Tag Archives: supermarkets

The Facebook IPO is Not the Only Game in Town

http://annies.elsstore.com/app/images/product/large/01356200004l.jpg       http://img.21food.com/20110609/product/1305250551531.jpg        http://www.productwiki.com/upload/images/annie_s_homegrown_cocoa_vanilla_bunnies_cereal.jpg      http://www.spanalaskasales.com/media/Annies-Cowgirl-Ranch-Dressi.gif

It’s the biggest IPO in years and there will be none for you.
There’s a long line of bankers, venture capitalists, institutional investors, and well-connected individuals getting first dibs on shares of Facebook when the social media titan goes public this spring.

Less buzz, more bunny.
Why bother when you can easily buy into the initial offering from Annie’s Homegrown? When Annie’s announced plans to go public, there was none of the frenzy that surrounded recent offerings like LinkedIn, Groupon, and now Facebook. The organic mac and cheese maker doesn’t generate the same kind of heat, but unlike so many technology and social media companies, it does generate profits: in each of the last five years, Annie’s sales have grown by an average of nearly 16%; in 2011 the company reported a profit of $15 million.

Annie’s makes the second most popular macaroni and cheese, trailing only the iconic blue box from Kraft. In the natural and organic market, it’s number one for macaroni and cheese, snack crackers, fruit snacks, and graham crackers. The company makes crackers, condiments, frozen pizza, and 100 other products that can be found in 25,000 specialty and mass market locations across the U.S. and Canada. Annie’s is a premium-priced, high-margin brand with a loyal customer base that is better-educated, more health-conscious, and spends more on food than the average consumer.

Annie’s also has a cute bunny logo and a way better stock ticker symbol (BNNY) than Facebook’s (FB).

See full financials and learn about the stock offering–read the company prospectus filed with the SEC.




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Supermarket Waste: Where Does the Old Food Go?

image via Scary Mommy

The out-of-date yogurt cartons, the dented cans, the misshapen potatoes that shoppers passed over.
There’s a lot of activity behind the scenes and after hours at your local supermarket. Employees strip the shelves of brown bananas, opened boxes, broken jars, and stale muffins. They take the past-peak quality produce and meats to the deli or the salad bar and recycle them into prepared foods. They also remove packaged foods approaching their expiration dates—still perfectly good, but who’s going to buy a 5-pound block of cheese with 3 days left?

The good news is that more food than ever is finding a second life.

Wholesalers and supermarket chains have set up reclamation centers that operate as clearing houses for products considered unsaleable by the stores. The centers are filled with Christmas cookies in January, Valentine’s chocolate in March, and a year-round assortment of products that are nearing their sell-by dates or have packaging that has since been updated by the manufacturer. Much of it is shipped off to dollar stores and discount grocers, two categories that have become important to the food chain in our current economic state. There you’ll find an ever-changing assortment of foods—items discontinued by manufacturers, unfamiliar regional brands, foods labelled for export, and plenty of familiar and even high-end products all offered at highly discounted prices.

Food banks are another outlet for unsaleables, and most supermarket chains and reclamation centers participate in some sort of hunger relief program. The passage of the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act encourages participation by protecting the stores and distributors from criminal or civil liability around issues of food safety. The FDA also enthusiastically supports the practice and has even emphasized that other than baby food and formula, most food expiration dates refer to the point when a product’s taste, texture, color, or nutritional benefits start to deteriorate rather than the point when you need to worry about the product’s safety.

Americans waste a lot of food—more than 40% of  all we produce. According to the The Natural Resources Defense Council if we wasted just 5 percent less food, it would be enough to feed 4 million Americans; 20 percent less waste would feed 25 million. This is indefensible at a time when both food prices and the number of Americans without enough to eat continue to rise.

On his Wasted Food website, Joanathan Bloom has a lot to say about food waste and what we can do about it.

AlterNet grades the food waste handling of Wal-Mart, Safeway, and other top grocery chains.


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Snooping in Other People’s Pantries

Almedahls vintage pantry tea towel

It’s been said that the eyes are the window to the soul.
Nonsense. The true window to the soul is the pantry.

Every pantry tells a story.

Pantries are as individual as fingerprints. They reflect history and aspirations, politics and pocketbooks. They are links to the past and road maps to our dreams. They are the show we put on for guests and they can harbor our deepest secrets.

Pantries can be treasure troves of exotica or wastelands of deprivation. They can speak of careful planning or organized chaos. They can remind us that we are overscheduled or underpaid. And sometimes they just scream Take out the recycling!

Pantries are the place where dreams meet reality.

The online world is ripe with opportunities for a culinary peeping Tom. The best of these is a photo series, now in its fith year, called Other People’s Pantries.

