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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 1

    They’re sprawling, they’re crowded, they’re overwhelming, and they’re notorious for tricking you into getting more than what was on your list. To some, supermarkets represent the ultimate in exhausting chores, but in pandemic times, they’re a beacon of light. The crisis has shown how essential these cold, giant warehouses of excess are for many societies, from our initial panic buys to the weekly trips that have been for some the only chance to get a change of scenery.

    The shift in consumer spending habits has revitalized flagging supermarket sales, although new safety protocols and increased interest in online ordering and delivery have come at a cost. While digital demand may or may not continue post-pandemic, our shopping experience likely won’t be the same.

    Let us take you up and down the aisles.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 2

    $11.7 trillion: Size of the global food and grocery retail market in 2019, of which supermarkets and hypermarkets account for 55%

    60,000: Products sold by large US supermarkets

    38,307: Supermarkets in the US in 2018

    70%: Time spent in supermarkets that can be categorized as “ineffective wandering”

    13 seconds: Time it takes to walk down an aisle, find an item, and pick up the product

    -6%: Decrease in canned soup sales if they’re shelved alphabetically by flavor instead of by brand

    $117.4 billion: 2019 revenue of The Kroger Co., the largest traditional supermarket company in the US

    150%: Increase in order volume for US-based grocery shopping and delivery service Instacart since March

    280%: Digital sales growth at Canada’s Loblaws in the second quarter of 2020

    5,000: Temporary workers Alibaba’s Freshippo supermarket chain hired from other sectors in February as part of an employee sharing program

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 3

    In 1957, during her first visit to the US as a reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II insisted on making a stop at a Giant supermarket in West Hyattsville, Maryland. She talked to the store’s assistant manager about meat cuts, was surprised by the shelves of non-food items, and was reportedly “quite interested in the frozen chicken pot pies.”

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 4

    1859: The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) opens, becoming one of the first large grocery store chains across the US and Canada.

    1916: Clarence Saunders opens Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store in the US, in Memphis, Tennessee. Before this time, the norm was to approach a clerk and make an order, with most items having to be measured out or cut for you.

    1930: Michael Cullen opens King Kullen, the first supermarket in the US—a wide variety of discounted food products jumbled together in an empty garage in Queens, New York.

    1951: Express Dairies opens the first supermarket in the UK under the name Premier Supermarkets. It made 10 times the sales as other grocers at the time.

    1960: Supermarkets sell 70% of groceries consumed in the US.

    1980: The first Whole Foods Market opens with only 19 employees.

    1992: David R. Humble invents self-service checkout terminals.

    2016: Morgan Stanley Research predicts that more than one-third of internet shoppers will buy their groceries online.

    2018: Amazon Go launches, using a phone app—as well as numerous cameras and sensors throughout the stores—to track what customers purchase, eliminating the need to check out at the end of a visit.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 5

    Whether it’s an inclement weather forecast, export ban, or a pandemic, crises tend to push shoppers into hoarding mode, inducing runs on bread and milk and making toilet paper one of the most sought-after products of 2020. There are also the stranger items—Spam, pickles, Heinz chili sauce—that customers stock up on as a source of comfort in times of uncertainty.

    Turns out there’s a scientific explanation for our hoarding tendencies. As therapist Bruce Conn told WMAZ, grabbing that extra roll of paper towels or bottle of hand sanitizer is our way of “trying to control the uncontrollable.” It’s actually a normal behavior that can be traced back to an animalistic drive to feel safer. In the same way squirrels store acorns for the winter—and activating the same areas of the brain—humans stock up on canned goods or bottled water.

    But just because our brains have these electrical signals that prompt the behavior, it doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Unnecessary hoarding has caused a Clorox wipe shortage until 2021. “It’s a false sense of control,” psychiatry professor Stewart Shankman told Fortune, adding that these products are “things you really don’t need.” Hoarding is also generally a privilege for the wealthy. So with experts warning there might be another round of hoarding in the US as coronavirus cases continue to rise, remember that you don’t need 500 rolls of toilet paper piled in your garage.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 7

    “When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people.”

    Boris Yeltsin, writing in his autobiography about the 1989 trip to a Texas supermarket that made him question communism

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 8

    A few years ago, many were preparing eulogies for the traditional supermarket, as dollar store chains and discount grocers, as well as online grocery delivery services like Amazon chipped away more and more market share. Just a month before Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the US, three regional chains declared bankruptcy.

    But lockdown restrictions have given supermarkets a second life. Long after the initial panic-buying of paper towels and every canned food imaginable, people have returned to supermarkets week after week to restock their pantries and simply escape the house. As Bianca Bosker writes for The Atlantic, “Grocery shopping is no longer one in a long list of mundane errands. For many people, it’s the errand—the only one—and it now seems not inevitable, but somewhat amazing to be able to do at all.”

    Grocery was one of the only retail sectors where sales actually increased in March, notching gains of 26% in the US and 20% in the UK. Florida-based chain Publix has made $2.5 billion more in sales so far this year, compared to the same period in 2019. Still, some economists question if this trend will continue now that restaurants and other businesses are reopening. US grocery sales did drop off slightly in June but ticked up again in July, and could see another spike if lockdown restrictions return.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 9

    Supermarket chains have spent a lot of time and money on researching exactly what will get you to spend more—from larger carts to wetter produce to longer lines that give you more time to decide you want that pack of gum. They know just how to play to your appetite and your deteriorating patience, so it pays to be in the know before you go.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 10

    In the US, a food desert is defined as a low-income area where grocery stores are scarce, which is often cited as the main reason for many local health problems, since residents instead have to rely on convenience store junk food, or so the thinking goes. But studies have shown that even when a new supermarket opens in what was once a food desert, shoppers don’t suddenly start buying healthier products. Sometimes better-for-you items are too expensive, or the fresh produce and meat options are of poor quality.

    In the end, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution of just having more brick-and-mortar stores. The issue is actually defined better as a food apartheid: These communities have been stripped of their resources for decades, with little leverage for bringing in more affordable food options. And while the food desert problem is complex to solve, some new ideas, like co-op grocery stores and urban farming, are starting to make a difference.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 11

    We made a playlist of tunes for bopping while shopping. And, yes, we threw in a few items on manager’s special and some candy bars next to the cashier at the last minute.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Supermarkets — Card 12

    In early 2012, Shoprite, Africa’s largest supermarket chain, believed it could expand its footprint in Nigeria up to 700 outlets. But eight years later, the South Africa-owned retail giant is discontinuing operations in the country after a 6.3% drop in sales in the first six months of 2020, compared with a 7.5% rise in South Africa.

    Shoprite’s decision is being discussed as a referendum on the state of Nigeria’s economy, which has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdown measures. The chain accounts for 21% of formal retail in Nigeria, and its outlets are typically the anchor store for large mall developments, occupying up to 30% of retail space. As Shoprite considers reducing or selling its entire stake in the Nigerian division, it’s unclear what will come next.

    See what other industries on the continent might look different post-pandemic by checking out our field guide on Africa after Covid-19. Get access to that, plus everything else on our fully-stocked shelves by clicking the button below to become a Quartz member. Take 50% off your first year using code “SUMMERSALE” through Aug. 31—just a little manager’s special from us.

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