5 Key Ways Grocery Stores Are Changing

Grocery shopping now involves lots of fresh choices and competition from online retailers for the packaged stuff. . (Photo: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock)

I'm one of those people who enjoys grocery shopping — most of the time, anyway, and probably in part because I rotate where I shop. For years — even when I didn't make much money — I have invested heavily in fresh, healthy food because I've found that it impacts how I feel more than any other single factor. I'm part of a trend of shoppers who are looking for quality and healthful food, as well as flavor, in most of what they buy. But I only cook three or four meals a week, tops, and I depend on pre-made, fresh foods so I don't need to eat out or order in when I'm not able to cook. I also buy food online.

Turns out that I'm not alone. Consumer habits are changing the way the grocery industry runs, and those changes are significant enough that almost all shoppers — health-oriented or not — will see them over the next decade if they haven't seen them already.

Clean food is here to stay

Grocery basket with fresh produce
Grocery stores have variety and quality of produce in addition to stocking processed food with fewer and better-quality ingredients. (Photo: marcin jucha/Shutterstock)

For years, everyone from doctors to nutritionists, health gurus and food writers have pushed the idea of eating less processed and more whole foods. And consumers are listening. Demand for healthier choices has increased, so supermarkets stock more fresh stuff in most sections. Sure, they've upped the variety and quality of produce, but stores also have improved staples like bread, dairy products and beverages, by offering more local options and focusing on ingredients.

A selection of pre-made salads, sandwiches and soups are now expected at all but the smallest grocery stores. Besides the fresh, ready-to-eat stuff (and the prominent place it takes up in most stores), customers are looking for processed foods that are made with fewer, better-quality ingredients and without artificial ingredients and flavors. It's typical to find fresh bread from a local bakery or an in-house bakery at the grocery store, and the busy deli counter now has more than just sliced meats and cheese. There's often a whole extra refrigerator case attached to the deli that's filled with house-made pasta salads, green-bean or butternut squash side dishes, heat-and-serve kabobs, meaty entrees and other heat-and-serve meals. These are a great solution for people who don't have the time, space or ability to cook, and don't want to depend on take-out from restaurants for too many meals.

Variety and specialization is increasing

Cheese store
Are you one of the people who prefer to buy cheese from specialty cheese shops instead of from a major grocery store chain?. (Photo: Tyler Olson/Shutterstock)

Growing up, I went to the same grocery store once a week with my grandma. Now, like many others, I rotate among five or six stores depending what I need. I go to the farmer's market two or three times a month, then stock up on packaged foods like beans, pasta sauce and frozen items at Trader Joe's. If I need produce, pantry-stockers like organic nuts, brown sugar and almond milk, as well as esoteric ingredients for a recipe, I go to Whole Foods. If I just need an item or two, it's Safeway or a specialty shop (cheese or bread, or meat for my partner).

I've lived on both coasts and it's a similar set-up on both sides of the country — I make my choice of store by proximity to where I am and what I need, not any particular loyalty to one store. I like mixing it up, and it seems like no one grocery store has everything I need — and that's OK, since each has a specific area where they shine.

Online food shopping is growing

Grocery delivery
Shopping for food online is a small but growing portion of how we get our groceries, whether it's through Amazon or supermarket delivery services. (Photo: Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock)

Online shopping makes up a small portion of where we buy our food, but it's growing as delivery gets better and more people feel that they can trust what comes in the mail or via Amazon. I order most of my pet foods online, as well as bulky and hard-to-find items, like pumpernickel pretzels, which are only made by two companies in the United States. Tea, a certain very expensive cookie, nut butters, sea salt and specialty cleaning products I also usually find online.

I'm very picky about how ripe my produce is, so I'm not willing to try AmazonFresh or any other kind of web-delivery for fruits and veggies, but it's a growing solution for plenty of people.

Ultra-convenient hybrid stores are popping up

Amazon is already experimenting with Amazon Go (the first one opened to Amazon employees only in December 2016). It's a mostly pre-made food store featuring "chef-made meal kits with ingredients for quickly preparing dinners at home," according to the New York Times. They are testing a variety of aspects of the store through 2017, but the basic idea is that you could skip the checkout line — always the most laborious and least fun part of food shopping.

I would definitely pay a little more to be able to shop directly into my reusable grocery bags, then just walk out of the store and be charged automatically. What a pleasure not to deal with unloading and re-loading the cart — not to mention how no one bags my groceries properly. I'm definitely hoping Amazon (and other retailers) look into doing this for all types of groceries.

Walmart is big competition for Amazon and offers both grocery delivery in some markets and pickup in person. You order and pay online but pick up your purchases at a special location so you don't have to deal with a potentially busy store. Or someone else can pick up your order and bring it to you, a boon for all kinds of people, from the elderly to disabled people to those who are carless. If you coordinate with a neighbor or friend, you might save on both gas and time.

Such innovations are key for serving a variety of shoppers, and these delivery options "will have the greatest impact on how we grocery shop than any other factor," says Forbes' retail writer Laura Heller.

More basics-focused stores, fewer independents

Aldi, with minimally packaged basic foods at discounted prices, has been a huge player in Europe for years now. While it has been slowly but surely growing in the U.S., the company has plans to expand more rapidly in coming years and revamp stores. No frills and no fuss, just a couple of brands are available in each category and the Aldi house brand is often low-cost. The store passes its savings on marketing to the customer, in a similar way that Sam's Club or Costco do — but you don't need a membership nor do you need to buy in bulk.

Smaller grocery chains are going to be hardest hit by all this competition. According to Euromonitor, about 37 percent of stores in the U.S. are independent, but that will probably decrease over the next decade. "We see these going out of business or being acquired," Michelle Grant, Euromonitor's head of retailing, told Forbes. "They can't compete on this scale."

All these changes mean more options for shoppers of the future, though it certainly could hurt local businesses that don't carve out a niche for themselves. But independents can respond to local conditions and needs in ways the big guys can't, by doing some creative grocery-adjacent marketing and establishing a point of difference: With super-local meats or fish, a convivial coffee counter, a unique salad bar, a crave-worthy bakery or a chef-inspired to-go section, smaller stores can compete too.