Hosted on the blog The Perfect Pantry, each week a different guest blogger showcases their own pantry in photographs and text. We have peered inside of converted broom closets in tiny urban kitchens, hand-hewn shelving in log cabins, and lavishly outfitted pantry extravaganzas in grandiose homes. We have been to kitchens in nearly every state and about a dozen countries. Can by can, spice by spice, each pantry tells the story of a cook, a home, a life.

If you’re game, Other People’s Pantries is currently soliciting submissions for new pantries to feature.

Want to snoop some more?

Diane Sawyer prefers Miracle Whip to mayonnaise. Bobby Flay like to mix hot sauce into his Greek yogurt. Rachel Ray bakes with cake mixes. Celebrity  secrets are revealed in Stock Your Pantry Like the Stars.

A dieting wife and mother; a restaurant critic; a 20-something ethical vegetarian; a newly-divorced middle-aged man; the Montreal Gazette dissects the shopping and eating habits of this eclectic group of home cooks in its series Shop, Cook, Eat, Drink.

What Your Groceries Say About You looks at the secret language of grocery purchases, from Jimmy Dean’s dough-wrapped frozen sausages (“I will eat anything on a stick,”) to canned Reddi Whip (“There’s an 87% chance I’m using this for sex.”)



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Paying More, Getting Less: Your Incredible Shrinking Groceries

[image via Slow Poke Comics]

 Coming soon to a supermarket near you…

Two Musketeers candy bars, Demitasse-a-Soup, Product 18 cereal.
It’s not your imagination; your groceries really are shrinking. Everything but the prices.

Hellmanns’s mayonnaise, Skippy peanut butter, and Tropicana orange juice are among hundreds of national brands that have shrunk their packaging in recent months. An 8 oz. Dannon yogurt now weighs in at 6, while the 6 oz. Yoplait dropped to 4. Kellogg slimmed cereal boxes by an average of 2.4 oz., and Wrigley’s 17-stick PlenTPak is not so plenTiful at 15. Mission prefers to play a shell game with its tortillas, dropping 2 from the 10-pack, then adding 2 to the 8-pack and calling it a ‘bonus;’ kind of like the ‘extra’ hour we get for daylight savings time.

Portion reduction, short-sizing, eco-friendly packaging—whatever they want to call it, it’s just a way of flying under the radar with price increases.

At least a dozen eggs is still twelve.

We are losing our benchmarks. A pint of Häagen-Dazs is now 2 oz. shy of that measure, and the former half gallon carton of Dreyers or Breyers ice cream has taken two separate hits to get to the current 1.5 quart size. The old one pound can of Maxwell House or Folgers coffee now weighs in at around 12 oz., just like a supermarket bag of Starbucks beans, in case you thought you were getting a full pound. Some reductions are more troubling than others—it’s problematic when you can’t squeeze two decent sandwiches out of the smaller size can of Starkist tuna, while four fewer Double Stuf Oreos will hardly be missed.

It’s not that we begrudge the manufacturers their profit margins. They are feeling the squeeze, coping with the rising cost of ingredients plus high fuel prices. Holding the line on supermarket pricing through down-sized packaging can make the product more attractive to budget shoppers. What irks is the disingenuousness; the sense that the manufacturers are pulling a fast one when they tout their new ‘value-added redesign,’ or ‘slim-ship enviro-packaging.’

As the frequently resized Alice said to the Wonderland caterpillar:
I’m not particular as to size, only one doesn’t like changing so often, you know.

The shoppers’ advocacy site The Consumerist will keep you up to date on shrinking grocery items with its regular feature, Grocery Shrink Ray.



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Is Access to Healthy Food a Basic Human Right?

Is access to healthy food a basic human right?
That’s the question being asked by California Governor Jerry Brown.

Not just food, but healthy food.
Food access is a right. That one has been with us since 1948, the result of the experience of the Second World War. At the end of that war, vowing that the world would never again see such suffering, the international community created the United Nations and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the various protections, guarantees, and liberties is the individual’s right to food.

Back in 1948, nobody thought to specify the type of food. When those words were written, the Big Mac was just a gleam in Roy Kroc’s eye, and the Colonel had yet to fry his first chicken. Who could have imagined a time when nutrition would be so divorced from food that malnutrition could go hand-in-hand with obesity?
This is the paradox of modern-day poverty.

It’s like the line in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink
Millions of Americans are adrift in a sea of junk food. They are surrounded by cheap and abundant processed foods, with little access to healthy foods. This landscape has been dubbed ‘food deserts,’ to describe low-income communities with plenty of processed foods at convenience stores and fast food outlets, but little or no fresh food, and the nearest supermarket is one mile away if it’s an urban community, and 10 miles away if it’s rural.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that this is a reality for more than 20 million Americans, and 1.7 million of them are living in California. The bill on Governor Brown’s desk would create the California Healthy Food Financing Initiative. It enables the state to collaborate with public, private, and philanthropic entities to bring loan and grant financing to the under-served neighborhoods. The goal is to encourage existing businesses to expand their healthier offerings, and to attract grocery stores, food cooperatives, farmers’ markets, and other fresh food retailers.

