The Surprising Reality of Grocery Shopping

January 17, 2014 at 5:52 am CST

When talking about important amenities in a community, access to grocery stores often comes up. It’s especially a big issue in communities that are underserved, likely because the residents are lower-income. Areas without access to grocery stores are often referred to as “food deserts,” and they’re a problem in cities big and small. But since everyone eats, and we’d like to believe everyone at least wants to eat healthy, communities that have easy access to groceries tend to be highly valued and also do well in rankings like our top 100 best places to live . However, some research suggests that those priorities might not reflect reality. What matters most, in many communities at least, is simply price. On a recent trip to Palo Alto, Calif. , our best place to live, I stopped in at Stanford for a fascinating guest lecture from Amy Hillier, an assistant professor in city and regional planning, School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. Her talk was focused on using mapping to create healthier communities. One aspect of her research she presented included some surprising facts about grocery shopping – particularly, but not exclusively, in low-income areas:

People don’t take public transportation to the market. If they don’t have a car, they borrow one or get a ride from a friend.

Most people do their grocery shopping at supermarkets, which is a vote against small neighborhood convenience/bodega-type stores to fill in any gaps.

People don’t always shop at the closest grocery store.

It’s that last one that’s most counterintuitive. Despite all the importance placed on achieving proximity for residents, these three points argue instead for prioritizing price, quality and convenience.

Residents of Chester, Pa., like residents of many cities, do not always shop at the closest grocery. Slide courtesy: Prof. Amy Hillier.

In short, people are willing to drive for value or at least perceived value. In researching my book about demographic and consumer trends , I visited Teton County, Mont. Its county seat, Choteau (pop. 2,000), used to have several family-owned grocers. Now, like much of America, competition from supermarkets and from traditional big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have driven all but one out of business. Residents started driving the 50-plus miles each way to Great Falls to do their shopping all at once. They fill their trucks at the big boxes and come home with groceries, clothes and other goods in one trip. One resident I spoke to had done the math and realized that the time spent and fuel costs meant she wasn’t saving much, if anything, by doing her grocery shopping there instead of at her local store. But the perception of value is often what matters. If you look at the above map of the community she studied, low-income Chester, Pa., you’ll see that people who lived very close to each other will travel great distances to go to any of a number of satellite markets. Chester now actually has a grocery of its own – the first nonprofit grocery in the U.S. – but it’s safe to assume that people in the community are still schlepping out to Wal-Mart, Giant and Save-A-Lot. Price is a key part of that, as is the ability to combine errands. Instead of making sure there’s a market in every neighborhood, perhaps city officials and planners should be most concerned with making sure there is access to healthy food that residents can afford. Cities should encourage car-sharing and delivery services for residents without their own cars, instead of encouraging development near public transportation in all but the most dense urban areas. Changing the ideas of a few community leaders is often easier than changing the actions of the citizens. Smart cities adapt to how the community actually behaves. But also keep an eye on Chester. If the nonprofit model bridges at least some of the gaps for residents and succeeds, expect to see it replicated in more cities around the U.S.

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