Exploring Urban Foraging Stations

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, over at AiP 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.

9 responses so far

  • ianqui says:

    I live in "downtown" Manhattan, and specialty or high-end stores are a whole separate phenomenon here. (The Gristedes or D'Agostinos certainly look like the supermarkets in your photo essay, though.) While the Whole Foods in Union Square is definitely a New York-style variant, the ones on the Lower East Side or TriBeCa are more similar to their suburban counterparts. I find it really funny that the TriBeCa store touts their "suburban style checkouts". As you know, I'm sure, the "urban-style" checkout involves lines under colored numbers that tell you which register to go to--a register which does not have a conveyor belt or much room for packing bags.

    Trader Joe's is its own whole thing too. Again, the one in Union Square is very urban, but the new one that just opened in Chelsea has wider aisles and seemingly more products (though they still have the urban checkout).

    I like this post--I have often thought about the peculiarities of the NYC grocery store as compared to my previously suburban life.

    • kdcosta says:

      Thanks ianqui! I work waaaay downtown so I can appreciate your foraging quests 🙂 I was actually thinking about that when I put this post together because there are very few supermarket/grocery options in my area other than the specialty options. Though there are a few more farmer's markets now that the area is becoming more residential, so that means more fresh options!

      I wanted to stay away from the "higher-end" stores because they seem to work harder to create a "suburban" experience, which seems greatly exaggerated when you're actually in the suburbs! Hopefully I can come back to this in the future - there is definitely a culture there worth exploring.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Eleven years ago, we lived in San Francisco with a baby and street parking. This meant that we semi-frequently used the now-defunct WebVan for mass quantities of baby food and rice cakes, got our fresh produce from the bodegas a few blocks away, and scored our bread and cheese (and wine) at Trader Joe's via the bus (the 27 Bryant, if memory serves). Considerations of space for us when we were shopping also involved whether the aisles would accommodate our stroller (one that was narrow enough to get through BART turnstiles but was just a smidge too wide for MUNI turnstiles). And the frequency of our shopping forays were driven by how many groceries fit under the stroller and how many string bags I could carry while steering the stroller.

    It's hard to know how much of our food shopping changed due to our move to the city and how much changed due to the new baby (and what that did to the stores of energy we needed to actually cook food). But it was definitely a different food-foraging terrain than suburbia.

    • kdcosta says:

      Janet, thanks for adding your anecdote. It's a great example of the many factors that might shape our "foraging" experiences!

  • Ken says:

    I need to take advantage of the loss-leaders at multiple stores due to a tough economic situation, so end up foraging at multiple stores each week, giving me a wide exposure to different stores in Chicago.

    There are only two national chains (excluding the "high-end" Whole Foods style stores) active in Chicago, both still using the names from the local store chains they had bought out several years back. The main problem I have with these two brands is their lack of neighborhood localization. One store of theirs is pretty much identical to the others no matter where they are.

    There are, however, several locally-owned full-sized grocery store chains in the city and they seem quite good at localizing each of their stores. This makes it great for picking up different ethnic foods depending upon which one of their stores you pick to give your custom to this week.

    These locally owned chains seem to create more of a "marketplace" atmosphere than the national chains do. I can almost imagine I'm in an ancient marketplace at times. At least until I spot the fluorescent lights and see all of the out-of-season fruits and snap back to reality!

    The national chains seem to go for a very bright, sterile appearance, emphasizing cleanliness and uniformity. They are the only stores with self-checkouts. They even managed to screw those up by installing the same two-or-three bag checkout stations better used in downtown locations at all of their stores making them useless when making large trips with a car.

    The national chain stores also, annoyingly, fail to provide adequate places for locking up a bicycle. I think they strive a little too much for the cookie-cutter approach. A layout worked for them once somewhere so all of their stores now need to emulate whatever that was.

    There are only a few newly built downtown supermarkets here (of the national chain variety), the rest being renovations of stores on the outskirts of downtown now serving the recently expanding residential communities there. They are pretty much as you show and describe the Manhattan stores. Other than narrow isles and less of each product on the shelves, they don't feel much different than their outlying counterparts either.