Is access to high quality food a basic human right?
The State Assembly and the Senate in California think so; in fact they have thought so twice. The previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was inclined to believe that healthy food is a privilege earned by the state’s wealthier residents who own cars or live within striking distance of farmers markets; last year he vetoed a similar bill after it passed both houses of the legislature. Once again, it sits on the governor’s desk where it is a signature away from becoming law.

Find out where they are: the Economic Research Service of the USDA created a Food Desert Locator based on census tract-level data.

The Food Environment Atlas lets you go deeper into a community’s statistics, looking at factors like restaurant expenditures and meals cooked at home.



Posted in community, fast food, health + diet | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Smelling and Selling

Your appetite perks up the minute you walk into the supermarket.
There’s the homey smell of roasting chickens as they take a slow turn around the rotisserie, a faint herbal-citrusy scent rising from neatly stacked pyramids of produce, and of course the fresh-baked aroma of yeasty cinnamon goodness floating through the air of the in-store bakery.
What are you really smelling?

Supermarkets, restaurants, and other retailers are pumping more and more artificial fragrances through their stores. The practice goes by lots of different names–retail atmospherics, neuromarketing, sensory branding, olfactory marketing, scent logos–whatever you want to call it, it’s making you spend more money.

Sure, food smells make you hungry, but there’s more to it than that. Your sense of smell is directly connected to the emotional control center of your brain, where it triggers a response that influences your behavior. When a particular scent taps into the right emotions, you’re more inclined to make a purchase.

This stuff really works.
According to the Scent Marketing Institute, Nike was able to boost its customers’ intent to purchase by 80% when certain scents were added to their store environment. Gas stations can triple their mini-mart coffee sales, nightclubs serve more cocktails, and toy stores can get parents to linger longer with the right scent (it’s orange-seawater-peppermint for nightclubs and piña colada for toy-shopping grown-ups— go figure).

Food is a natural for scent marketing. Most of what we perceive as taste actually comes from our sense of smell. Our taste buds perceive only bitter, salty, sweet, sour, and umami flavors, and we already rely on odor molecules for specific taste sensations. Plus, it’s easy to perfume the air with chocolate or freshly baked bread, and not so simple to devise a suitable smell for sneakers or Legos .

Sensory marketing is nothing new.
A breakthrough in nebulization technology, in which a scented oil is converted into a dry vapor, has made fragranced air more commercially viable, but for years hotels have pumped a little bacon smell into elevator shafts in the morning to boost room service breakfast business, and theme parks have been tempting you to buy popcorn and sweets with scent machines hidden in the landscaping. More recently, Starbucks became so convinced of the power of scent marketing that it nearly abandoned its successful line of hot breakfasts because of the way the smell of heating sandwiches interferes with the coffee aroma.

Reeking of deception
Aggressive scent marketing by a New York supermarket has opened an ethical debate. Brooklyn’s Net Cost market has had great success with five nebulizers that pipe different fragrances through strategic store locations, seeing sales rise by 7% for the corresponding foods. The problem is that the store also disperses cooking smells for items that aren’t prepared on the premises, and for items it doesn’t even carry. Customers have complained that the store is misrepresenting its products, and that they feel misled and manipulated by the scents.

You can get a good overview of retail atmospherics at the website for ScentAir, the scent supplier to Net Cost markets, among its tens of thousands of global installations. ScentAir offers 350 smells by monthly subscription from its fragrance library, although to me, separate entries for funnel cake and waffle cone feels like so much hair splitting.

Last month’s New Scientist looks at the ways in which smells shape our moods, behavior and decisions while barely registering in our conscious lives. Read The unsung sense: How smell rules your life.

From the Gigabiting archives, February, 2011: Food might be the way to a man’s heart, but the smell of food aims a little lower. Read Better than Viagra: Arousal by Food Smells.



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The Genius of Trader Joe’s

It doesn’t work for everyone.
Trader Joe’s store locations are second-rate and their parking lots are impossibly small. The aisles are cramped, there are so many missing product categories you’ll never knock off a whole shopping list, and the lines at the register rival July 4th at Disneyland. It should all add up to the retail equivalent of waterboarding, but instead, the population of admirers continues to swell.

