermarkets aren't really meant for "browsing." The narrower aisles work like a funnel in this case, moving people along and encouraging a greater number of customers. Since there are so many potential customers in New York City, it makes sense to try to serve as many of them as possible.

Also, browsing lends itself to stockpiling. Space isn't a premium only in the supermarket setting—Manhattan apartments can run on the small side, so customers aren't looking to carry many laden bags back to their apartment (whether they're transporting their spoils via the subway, bus, or a cab) because they may not have the room for storage. One shopper raised an interesting point about product sizes that is worth mentioning: city supermarkets, in his experience, tend to stock smaller items in general—so instead of a gallon, you might find quarts—and this in turn tends to encourage shoppers to visit more frequently. You're not going to carry four quarts of milk unless you really need it, but a quart will run out more quickly than a gallon would (depending on your usage of course), so you'll need to replenish supplies more frequently.

Variety Is The Spice of Life
Jam display in Manhattan-based
Peanut and chips display in
Manhattan-based supermarket.

Crackers and cookies displayed
in Long Island-based supermarket.
Cereal display in Long Island-based

In keeping with discussions about space, at first glance, it would appear that city supermarkets offer fewer options than suburban ones, but is that might not really be the case. If the supermarkets are restocking more frequently, it may just be that they are stocking a reduced quantity with regard to different options on the shelves. So instead of having 50 boxes of Cheerios on display, instead there will be 10 and the stock-person will replenish those supplies at the end of the day if needed.

How does this effect a shopper? A non-New York City shopper reported that the tighter spaces were a little overwhelming. Because so much was packed into corners and overhead, she felt she had to search more carefully for her items. But that may also be an issue of familiarity. For example, I know exactly where to go for lemons or tartar sauce in my supermarket, but that wouldn't necessarily be the case elsewhere even though many supermarkets have similar layouts. A regular New York City shopper reported that he doesn't gave it much thought even though he has adapted his habits from a suburban environment: he shops more frequently (once a week), not necessarily out of space considerations but for reasons of cost and convenience. While he admits he hasn't thought much about flow, he is generally in-and-out when he needs to pick up something additional during the week. He lives a block away from his supermarket, so he walks back. It's a shorter distance to travel than for most, but he still isn't laden with bags as he makes his way back to his apartment.

There isn't a "one-type fits all" description for urban shoppers and I want to be clear that's not what I'm proposing here. People have different needs—a family may be more likely to purchase more food whether they are urban or suburban when compared to a single person or a childless couple, both of whom may eat out more frequently. but it's still interesting to think about how our behaviors can be shaped by our environments, and how establishments can respond in kind.

Feel free to chime in with your own supermarket tales below.


  1. The only major city I've ever lived in is Rome. Within the city, there are grocery stores like the ones you highlight in Manhattan: stuff packed together, a bit of variety. People tend to shop at these stores on their way home from work (there's one in Termini, the main train/metro depot of Rome), if they needed a few things. Out in the urban neighborhoods, there are generally three stores: a grocery (for mostly nonperishable stuff, frozen items, and dairy), a butcher shop, and a fresh fruit/veg market. All are within a block or two, so you can shop on foot for all your needs. Out in the suburbs are the giant grocery stores with huge selection, including international foods and bulk items. But you have to take a lot of public transport or own a car to get to them.

    It took me some time to adjust to the idea of small grocery stores and the three-store approach to food, but once I did I found it easier to navigate the small stores than the big ones, easier to bring food back to my apartment on food, and easier to consume food before it went back (owing to the fact that I didn't buy too much because I couldn't carry too much).

    I try to stick with that approach as much as possible here in NC - having a toddler who loves to be outside means I take more frequent trips to the grocery store and buy only what I need/can carry in one reusable bag. (Plus, I get some exercise out of it. :)

  2. Wow, I can't type today. "...easier to bring food back to my apartment on foot, and easier to consume food before it went bad..."

  3. I've only ever briefly thought about urban grocery shopping; it is an interesting perspective. I note that many of the things you mention - more densely packed aisles, more variety in less space, a lack of big open bins, smaller quantities - all are things which I have always associated with Asian supermarkets. I wonder if that's because many of the Asian supermarkets I've been in have been replicating urban markets - though that would entail comparing the shopping experience in SE Asia.

    One interesting little tidbit - I moved from the Midwest to DC a while ago. In the Midwest,e verwhere I'd been, the shopping carts were always kept inside the building; there was an area in which you'd grab one. In DC, this area is outside the store, not inside. A minor difference, but it meant that for the first few months I kept going into the store, realizing I needed a cart, and having to go back outside. It really caught my eye, too, how all the stores in each area were set up the same way.

  4. If you're interested in supermarket design, I'd recommend taking a look at the 1960 report, Super Markets of the Sixties, by Raymond Loewy Associates. Raymond Loewy was a 20th c. industrial designer responsible for many notable designs, among other achievements.

    The report was made for the Super Market Institute, Inc. and was intended to be "a year-long, nationwide study of the merchandising, housing and display of perishable foods and general merchandise (non-food)." I found it to be ultra fascinating, with great illustrations, and interesting food marketing data.

  5. @KK: Outside of Manhattan, in the borough of Queens in particular, the three store approach is still possible—although butchers are a fading presence. I grew up with this sort of model: we got our veggies from a green grocer and used a regular grocer for the other stuff. (The groceries tended to have in-house butchers.) I like the idea of not overstocking so that food doesn't go bad, but it's harder for me to make more trips to the store. The compromise in this situation is that I shop about once a week ... which honestly, I don't mind doing. I kind of like the neatly arranged fruit and vegetable displays.

    @Hasufin: Interesting question about Asian supermarkets. It might be worth investigating at some point. As for the carts in the midwest—could they have been kept inside because of the weather? I'm guessing space plays a role in where the carts are as well. But I know large stores that keep them inside even though they have the space to keep them outside, and smaller stores that keep them inside because they don't have any other option. There doesn't seem to be a hard and fast rule.

    @blankie: Thanks for the tip! Will check it out when I have a moment.