    One final difference is in reputation. The national chain stores have become known for high prices (which is not always a justified reputation) and trying to cheat customers (which is often a justified reputation). The locally owned chains have taken advantage of this perception to grow as the national chains have been shrinking here recently.

    One example I'll give of this is that the national chains price their deli items per half pound instead of per pound. Their deli counter prices are actually about 1.8 times higher than the same items at the locally own stores, but, when priced per half pound, trick people (like my dad) into thinking they are actually a little cheaper.

    As they do things like that over and over they start to look like the evil empire against the friendly rebels. And since their stores look like death stars, all shiny and modern, and the locally-owned stores look like where Luke Skywalker grew up...

    • kdcosta says:

      This is an excellent addition to analysis above. The differences you mention between the local chains and the national chains is really interesting--particularly since it's more than just perception. It actually reminded me of a post I had read some time ago by Martin Rundkvist (Aardvarchaeology) who shopped at a small mom and pop instead of a larger store--they weren't chains, just "small capitalist versus large capitalist." He decided to compare the price of products at the local mom and pop versus the larger store and found that he could save more at the larger store. The mom and pop provided a different atmosphere but he was paying more there. It was the perception that he was supporting the little guy that kept him going there--until he actually looked at the numbers.

      It would be interesting to see what the outcome will be between the nationally owned and the locally owned chains--whether the national chains can adapt or if the damage has been done.


  • Liz Ditz says:

    I really enjoy your posts!

    I am a life-long resident of suburbia/exurbia, with plenty of storage space for food and non-food items.

    In the 1980s and 1990s, our family was involved with 4-H, and so bought whole lamb, hog, & beef carcasses. I had TWO freezers in the garage, full of meat. It's a different way of meal planning -- starting with what's in the freezer, rather than a recipe.

    Likewise I bought canned goods and other household needs like toilet paper and detergent by the case.

    My sister-in-law however lived in Manhattan. I remember how shocked I was, going to the store with her -- a petite box of cookies, the smallest box of cereal I'd ever seen, a tiny box of detergent, just three rolls of toilet paper, just enough vegetables for the evening's dinner, and so on. Then I helped her put things away -- of course she had no storage space!

    It's possibly one reason that living in an urban environment is more expensive -- you can't buy in bulk, or buy in bulk when the usual supplies are on sale.

    • kdcosta says:

      Thanks Liz! 🙂

      As a kid, growing up in the borough of Queens, we had the space--though we didn't always have a car. The lack of transportation didn't hamper our grocery shopping behavior: we walked and it was a family trip, so we each carried a few bags. We had a green grocer market, and we'd visit the supermarket about every other week. When we got a car, it made things easier, but we didn't necessarily buy more--or less.

      Now that I'm in Long Island, I follow the same pattern. Though I often wish I had more space so that I could buy things like cat food, water, paper towel, etc. in bulk. It would really save us a lot more!

      Aside from the "high end" chains, I have the same experience in Manhattan supermarkets as described by one of the folks I spoke to--it feels claustrophobic and hurried. But it also seems to fit with the culture of the city. The city that never sleeps doesn't have a lot of time to spend on groceries 😉

  • LovleAnjel says:

    When I lived in Chicago (Lincoln Park) we had 3 supermarkets within walking distance, and before my weekly trips out I would look at the online adds and make a plan based on that. The two small local stores were closer, but prices tended to be higher and the staff were charmingly rude (my husband claims nostalgia for check-out girls who don't make eye contact and eat chocolate bars while scanning items). The bigger, national store was abut 5 blocks away, in general was cheaper and the staff acknowledged your existence. But everything was wee-crowded because of space (generally true of everything-- I found that going to suburban malls gave me the willies). We tended to get common items like milk & bread at convenience stores because they would be 25-50 cents cheaper than any grocery store.

    Now I have a job in the middle of Missouri, all stores are huge & we have a car, so we can stock up. The down side is, there is less variety in ethnic foods (when we first got here you had a choice of ramen noodles or teriyaki sauce for your asian cuisine). More space is certainly not equaling more variety.

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