Trader Joe’s has figured out how to take its many shortcomings and weave them into its mystique.
There’s just one brand of olives and one box size of polenta, but customers will bet that if Trader Joe’s picked them, those olives must be fabulous and it’s the best damn polenta out there. Employees are scruffy, laid-back, and Hawaiian-shirted, but also customer-friendly, always out on the floor to answer questions, and quick to open a package to give you a sample. Beloved products spontaneously disappear from store shelves, but they’re replaced with new and offbeat culinary discoveries that are often a half-step ahead of our palates (anyone for adzuki bean chips and dried green mango?). Instead of a chore, shopping at Trader Joe’s is a cultural experience.

Trader Joe’s carries around 4,000 products, compared to the typical grocery store’s 50,000. It’s a mix of foodie-friendly staples, like cage-free eggs and extra virgin olive oil, plus affordable luxury and exotic items, like frozen truffled ricotta pizza and Moroccan tagine sauce. This is not inexpensive food, but the offerings are unique and the prices are often the lowest in town. If this is not how you shop, cook, and eat, you just won’t get it.

To make sure its customers get it, the company looks at demographics like education levels and cooking magazine subscriptions to divine its next store locations. And they sure do get it: Trader Joe’s has average store sales of  $1,750 per square foot—that’s double the sales per square foot of Whole Foods and triple the amount of a typical Publix or Shaw’s supermarket. For Trader Joe’s, it adds up to $8 billion in annual sales.

The genius of Trader Joe’s is its marriage of cult appeal and scale. It doesn’t just masquerade as a neighborhood store with its bad clip art and folksy hand-lettered signs; it is a neighborhood store, with a tight customer focus and an ability to curate each store’s offerings to suit local tastes.

With 361 stores and counting, individual store oversight is less manageable, and a buying error can cost the company millions. Let’s hope as Trader Joe’s grows, it can hang on to the quirks and surprises that make it a special place to shop. Although no one will complain if they expand their parking lots.

If you do nothing else today, be sure to watch this video. If I Made a Commercial for Trader Joe’s is one man’s unauthorized tribute. It’s a complete, warts-and-all portrait; a love song celebrating the customers, employees, and eclectic merchandise of his favorite store. And it’s charming and very funny.



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6 Condiments You Really Should Get to Know

In the beginning there was ketchup.

Ketchup has reigned supreme for nearly 200 years. At its peak, it was found in 97% of U.S. households.
But global influences have perked up our palates. There’s a big world of flavor out there. Clear out some space in the pantry and push aside the ketchup bottle in your refrigerator. It’s time to make room in your kitchen and your cooking repertoire for six new condiments.

Sriracha, oh how I love thee. Squeezed on vegetables, drizzled over noodles, mixed into dressings, dips, and sauces; a moderately spicy chili base with a healthy garlic kick, Sriracha is a condiment chameleon. It transcends cuisines and national boundaries meshing equally well with dishes from Asia, Latin America, and the American South. It rivals ketchup as a tabletop catch-all.


Fish sauce requires a leap of faith. Comprised largely from fermented anchovies, on its own it is potent and smelly. Use it judiciously as a dipping sauce or an ingredient in curries, casseroles, and stir fries. The flavor is pure magic.

Chimichurri sauce can be green or red (with added tomatoes or peppers). It’s primarily a blend of parsley, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and pepper flakes, with different spices added to suit the dish. It’s used as a marinade and as a sauce, mostly with grilled meats. It’s popular throughout South and Central America; especially in Argentina where they know a thing or two about grilling meats.

Doesn’t this look familiar? Canned tahini has been found on supermarket shelves in the kosher aisle forever. A creamy paste made from sesame seeds, tahini is most closely associated with the Middle East, where it is a familiar ingredient in hummus, falafel, and eggplant dishes. Tahini has the consistency of peanut butter but with a milder taste, and adds nutty richness as a sandwich spread, salad dressing, and dessert ingredient.

Harissa is a chili sauce that appears on every North African table; sometimes in every course at every meal in all kinds of dishes. To my taste, a little goes a long way: a dab added to stews, sandwich spreads, soups, and sauces adds a distinctively tart, fiery finish. It is available in cans and jars, but for me, the little tube, as shown, is plenty.

Cook Moroccan food without preserved lemon and it just doesn’t taste Moroccan. These are lemons that have been essentially pickled in their own juices along with salt and some spices like cloves, coriander, pepper, and cinnamon. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but whatever the preserved lemons are added to take on complexity and a kind of exoticness. Beans or vegetables, sauces and salsas, dips and desserts will all have a little Moroccan je ne sais quoi.



Posted in food knowledge, food trends | Tagged , | 1 Comment

How Much? How Many?

A little culinary quantum physics to answer some of life’s vexing questions.

So much in life is uncertain, unknowable, and uncontrollable. Sometimes we can use a few answers. Maybe these aren’t the kinds of questions that keep us up at night, but there is still something comforting about round numbers.


