Machines for Selling

What the layout of supermarkets tells us about the grocery business, about our own nutrition, and about a loss of neighbourhood watchfulness.

August 24 th 2011

Since nutrition is one of the main purposes of eating (though not the only), one might assume that one of the main purposes of supermarkets would be providing nutrition. One might assume wrong.

The design of the North American supermarket has two finely-balanced, equal aims:

  1. efficiency of movement (of people, yes, but especially of product), and
  2. maximization of revenue.

Both parts are directly related to the famously thin profit margins in the grocery business, which is about as competitive an industry as exists on our continent. Human nutrition, sadly, is not even part of the equation, except tangentially. Supermarkets sell food, but they don't think of it as food. They think of it as "product."


The need for efficient movement is easily understood when you consider the dynamic nature of food retailing. A supermarket is a dynamo of movement, with daily arrivals of foodstuffs of all kinds, shelf stocking, and purchases by customers who don't like empty shelves or missing stock. Food retailers talk about "velocity" when referring to fast- or slow-selling items—the store is a dynamic, not a static, entity. So aisle widths and shelf designs have to account for both the arcane needs of pallet jacks and bread trucks and the needs of shoppers and their ubiquitous carts. In-store traffic jams must be avoided both before and during store hours.

But the real driver in supermarket design is—not surprisingly—money. This is intuitive: merchants from the beginning of time have arranged their carts so as to maximize the appeal (and hence the profitability) of their wares. In modern supermarkets, this means placing high markup items in prominent locations—near the entrance, along the perimeter, on eye-level shelving, or on special displays. But it bears repeating that the retailer's need to maximize profit regularly trumps any concern for the customer's health. If Fatty Flavour Snax is a high-margin, high velocity item, you can expect to see it prominently featured in your local supermarket.

A more secretive force is at work in the local supermarket, though—one that is less obvious than the merchant's desire to maximize his return. Most shoppers don't realize that a supermarket is also an advertising medium, with prime placement given to the manufacturer or distributor willing to pay the highest price. That's right: paid product placement doesn't just happen in the movies.

These quasi-advertisements go by various names in the industry. "Slotting allowance" is a euphemism for requiring manufacturers to pay rent for shelf space, which they often do. And those huge "end cap" displays, the nine-foot tall stacks of Pepsi or Tostitos, are more likely the result of payments by the manufacturer or wholesaler than the retailer's sense of what might be the best value to her customer, much less her sense of what might actually be most healthful for the community.

Imagine a newspaper or magazine in which all the advertisements were set in the same type as the articles, but with larger headlines to distinguish between advertising copy and editorial content. That, in a nutshell, is the modern supermarket. The loudest voices calling to the shopper from the shelves are not necessarily the best, or the cheapest products, but rather the ones with the highest level of sponsorship. And by sponsorship, I don't mean TV commercials (though they play a part). I mean cash transfers to the merchant.

How low are those everyday low prices?

All this is a rather long windup to a fairly straightforward pitch: unless he or she is most unusual (which is to say, out of step with normal practice), your grocer does not have nutrition and health in mind, except in trying hard not to poison you with rancid meat or mouldy produce. And while the villain in this little drama might be those razor-thin margins, caused by the hypercompetitive nature of the grocery marketplace, there might be another suspect: the "super" part of the supermarket—where community is drowned in a sea of everyday low prices.

I am old enough to remember the predecessor to the supermarket: the grocery store. The difference is one of size (grocery stores were between five and ten thousand square feet; supermarkets are five to ten times that large) and variety (grocers typically sold a much smaller range of goods). What they lacked in variety they made up for in specificity: if you lived in an Italian neighborhood, you could be confident that your grocer would have the right ricotta cheese, even if he didn't have a deli case overflowing with exotic cheeses. A grocery store was part of its neighbourhood ecosystem and responded to the needs of shoppers in a relatively small catchment area. A supermarket is, as we have seen, a highly standardized machine designed for velocity, efficiency, and profitability. Its merchandising plan doesn't take into account that Mrs. Donato doesn't like one brand of ricotta. In fact, the plan was probably drawn up in another city entirely.

It could be argued—and I would be the first to take up this argument—that the replacement of the grocery story by the supermarket is as much to blame for the latter's disregard for health and nutrition as the well-known narrow margins in the industry. Like so many things in modern life, to save ourselves a few dollars (and to gain access to all those exotic cheeses we seldom buy), we sell out our neighbourhood grocer for an uncaring, impersonal food buying experience that fills our larders but not our souls. If I lived within walking distance—which I do not—of a small corner grocery, I would go there. I would go there for community, for solidarity, for mutuality. I would pay more for a smaller selection. And in return, I might get a grocer who knew my name, who could order a particular kind of olive I wanted, and who might, just maybe, actually care about what I was feeding my children.

What a sweet moment it would be, to suffer my grocer's rebuke: "You put down that Cap'n Crunch, Mr. Greusel. You're not going to give that to your children! I shouldn't even be selling it!" That would be a rebuke I would treasure for a lifetime. Besides, the Cap'n Crunch was for me.


David Greusel has worked as an architect for more than thirty years with several Midwestern firms of varying sizes. He is founding principal of Convergence Design, a Kansas City-based practice specializing in places where people gather. While with another firm, he was lead designer for two major league ballparks: Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 2009, David was named a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects.