Neighborhood Supermarkets Are Everywhere
In this week’s Saturday Read: Some of us never stopped patronizing small, local grocery stores
What happened to the “neighborhood supermarket”—the small 8,000-12,000 square-foot grocery store you might find on a small-town Main Street or in an urban neighborhood? Such stores were small enough to turn a profit serving customers from the surrounding community, including many customers within walking distance.
I’ve written about the decline of neighborhood grocery stores before, looking at my hometown of Flemington, New Jersey. In the middle of the 20th century, Flemington’s Main Street had an A&P, a ShopRite and an Acme—all early but fully modern supermarkets (self-serve, with meat, bakery, deli and fresh produce departments). But as the century progressed, the A&P moved to a car-oriented strip plaza off Main Street (and eventually closed), the Acme moved to a strip plaza as well and survived into the 1990s and the ShopRite—the only one still open—moved outside the city limits into the adjacent township.
All throughout the country, modern supermarkets migrated from walkable settings to car-oriented settings, growing physically larger in the process. The whole nature of shopping changed, as it became more common to drive to the supermarket and load up on groceries for a week, rather than driving a very short distance or simply strolling to the store for a few items.
This combined land use-retail evolution has been going on so long that there is now a key retail component missing in the American built landscape. Mixed-use developments are being constructed everywhere, with homes (often a mix of detached houses and townhomes or condos) in walkable proximity to retail and services. There are several of these developments within half an hour’s drive of my home in Fairfax County, Virginia. But the problem is that there are not enough large suburban supermarkets to anchor every desired mixed-use development. Put another way, the retail trend of supersizing grocery stores has made it very difficult to ensure that every housing development can have a grocery store in close proximity.
The evidence of this is right there on the ground: In the next county over, two mixed-use developments anchored by supermarkets lost their supermarkets! The supermarkets simply needed a much larger customer base than the immediate surroundings could offer. This is a fascinating problem: A development largely outside of land use, per se, now affects our ability to build amenity-rich communities.
However, all this is all prologue. The fact is, the basic retail form we recognize as a “small supermarket” or “neighborhood grocery store” didn’t disappear. It simply changed. One part of this story is Aldi and Lidl—both German imports—reintroducing the small-supermarket format after American chains had largely abandoned it. But the other element of this tale is more interesting.
Small grocery stores are all over the place. There are easily dozens of them in Northern Virginia. There are also lots and lots of small butcher shops, bakeries and food stores (without fresh produce or meat)—even older retail forms, in American terms, than modern supermarkets in a small format. I’m not talking about the handful of high-end boutique shops either. Rather, in the suburbs of major metro areas today, grocery retailing is still done in a format which predates not only the big-box supermarket, but the supermarket itself.
Most of these establishments, to pick just a handful, have names like Halalway International Supermarket, Halal Bazaar, India Bazaar, Carnicería y Cercado Latino and Bien Hoa Oriental Supermarket.
You might be able to guess what those all have in common.
Immigrants (We Get the Shop Done)
Who’s we, kemosabe?
The idea that we abandoned the small supermarket, or the butcher shop and other distributed food retailing outlets, isn’t quite right. It is largely middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites who changed their shopping habits. Unless you consider immigrants to not quite be us, we are still doing it the old way. Some of us.
You can make two mistakes here. One is the racist error: “Sure, that’s how those people do it, but not us real Americans.” But you can also make the patronizing error: to attribute some particular insight or virtue to immigrants, as if they are here to teach us their noble ways.
In an article at the traditional urbanism advocacy site Strong Towns, Shina Shayesteh, a child of immigrants, wrote about this very poignantly:
Were we defined by our loss, by the trauma of being uprooted? Had that made us magically closer than the average American family?
No, of course not ... perhaps there is some credence to the stereotype that immigrants, especially those from “collectivist” societies, are more likely to live in multigenerational households than native-born, “individualist” Americans. (And particularly white Americans.)
Honestly, to me, that concept isn’t so hard to believe. What I do refuse to believe is the implication that this is, at its heart, a “cultural” issue. It’s not. American individualism, at least when it comes to living arrangements, was created by the built environment, not by some characteristic that’s uniquely inherent to American people.
Shayesteh was writing about multigenerational living and the large extended families and bustling homes that many Americans associate with recent immigrants. My own mother, whose father hailed from Italy, grew up somewhat like that, in a heavily Italian-American New York City neighborhood. It’s rather obvious, when you look at the history, that the move to suburbia and the move away from more communal living and smaller-scale commerce occurred at the same time, and are to some degree related.
But today, many immigrants are likely to settle in older suburbs rather than in big cities. And as they once did in cities—one of my great-grandfathers started a grocery store in America—and may have done in their own home countries, they start small businesses. It is true that immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial than native-born Americans. But it is not true that small stores serving a local community, rather than a trade area of three or five or 10 miles, are somehow an immigrant phenomenon. All that these immigrant communities are really doing in America is what everyone did up until roughly half a century ago. We are seeing immigrants retaining something that was once universal.
The Return of More Neighborhood Grocery Stores?
This makes me think of reframing what libertarians sometimes suggest about the question of poverty: The question isn’t why poverty exists, but rather why wealth exists. Similarly, the question here isn’t, “Why do immigrants still shop at tiny, cramped, old-fashioned grocery stores?” but rather, “Why did so many of us stop doing business at a small, local scale?”
Is it because the new way is obviously better? Or is it because the government channeled public investment into it? It’s at least some of the latter. Modern American suburbia in many ways is a public works project, and it is impossible to disentangle Americans’ preferences for this mode of living from various incentives, mandates (free parking at every commercial destination) and subsidies that support it.
It was not that long ago that consumers and companies made the switch to the suburban supermarket with a large trade area, leaving many Main Streets and neighborhoods without their own little store. And already, many of us miss them. Their smaller footprint means less time parking and walking, a quicker run through the store and a more efficient trip for older folks or families with young kids. Yet at the same time, the concept of the neighborhood supermarket might strike some Americans as “foreign,” because most of the stores that fit that description today are immigrant-owned and cater to international cuisines.
The solution to the dearth of small-format supermarkets today might not be to simply shop at the Latino or Indian grocery store. After all, it isn’t going to have a lot of “American” ingredients and products. If you happen to want Indian or Latino or Vietnamese ingredients, they’re there for you too. But I find these stores notable conceptually because they prove that it’s still possible to operate successful stores on a smaller size and scale, even in suburbia. Perhaps the supply chains for mainstream American groceries are not adapted to larger numbers of smaller stores, but that too would be possible to accomplish.
The big American supermarket chains—Wegmans, Safeway, Harris Teeter, Albertsons, Kroger, ShopRite, even Walmart—might be doing fine. But they’ve voluntarily withdrawn from a huge segment of the potential market out there, and in doing so have made it more difficult for small towns, urban neighborhoods and mixed-use developments to enjoy their own conveniently located local grocery store. It’s too bad, because it’s a retail concept that’s more appealing to many Americans than these chains seem to realize.