A keg contains 15½ gallons, or the equivalent of 6.8 cases of beer. That’s 124 red party cups filled to the brim. [KegBooty]




There are 37 scoops in a gallon of ice cream.  [WikiAnswers]




Within their PVC-wrapped tubes, Smarties come in a combination of white, yellow, pink, orange, purple, and green. Each color’s flavor really is slightly different. They are packaged as a roll of 15. [Wikipedia]


Plain or peanut?
A 1 lb bag of peanut M&M’s contains approximately 190 candies; you get 405 M&M’s in a bag of plain.   [ChaCha]



Figure on 7,200 grains in a cup of rice.  [WikiAnswers]




It takes 1½ potatoes to make the Big Grab single serving size of chips. How many chips is that? Let’s just say not enough. [Askville]



If you squeezed every last drop of ketchup out of little foil packets, it would take 41 of them to fill a standard ketchup bottle; realistically, you’ll never wring out every last drop or hit the narrow bottle opening every time, so count on 50 packets. Of course, realistically, who’s going to attempt this?  [CalorieCount]


A box of Cornflakes contains a mere 981 flakes, [WikiAnswers] while the same size box of Cheerios holds almost 5,000 of the little o’s. More importantly, it’s easily enough to make Cheerio necklaces for 50 small children.  [WebAnswers]




And the proverbial two scoops of raisins in Raisin Bran? It begs the obvious question Just how big is said scoop? You have to wonder, is it the same scoop, independent of box size, or does the scoop get larger when the box size increases?

The raisin counts prove to be an average of 221 in the 15 oz. package,  337 raisins in the 20. oz. box, and a stingy double scoop of 321 in the 25.5 oz. size. The scoop-to-box-ratio increases proportionately until you get to the big box, which is strictly for bran flake enthusiasts. [Science Creative Quarterly]


Next time you go grocery shopping, remember that volume estimates are subject to all sorts of perceptual illusions—a fact that marketers never forget. Tall and narrow appears to hold more than short and wide, and tuna cans aren’t flattering to anything but tuna.



Posted in food knowledge, shopping | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Why We Will Finally Buy Groceries Online

[image via Prevention.com]

When’s the last time you busted out a dictionary to look up a word? Or unfurled a map to look for directions? Or looked through the newspaper’s classified ads for anything?
We use the internet to make our lives easier in a million different ways, but we’re still not buying groceries online.

It’s the most universally detested of all household errands.
The parking space feels like it’s in the next county, the checkout line edges forward in tortuous slow motion, and we finish up with bag-splitting trips from car to kitchen; yet we’d sooner chance a shoe size crapshoot on Zappo’s than order groceries online.

On the cusp of success.
It should be a slam-dunk—online grocery shopping is a convenient time-saver, light on the environment, less physically taxing, and prices stack up competitively against supermarkets. But after a false start in the 1980’s and another go-round a decade ago, sales are sputtering along at less than 2% of the U.S. food market. We’re now seeing the third coming, and this one’s going to stick.
Here’s why:

•There’s none of the earlier, paranoia-fueled resistance to online transactions; by now, we’ve all bought something online, and for many of us, online shopping is second nature.
•The new, recession-habituated shopper is disciplined and strategic. For years, we’ve researched and price-compared high ticket items like electronics; now, we may not be ordering our groceries over the internet, but 62% of shoppers say they search for deals online for at least half of their shopping trips, according to a survey commissioned by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
•The retailers are ready this time around. Food handling has improved, as have the technology tools available to advance the service and grow transaction size.
•The biggest and savviest players have jumped in, armed with existing distribution centers, retail know-how, and the deep pockets to sustain them through the high-value marketing campaigns and discounting necessary to build market share.

Walmart, already the nation’s largest grocer, is testing its home delivery service Walmart To Go. The retail behemoth is well-known for its mastery of consumer data and pricing strategies, as well as its stingy business practices, all of which serve it well in the grocery sector with its razor-thin profit margins.
Amazon has been tinkering with Amazon Fresh for four years in its native Seattle; once perfected, the service will go national. Unrivaled in expertise and insights into the interconnectedness of lifestyles and consumer buying patterns, Amazon is expected to be a major force in the grocery sector.

You still can’t squeeze the tomatoes or check the expiration date on the sour cream. But once you’ve experienced the time savings and the ease of (often free) delivery, you might never set foot in another supermarket.

The Shopper Marketing series from the Grocery Manufacturers Association is the industry’s road map to the future.


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Clicks or Bricks: Is it greener to buy groceries online?

Who wouldn’t want to cut out all those trips to the supermarket?
Hopefully you’ve already cut way back, with a larger portion of your food coming from farmers markets and other local sources, but you just can’t get everything. There will always be a need for the cans and bottle, cleaning supplies and paper goods that large chain stores offer cheaper and with better selection. We are still left with that most detestable of all household errands—the trip to the supermarket.

It’s misery from start to finish: the parking space in the next county, the shopping cart with a cranky wheel, the checkout line that inches along, and finally the multiple trips from car to kitchen hauling all those grocery bags. What if you could eliminate that dreaded chore AND reduce your environmental impact?

A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute concluded that online purchases with home delivery can result in 35 percent less energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions than traditional shopping. Approximately 65 percent of total emissions generated by the traditional retail model comes from driving your own car to and from the store. Even though a huge, fuel-burning truck will be bringing the groceries to you, the incremental energy consumption and emissions created by one more shopping order and one more delivery stop added to the truck’s route is less significant than if you make the drive yourself.

There are also logistical differences in the supply chain that can lessen the environmental impact of online shopping. Traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers generally have items shipped from manufacturers to distributors to regional warehouses, where they are then redistributed to individual store locations. Online sellers can streamline the process. They usually eliminate at least one tier of regional warehousing, and some can even skip a few steps by relying on distribution partners to ship directly shipping to customer homes. This cuts back not just on the transportation of products, but also the bundled packaging and packing materials needed along the way.

Online grocery shopping is making a comeback.
The retail model was full of promise in the 1980’s, flamed out notably in the dot-com bust of the 1990’s (CNET named the failed online grocer Webvan the top flop of the era), and has gradually found its footing  in the aftermath. But online grocery purchases have never grown beyond a miniscule 1-2 percent portion of overall sales, thriving in just a few urban niche markets.

Here come the game-changers.
And this time around it’s a new ballgame—we’ve grown comfortable with online shopping, the modems are a lot faster, and gas prices have passed $4.00  a gallon. Walmart, already the nation’s biggest grocer, is experimenting with a new online service called Walmart To Go, while Amazon, the king of online retailers, has big plans for a national roll-out of its own service, AmazonFresh.

There are plenty of alternatives for the Walmart averse. SOS eMarketing compiled a list of 50 online grocers including ethnic, regional, and specialty retailers, and plenty of sources for organic and environmentally-friendly products.

You can read the full Carnegie Mellon study, Life Cycle Comparison of Traditional Retail and E-Commerce Logistics for Electronic Products: A Case Study of Buy.com, at the publications page of the university’s Green Design Institute.



Posted in cyberculture, shopping, sustainability | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Checkout Line Hypotheses: how to choose the fastest lane at the supermarket


It started with a math problem.
Dan Meyer, a Santa Cruz, California high school geometry teacher posted the photo, below, in his blog.

He put out the call to all of his friends (an equally math-loving cohort, it would seem): which lane would you choose?
It prompted endless discussion of variables and constraints, scalable models and linear regression (omga non-zero y-intercept).
The short answer: skip the Express Lane. More individual customers is slower than more individual items.
The real answer is that some problems resist logical solutions. There is no “all other things being equal” when dealing with human behavior.
There are still plenty of mathematics involved. Each item in a customer’s basket adds an average of 2.8 seconds to the checkout time. But each customer adds about 48 seconds before accounting for scanning a single item (How are you today? Do you have your Club Card with you? Will you be needing help to your car?….). That adds up to an extra 17 items that can be rung up before you would choose the line with an extra person.
There are a few hard and fast rules to help speed you on your way.
  • Check is slower than credit. Both are slower than cash. And look out for the lady with a fistful of coupons.
  • Lucky 13– the lines are almost always shorter if there is a Lane 13. Lots of superstitious people out there.
  • Watch the faffing, the waiting systems industry term to describe the stretch of time when the customer organizes their belongings after checkout has concluded. Faffing can drag on.
  • Prepare to wait in Washington D.C. With an average waiting time of 8:23, the supermarket lines are the slowest in the nation. (see map below)

And the surest way to stay out of the slow line? Steer clear if you see me in the market. I have an uncanny knack for picking the slowest.
[ Average wait times in grocery-store lines, in minutes]

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How Smart is Your Package?

How about a cantaloupe that signals when it’s ripe and milk that tells you when it’s spoiled?
That’s right, in the future no one will ask “Does this smell funny to you?”

Intelligent packaging is coming soon to a grocer near you.

Meat and fish can look fine even when they’re spoiled or tainted with bacteria and toxins. A new smart plastic wrap can sense the molecular changes that indicate decay, and a label will change colors to signal its status. There’s a wrap for produce that can sniff out ethylene gas, which indicates the ripening of fruit and vegetables, and hexanol, which signals spoilage.

Other packaging will be printed with temperature-sensitive inks that can change colors to signal when food has been improperly shipped or stored. They’ll turn the bar code red so that it can’t be scanned at the checkout. And there are refrigerators in the works that will be able to read the smart packages and can text or email food status updates.

