In the olden days (the 1980s), if you wanted to get groceries, you really could only go to one place: the supermarket. Today, thankfully, a growing number of specialty shops, farmers markets, and direct-to-consumers retailers are helping to feed America’s families more locally and sustainably. But another food retail-related trend has popped up in recent years that is eating into the nearly $600 billion supermarket industry and worrying some observers: Increasingly, non-grocery stores like drug stores, office supply chains, and home furnishings retailers are adding packaged food to their shelves to get customers in the door with convenience.
Walk into any Walgreens and CVS, and you’ll see that in addition to greeting cards and aspirin, about a third of the floor space is now reserved for groceries. Pasta sauce, tuna, bleached flour, a pound of coffee, and hundreds of other items are now available. In Washington, D.C., a CVS and Walgreens have even recently applied with the district to be designated a grocery store, so they can sell beer and wine under the city’s liquor zoning laws.
The strategy from both companies is simple: Get people in the store to pick up a few food items—which typically give retailers a very low profit margin—and they’ll go home with batteries, a chew toy for the dog, or a window fan. Or, perhaps, it works the other way around, which nutritionists say can be dangerous for our waistline.
“What happens is that when we go to get office supplies, toilet paper, or cosmetics we now see all the food options available,” says nutritionist Lisa R. Young, author of The Portion Teller. “And, that gets most of us to buy food even though we did not plan to.”
But stranger, perhaps, than picking up a box of Hamburger Helper from Walgreens is food shopping at Staples and Bed Bath & Beyond—both of which have added food in recent years. Bed Bath & Beyond, which is known more for selling towels and dish sets, added items from Cost Plus/World Market to a number of its stores in 2010 and bought the specialty brand in 2012. The food is cleverly interspersed within the various sections of the store. Next to the Dutch oven display, you might see a separate configuration of meals you can cook in that Dutch oven. From a marketing perspective, it’s genius: People go in for a towel rack, and they walk out with a towel rack and a box of Beef Burgundy for dinner (and maybe a Dutch oven in which to cook it).
Not surprisingly, Staples offers the kinds of snacks you’d find in an office break room or in a bowl on the secretary’s desk: items like beef sticks, salty nuts, chips and crackers, and non-perishable, ready-to-eat meals like Cup-o-Soup. The office supply megastore sells all of this in bulk from its website, of course, which has one small section for “healthy snacks”—implying that the rest of it, well, isn’t.
Nutritionists agree. “It’s junk, junk and more junk,” Young says. “It’s processed foods, mostly snacks, with few nutrients.”
And similar to supermarkets, other retailers place food at eye level, with food marketed to children on the bottom shelves. Companies pay a pretty penny for the primo real estate within these stores, because it works—customers are enticed to buy more food.
“And the more we buy, the more we eat,” Young says.
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