Have supermarkets fallen out of favor with Americans?

CC BY 2.0 Dean Hochman

Grocery stores are witnessing slumping sales as more people gravitate toward shopping alternatives and dining out.

Grocery shopping habits are evolving with the times. Instead of making weekly trips to a supermarket to stock up on a week’s worth of food, which has been the norm for American and Canadian families over the past 60 years, people are now purchasing food differently.

Supermarkets have experienced a slump in business, while restaurants are seeing an increase in clientele. Shoppers are more interested in buying from multiple locations, rather than getting everything at a one-stop shop, which could also be interpreted as an intriguing return to historic shopping styles.

While the WSJ points the finger at Millennials for driving the shift away from traditional grocery stores, The Atlantic argues that the change spans generations. It found that eating out is becoming more common among Millennials, their parents, and even their senior citizen grandparents.

Marty Siewart, senior vice president for consumer and shopping analytics at Nielsen, told The Wall Street Journal:

“I don’t think we’ve seen shopping change so dramatically ever. Those things in the past that have been real drivers for grocery in terms of freshness and quality aren’t the key drivers for millennials.”

Why is this happening?

For one, households are smaller. Millennials are waiting longer to have kids, and when they do, those families are smaller. There are fewer mouths to feed, so there is less need to stock up on and it’s feasible to buy food on a daily basis. This makes restaurant tabs more manageable, too.

People have more disposable income. As the economy climbs out of its hole, people can afford to spend a bit more on food outside of the home. They’re not penny-pinching to the extent that they were in the mid-2000s.

Eaters have new priorities. Particularly in urban locations, savvy restaurants are tapping into dietary fads and preferences, like veganism, raw and fermented foods, and local seasonal ingredients. It’s easier than ever to pick up wheat berry bowls and soba noodle miso soup, so why bother making it from scratch?

Fewer people know how to cook. In a tragic loss of knowledge, a shocking number of people (not just Millennials, but also their parents) do not cook food from scratch on any regular basis. They are reliant on restaurants for sustenance, or else they 'assemble' basic meals from ingredients purchased at stores. (I think of assembly as different from cooking, using more prepared ingredients.)

There are more shopping options available than ever before. Whereas two-thirds of shoppers in 2005 spent all their weekly food budget at a nearby supermarket, now less than half do.

“The hegemony of the supermarket has been broken by the rise of food shopping options, particularly convenience stores, superstores, and online shopping.” (The Atlantic)

I can vouch for the fact that my local supermarket, while satisfying many of my family's food needs, do not meet many of my other requirements for ethical, sustainable, and zero-waste production; and because those things matter greatly to me, I go further afield (i.e. CSA share, health food store, farmers' market, bulk food store) to find them. As a result, I would estimate that only 50-75 percent of my monthly food bill is spent at the supermarket, depending on the season.

I predict another significant shift over the next decade. Once Millennials start having more babies, then the supermarket's convenience and hard-to-beat prices will become much more appealing, not to mention necessary. By then, too, the products offered will have evolved and be more in line with my generation's (rather fastidious) food preferences.

Have supermarkets fallen out of favor with Americans?
Grocery stores are witnessing slumping sales as more people gravitate toward shopping alternatives and dining out.

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