It’s not just about spoilage. There are plenty of convenience and marketing applications in the works like self-heating soup cans, self-cooling beer cans, and attention-grabbing, light-up cereal boxes; but the real action is in food safety. That’s because all of the best if used by and sell by labeling we rely on is little more than a security blanket for consumers.

Freshness dating is not required by federal law for any food products except infant formula and certain baby foods. Some states require dating for dairy products, but there is no agreement or uniformity for freshness standards. For all other foods, labeling is voluntary. Producers can choose to slap on expiration dates, but there are no accurate or consistent freshness standards, and except for dairy products and formula, the retailers are free to keep the expired products on their store shelves.

Until the new, intelligent food packaging hits the store shelves, your best bet is the old tried-and-true: “Does this smell funny to you?”

For more information:

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture has Fact Sheets covering many facets of safe food handling and food spoilage.

Still Tasty is a complete guide to the shelf life of commodity and brand name foods. It offers storage and handling tips, creates shopping lists, and can alert you to looming expiration dates. Still Tasty is also available as an iPhone application.


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Walmart Makes You Fat


While we were were off blaming McDonald’s for the obesity epidemic, Walmart snuck in there.
A newly published study in the Journal of Urban Economics tracked extensive health and population data between 1996 and 2005, a period in which 1,569 Walmart supercenters, with their in-store supermarkets, opened across the U.S. The researchers found that one new Walmart supercenter per 100,000 residents boosted the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points—2,300 people from the store’s vicinity who weren’t obese ended up in that category after a superstore opened.

Instead of a single, causal link between Walmart stores and weight gain, it’s theorized that there is a whole range of factors.
First up is the most obvious—Walmart lowers the price of food, allowing customers to buy more. Walmart is notorious for the penny-pinching way it squeezes suppliers, and it’s estimated that a region’s food prices drop by between 8 and 27 per cent across the board when a supercenter moves in. The biggest impact is felt in the pricing of processed foods from large-scale manufacturers, where Walmart tends to have its firmest price advantage. Competitors cut their prices in response to a new Walmart, so area residents can end up paying less for their food without even setting foot in the supercenter.

Inevitably, some smaller markets will fail: a 2003 Wall Street Journal article showed that 25 out of 29 supermarket bankruptcies in the previous decade had been caused by the arrival of a Walmart. When the smaller mom-and-pops disappear, neighborhoods become less walkable. Locals are walking less and spending more time in front of screens—a study of Walmart’s product offerings showed that the availability of discounted video games and DVDs has an influence over leisure activities. And since they now have to pile into a car and drive a greater distance, Walmart supercenter shoppers tend to buy groceries less frequently. Shelf-stable processed foods become the practical choice over fresh but highly perishable meat and dairy, fruits and vegetables.

Baby steps in the right direction
We’re not ready to sing the praises of a a big box, marketplace brute, but to Walmart’s credit, the company has announced a five-year plan to improve the nutritional values of its store brands, cut prices for whole foods and vegetables, and open stores in low-income areas that are currently  food deserts with little access to supermarkets.

Walmart is the country’s largest food seller, visited each week by nearly one-third of the U.S. population. It’s capable of spurring dramatic changes by harnessing its marketplace muscle in service of an agenda. In the past the company has chosen to apply its bounteous brute force to grinding suppliers into the dust, crushing the dreams of independent proprietors, and propagating exploitative, discriminatory, union-busting employment practices. Let’s see what happens when the retail giant sets out to do some good.




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The Ups and Downs of Food Shopping

.A girl’s gotta eat.
The economy might be slowing, but not our appetites.
We’re not eating any less, but we have made budget-driven adjustments to what we eat, how we shop, and where we are having our meals. We have rediscovered inexpensive root vegetables and made hanger steak the new ribeye.

Even though we’re eating out less, we still hunger for variety in our food choices. We’ve been using some of those restaurant savings to buy unusual grocery items and specialty prepared foods that give a bigger bang for the buck. But now, with rising fuel prices, we have to take a closer look at those specialty items. For all the steps forward taken by America’s food culture, we still count on a lot of imported goods; especially on the high end of our shopping lists. It might be time to re-evaluate our affinity for prosciutto di parma and Basque cheeses, and reconsider some home-grown country hams and domestic farmstead cheddars.

Taking the “Fancy” out of Fancy Foods.
Specialty foods used to be synonymous with gourmet. It meant exotic and pricey, preferably imported from France: think escargots, truffles, and Roquefort.
Today’s luxury food purchase is likely to be more quotidian: organic butter, heirloom tomatoes, or hand-rolled pasta. We’re choosing to pay a premium for the quality associated with the care and attention of small batch production of even the most humble of ingredients. Cheeses are artisanal rather than imported. Pastured chuck roast commands a higher price than conventionally-farmed tenderloin..

