Going to Market: Technology, Perks Enhance Grocery Shopping
Whoever coined the death and taxes certainty must have been a robot.
Everybody eats. All except hunters and gatherers shop.
According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), in 2010 Americans spent nearly $562 billion in supermarkets alone. That figure is expected to rise as the recession dampers eating out.
Competition for these dollars has accelerated in the usual ways: price, service, product lines and gimmicks. Some ploys are subliminal (lighting, display techniques, shelf placement), others in-your-face (register coupons, membership deals).
The long-standing practice of patronizing a “primary” store close to home, work or on a regular route is changing, the FMI continues. People are shopping around for deals but beware: Time and mileage quickly erase savings.
Four North Carolina-based chains operate in the Southern Pines/Pinehurst area: Harris Teeter (two stores); Food Lion (four stores); Lowes, The Fresh Market and Bo’s (one store apiece). Davenport’s Galaxy in Aberdeen has closed.
Walmart fills the supercenter slot. Expanded Nature’s Own serves the lively organic/natural foods trade. Bo’s remains a quick in-and-out for downtowners. All dollar-type stores sell packaged goods; some have refrigerator cases. Big Lots! grocery shelves are an adventure in closeouts and off brands.
A recent expansion at Lowes added 12 employees.
“We’re Earth-friendly green behind the scenes,” says manager Lewis Davis.
Obviously, the new American grocery list goes beyond milk, bread and eggs. Add to that:
Online shopping: Harris Teeter calls it Express Lane. At Lowes, it is Lowes-To-Go. By any name, the similar services are convenient for shoppers willing to pay $4.95 (waived for first-timers) for a minimum order, about $17.
A flat rate monthly charge is available for frequent buyers. Ideally, the fee is offset by avoiding impulse purchases. Orders are placed online or by phone at least four hours before pickup. They are processed by a certified personal shopper who, aided by electronic devices, assembles the items, tallies the cost, divides items into bags, which are stored in refrigerated or freezer (ice cream and frozen foods) cases awaiting pickup.
The personal shopper stays in touch with customers by phone or email regarding brands, availability and prices. Coupons are credited to a future order.
Shoppers park in a designated space, ring for the personal shopper, who delivers bags to the car. Credit and debit cards accepted curbside. This service is used mainly by mothers with small children and caregivers for the homebound, says Rachel Iverson, a personal shopper at Harris Teeter in Aberdeen.
The almighty price: Walmart generally has the lowest prices on produce, packaged food, paper goods, cleaning supplies. Responding to competition, on request Walmart meets the advertised price of brand-name merchandise elsewhere.
The Fresh Market, the haute couture of grocery shopping, has joined the fray with monthlong Super Tuesday prices on items such as fresh salmon, rib roast, milk and lobster tails.
“We don’t monitor the competition,” store manager John Craven says.
No circulars, just a sign out front and word-of-mouth, which has been super-successful, Craven adds.
Some reduced prices at Harris Teeter, Food Lion and Lowes last for a week, others are longer-term, still others only a few days. This may cause confusion.
Coupons: Food Lion, Fresh Market, Walmart and Bo’s accept coupons at face value. Lowes doubles coupons up to 99 cents, and digital coupons are available on its website. Harris Teeter doubles to 99 cents routinely, occasionally triples that amount, or doubles to $1.98.
All chains have coupon options online. Some registers spit them out with the receipt. Limits may be imposed on number of coupons per order.
Senior perks: Age hath its privileges. On Thursdays, seniors (age 55 and over) receive a 5 percent discount at Harris Teeter.
Lucky cards: Harris Teeter, Lowes and Food Lion offer customer cards, which must be presented for advertised prices. In addition, Harris Teeter e-Vic online membership entitles shoppers to deeper-cut weekly specials announced by email, and also a selection of lowered prices on frequently purchased items. (Big Brother is watching.)
Lowes Rewards cardholders receive 5 cents off each gallon of gas up to 25 gallons at Wilco Hess stations only, after a $100 grocery purchase — also 5 cents back for every shopping bag the customer provides.
Click-to-Card enables Food Lion shoppers to add coupons to their card online. Customers may swipe cards at saving centers near the entrance to the stores to receive coupons for previously purchased items. (Big Brother, again.)
Belly up to the bar: Supermarket salad bars disappeared because of sanitation issues, says Lowes manager Lewis Davis. Now, with improved equipment, they are back and popular at Lowes in Pinehurst and the new HT in Carthage.
Ambience: Fresh Market, with boudoir lighting, fresh flowers, classical music, coffee-du-jour and gourmet food samples (steak, crabcakes, deli items), scores high. Its annual pre-Thanksgiving tasting fills the parking lot.
Lowes has pleasant, diffused lighting and arctic air conditioning — a joy in summer. The new HT in Carthage has a café area up front, with tables and a coffee machine — ideal for eating salad from the salad bar. Food Lion has exceptionally wide aisles and easy-read shelf price markers: Some announce discontinued items at bargain prices.
Service: Walmart and both Harris Teeter stores stay open 24 hours. Harris Teeter’s service meat and fish counters are outstanding, catering to shoppers who need only a few shrimp or one chicken breast. There is no service meat and fish at the new Food Lion.
Harris Teeter and Lowes provide strong, reusable paper bags with handles. Harris Teeter cashiers read off VIC card and coupon savings as they present the receipt — an effective marketing device. Harris Teeter, Food Lion and Lowes give double refunds on most store-brand products, no questions asked.
Fresh Market has excellent refund/replacement policy, even for a tasteless melon or stale baguette. Besides meat, fish and bakery service counters, Fresh Market sells nuts and other dry items from bulk bins. Carry-out is available everywhere, and tips discouraged. At least at the supermarket the customer is always right.
Store brands: Food Lion’s reimaging (“It’s a new day at Food Lion”) includes the My Essentials house brand, with simple, attractive packaging and nutrition information in large print, on the front. Its Taste of Inspirations upscale house brand is a find.
Ditto the Fresh Market house brands, mostly sauces, condiments and snacks. Harris Teeter’s Fresh Foods Market brand looks, unintentionally, like the Fresh Market label. All local store brands are a far cry from yesteryear’s black-and-white label generics.
Specialty groceries: Bo’s carries hard-to-find meats. Older Food Lions segregate natural/organic brands in a Nature’s Place section. The new Carthage store shelves organics beside mainstream counterparts, as do other markets. All have expanded Hispanic product lines.
Oops: Self-service check-outs at Lowes and Harris Teeter, initiated to speed customers through at peak hours, are underused at best, even with a designated employee to help. Store management is tight-lipped about their relevance. Not customer D.J. Clark.
“The instructions are confusing and the machines are different in each store,” she says. “I’d rather wait a few minutes for a cashier.”
It’s a jungle out there in the markets — a friendly jungle, with many enticements. Pick through them carefully for the most economical and rewarding shopping experience.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
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