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Amuse Bouche: The genius of grocery stores

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By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST

The grocery store. One of society’s greatest food institutions. From the small, independently-owned, to the world’s largest chains, such as Carrefour, Aldi, and 7-Eleven (classified as a grocery store), it is perhaps one of the only categories of store you could make the argument for that the majority of humans have patronized at some point in their lives.

And the industry knows this.

“Don’t get lost in the bowels of the store.” That’s what someone in the grocery business told me many years ago, and it has stuck with me to this day.

They were referring to what I call the empty middle aisles. Sure, their shelves are full, but with little substance. Produce sections are vast, yet the average shopper only spends 10 percent of their money there. As opposed to 26 percent of their dollars going to the middle of the store. A smart shopper should reverse that trend at the very least. My personal observation is that, with a couple exceptions, the deeper in the store, the less nutrition you’ll find.

Best practice when shopping is this: everything you really need is either on the perimeter, on the end of an aisle, or at least very close to the end.

You don’t often see sale items on the end of an isle that aren’t already popular; you see items most people already buy. That is by design. The thought behind that move isn’t putting an item there that doesn’t sell in order to gain some traction, but rather placing an everyday item you will probably already buy—only now, you will simply buy more.

Have you ever just run to the store “for a few things” only to emerge 30 minutes and two bags of groceries later, instead of a small bag with what you went in for in the first place? Of course you have. We all have. Grocery stores took their cue from casinos.

And while your local store may not be filled with cigarette smoke and the constant ringing of a Wheel of Fortune slot machine, they are windowless on three sides, have no clocks, and have long aisles with different kiosks strategically positioned to block the ends of aisles and misguide you to places like the frozen foods section where you may suddenly remember you were out of ice cream or frozen pizza—which, by the way, take up over half of all freezer sections.

Those free food samples positioned at the end of an aisle and usually in a high traffic area aren’t so free. A study conducted by Arizona State University showed that even if you didn’t buy what the free sample was, the fact that you tasted or merely smelled something triggered taste buds, and more often than not will lead you to purchase more than you would have originally.

A University of Michigan study found that manufacturers create an image of higher quality even when it isn’t, which translates to higher prices, by simply changing the packaging, labeling, product name and font.

As someone who is trying to get a product on Montana grocery store shelves, I can tell you that it will cost you. You pay them for shelf exposure and they decide where it will be placed on the shelf, not you. New product? You are subject to what they refer to as a TPR, or temporary price reduction. This means you will almost always take a loss for typically six months before you are allowed to charge what you need or wanted to charge in the first place.

And one final note: one of the dirtiest public things you can touch is the handle of your shopping cart. 

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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