Drinking Up; Drinking Down
We’re making similar choices when we drink. Wine consumption continues to rise, as it has for fifteen straight years, but sales have been dropping precipitously as we trade down to more domestic wines and lower-priced imports.  Modest indulgences like specialty sodas and teas, where the price at the upper end represents a fairly small jump from their conventional counterparts, are faring well in the current economic environment. And while beer sales are slumping overall, the craft beer category from micro-producers is soaring.

Rolling Past the Perimeter
While we are allowing ourselves some small indulgences, the recession has given new life to grocers’ most basic offerings; those unsexy canned, jarred, and packaged staples found in the middle aisles of the supermarket that form the basis of inexpensive family meals. We’ve rediscovered the bulk foods aisle, coupons, and most of all, private label store brands.

What the Kids are Up To
The Gen Y 20-somethings are entering the workforce and becoming consumers in their own right and doing it their own way. They have grown up with global influences that have broadened their palates and blurred distinctions between mainstream and specialty foods. And unlike their elders, this first “Starbucks generation,” doesn’t flinch at paying four dollars for a specialty coffee drink. Small luxuries like lattés are to them an everyday experience. They seem unfazed by current economic woes as they continue to be the top consumers of premium chocolates, fancy chips and crackers, and quick-cook items that require limited cooking skills.

The Chocolate Cure
There can be unhealthy side effects to this economic downturn. People drop their health club memberships to economize and eat cheap, filling, but less healthy foods. Chips, donuts ,and peanut butter have all seen sales spikes in recent months. Fast food chains have seen their sales buoyed by the recession. A new phrase, recession obesity, was recently coined to describe this phenomenon.

The best antidote to all the turmoil is to buy chocolate— the finest most outrageously expensive chocolate you can find. It costs too much to do too much harm, but you’ll still feel completely indulged.

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The Food Hotel: Like sleeping in a supermarket aisle



Sweet Suites
A table that looks like a soup can, shopping cart chairs, and pillows shaped like Oreos. Luggage is stacked on supermarket shelving and clothing is stashed inside a freezer case. It’s a hotel room for someone who eats, breathes, and now sleeps food. Thirty-six of Germany’s biggest household names, including international brands like Coca-Cola and Unilever, teamed up with the hotel’s management to create unique, food-themed guestrooms.

The hotel is located in the Rhineland town of Neuwied, […]

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The Tyranny of Perfection: Botox Apples

image via Mercola.com


How about a round of Happy Birthday to You for your apples?

That’s right, the ‘fresh’ apples you buy at the supermarket could actually be a year old. […]

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The Incredible Shrinking Groceries

image via Jen Sorensen/Slowpoke Comics

Coming soon to a supermarket near you…

Two Musketeers candy bars, Demitasse-a-Soup, Product 18 cereal.
It’s not your imagination; your groceries really are shrinking. Just not the prices.

Hellmans’s mayonnaise, Skippy peanut butter, and Tropicana orange juice are among hundreds of national brands that have shrunk their packaging in recent months. An 8 oz. Dannon yogurt now weighs in at 6, while the 6 oz. Yoplait dropped to 4. Kellogg slimmed cereal boxes by an average of 2.4 oz., and Wrigley’s 17-stick PlenTPak is not so plenTiful at 15. Mission prefers to play a shell game with its tortillas, dropping 2 from the 10-pack, then adding 2 to the 8-pack and calling it a ‘bonus;’ kind of like the ‘extra’ hour we get for daylight savings time. […]

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My Life as a Foodie Carpetbagger

A girl’s gotta eat.

The economy has slowed, but not my appetite.
I’m not eating less, but I have made adjustments to what, where, and how I’m doing it.
I eat out less often and cook and entertain at home much more. I still want variety in my food and dining choices, but now my extravagances are more likely to be inventively prepared takeout and specialty grocery items.

Call me what you will: a carpetbagger, a profiteer, an opportunist. All I know is that with a little creativity, resourcefulness, and flexibility, the current economic climate can be a foodie’s salad days. […]

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Those little spice jars will get you.
The out-of-season raspberries are outrageous. You register sticker shock when you see the the price for a pound of halibut or a standing rib roast. But ounce for ounce, pound for pound, nothing rivals herbs and spices when it comes to the audacity of pricing.

If you’re looking for the pricing logic of supply and demand, you need to look elsewhere. Spice pricing is imperfect, illogical, and idiosyncratic, driven more by sales format than product costs or competition.
One company completely dominates the market.
McCormick is the number one brand with about 50% of the U.S. market. It’s also number two, with its lower-priced Spice Classics brand. Together, they add up to more than $3 billion in annual sales. […]
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