I want to get lost in the supermarket

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Illustration by Damien Bertels
Hero image
Illustration by Damien Bertels

To read any sort of news these days is to know that the supermarket has been put on death watch. It’s official — there are now disruptors in the grocery business. Whether it’s delivery, or pick up, or online, or subscription-based, the idea of going to a supermarket to get your weekly provisions has become so passé.

To be absolutely transparent, I’ve tried all the new methods of grocery shopping and they do have some great benefits — ease, time-saving, and other ultra-rational checklist crushing-life type stuff. You come home and your groceries are there waiting to be brought inside just like my latest ebay purchase. Admittedly, the feeling of excitement and anticipation is similar for me as I love unboxing anything.

Unpacking is fairly similar to coming home after a supermarket trip when it’s the barbecue sauce and other pantry staples but I’m constantly left with an empty, unsatisfied feeling as I continue on. Case in point, a bag of apples, the lowest engagement form of apple purchase to begin with, makes me feel so unsure of my existence. I start to mutter to myself while holding the bag up with contempt, “Huh, I wonder what made them pick this bag… Eesh, not sure I would have picked this one.” And this continues on for the pre-packaged organic beef, the broccoli and even the frozen blueberries which seem to make the smoothies taste so bitter compared to the ones at the supermarket that I physically toss in the basket myself. Doubt ensues and a generally melancholy evening follows.

To be clear, I’m not saying there is a quality issue with the products these services bring me. In fact, many of them come from the very supermarket I shop at already. I know they all take quality very seriously as part of their business model too. My issue, and I recognize I might be in the minority here, is that for all the aforementioned rational benefits these services provide, grocery shopping is not a rational exercise for me. Rather, it’s self-confirming of my instincts and deeply emotional.

If I’m honest, I didn’t know I felt this way until the future arrived with groceries that deliver themselves. Let’s revisit the bag of apples for a moment. Remember, I already believe that buying a bag of apples is the lowest engagement way to purchase apples. Somehow, when I am in the supermarket, and I quickly sweep my eyes across the pile of bagged apples before placing my hand on the one I will select to lazily inspect for two seconds and then gently-ish place them in my cart. Based on how I felt so empty with the delivered apples, I imagine my subconscious says something to the effect of “These are the apples I will take home for my family consume. I have chosen them. I am confident in them. I am confident in myself. Now I can sleep at night. My world is whole.” And this happens with every other planned or unplanned thing I throw in the cart. Remember, I am not at the local farmer’s market, and yet, it’s so enjoyable to me. I love getting lost in the supermarket.

And this got me thinking, what if supermarkets catered only to those who love the process of grocery shopping? Folks like me who don’t believe it’s a rational exercise. What if a supermarket was no different than another positive experience that people love whether it’s clothes shopping or going to your favorite little gift shop? What if the supermarket was designed by something more meaningful than the cliché harried housewife insight that perpetuates a functional experience that’s more akin to filling your car with gas than anything to do with food? What if a supermarket was no different than your favorite brand and stood for something?

Ironically, the supermarket itself was once the disruptor rather than the disrupted. When Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly in 1916 in Memphis, it pioneered a self-service model that was drastically different from the way things had long been done. Prior to this, customers would pass a grocery list to a clerk, who would then put items together for shoppers in one bag. At Piggly Wiggly, on the other hand, the shoppers did their own choosing — and the products had to do the tempting.

And herein lies the reason why supermarkets have such a functional raison d’etre — what Saunders created, and methodically tuned to appeal to shopper’s interest is precisely what is challenging the supermarket today — the supermarket is a vessel for other brands and not a brand itself. In other words, the supermarket has created a construct in which it is second in importance to the very brands it houses. It’s success and failure, beyond traditional and functional measures (convenience, value and service), is sitting on the shoulders of these brands. This is simply not enough in an economy driven by brand experiences rather products.

To me, this is the key to taking supermarkets off death watch. Supermarkets need to think of themselves as a brand, with a promise and an experience that people, like me, will want to connect with and believe in. This means going beyond the functional and the rational. The answer lies in thinking less like a supermarket and more like a great brand:

First, supermarkets need to find and codify their purpose. This is your promise. The one thing you will always fight for. Could you imagine how powerful a supermarket if they went beyond functional needs? Maybe we would have stores about adventure, curiosity or powering our weekends. Or all three as completely different brands on three different corners. That starts to get interesting.

The next thing supermarkets need to do is understand the indelible truth at the heart of their audience. Maybe it’s in parallel to the first. Regardless, consumer understanding would allow supermarkets to build an experience that delivers something meaningful for their audience. Let’s say feeling ‘surprised’ is high on the list for your consumer. Suddenly, unexpected moments of service and selection matter more than the functional stuff. People remember how you make them feel and to make people feel, you have to know what matters to them.

Lastly, supermarkets need to build an experience that celebrates the intersection of their purpose and their audience’s truth. We all see other forms of retail elevate the experiential nature of shopping but supermarkets are behind here. This isn’t to say add another oyster or wine bar as the 2010’s have so heartily encouraged. I’m saying something more — something we can’t even imagine as shoppers today but sorely need. Whatever it is will rethink all the moments that really matter — arrival, queing, departure, and the like. Not just doors that slide open and teenagers that carry your groceries after you’ve had wine and oysters. Further than this. As an example, let’s keep going on ‘surprise’ mattering to our audience. Now, let’s pretend we are a brand devoted to powering family connection. It’s a weeknight and mom or dad is walking in post-haste, post workday. Remember, this is a consumer that loves surprise. Let’s assume they had a terrible day. Add all this up and think of a perfect arrival moment, what would it be? Perhaps they walk into a bit of flowers, music and maybe a little pick me up — wine, hot mulled cider, fresh fruit juice. The person handing you asks if you’re here for tonight’s dinner or something more. They nod to dinner and they’re escorted to a long farmer’s table with 8 different dishes prepared with a lush description of each. They see a plate with Branzino. Their family has never had Branzino at home but everyone loved it on their most recent trip to the city. After a bit of pondering, they grab the basket for Branzino and inside is all the unrefrigerated ingredients needed, a recommendation for wine, dessert and a prompt to head to the fish counter to pick up their fresh fish. Everything pairs perfectly, and, you’ve suddenly empowered a family to embrace discovery, remove obstacles and hopefully because of each, you’ve honored your brand promise of powering family connection. Admittedly, this isn’t a remarkable example and yet, such a simple service and experience design doesn’t exist from my understanding of the landscape. I think it should and better ones to boot. Supermarkets should help people get lost in the supermarket — lost in complete devotion to their experience.

If I’m honest, I’m very happy the grocery world is being disrupted. Progress is a good thing. In fact, it’s a great thing if everyone progresses. To me, this is the moment. Allow people who see grocery trips as hell to go the rational route. No one deserves to live in misery. Similarly, if someone enjoys staring at their bag of apples, allow them to do it in a way that’s anything but rational. I promise they’ll never forget how you made them feel and they’ll come back again, and the supermarket will be alive and well.

That [method] meant consumers could make decisions as to what it was they wanted to buy, and that really led to companies trying to catch consumers’ attention. It’s really the origin of branding.
John Stanton Professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University
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