Grocery stores are bars now

With a superbarket, shopping isn’t a chore; it’s an experience.


By Rachel Sugar, Vox

Nov 30, 2018


Once, bars were bars and grocery stores sold groceries. You could not drink a pint at the grocery store, and you could not buy a pound of Vidalia onions at a bar. Those times are behind us.


Now, grocery stores across the nation — and not just fancy, racehorse grocery stores like Whole Foods, but regular, workhorse grocery stores like Kroger — are adding bars to their locations, in the hopes of inspiring shoppers to linger over conversation or the cheese aisle.


The bars are not alone. For the better part of the past decade, grocery stores have been undergoing a slow morph, from stores selling groceries to multi-pronged retail experiences. This is not so much an identity crisis as an exploration of purpose: What, in 2018, is the grocery store for?


The case for the grocery store bar


“Grocery Stores Invite Shoppers to Drink While They Shop,” announced the Wall Street Journal, which, in 2016, identified in-store boozing as “the latest step in efforts by supermarkets, a famously low-margin business, to make more money by keeping shoppers in their stores longer and getting them to spend more while they are there.”


It makes intuitive sense. If you swing by the grocery bar for a drink, would you not, maybe, pick up some pasta sauce while you’re there? And if you stop to buy pasta sauce, wouldn’t it be nice to also treat yourself to an IPA? And would you not, perhaps, be more inclined to linger in the aisles — and make more (and more impulsive) purchases — if you were sipping a nice Malbec while you pushed your cart through the store, as some bar-slash-supermarkets (superbarkets) allow?


In a tip for the New York Times, writer Beca Grimm suggested the grocery store bar as a kind of life hack. “One of the keys to fitting socializing into a slammed schedule is to find ways to hit multiple activities at a time,” she wrote. Catch up over a beer with a friend and attend to your grocery list. It is a practical solution to the plight of modern life.


In 2018, it’s great to be a grocery shopper, but it’s harder than ever to be a grocery store


It is also — grocery stores hope — a practical solution for attracting customers in an age of fierce competition. As Grub Street observed earlier this year, “it’s a bad time to be in the business of selling groceries, and the headlines are as bleak as you’d expect,” citing one apocalyptic prediction after another.


“There is enormous pressure to charge a value price while also providing quality and service and the exact products that people want, when and where they want them,” Bill Urda, a senior retail analyst at Boston Consulting Group, told the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the Post explains, people are “spending more of their food budget on restaurant meals and takeout,” while new competitors keep devouring chunks of the market, from German-based discount grocer Lidl, which came stateside in 2017, to big-box stores like Target.


And then there is the constant threat of the internet. Despite the increase in grocery delivery options, which only accelerated last year when Amazon acquired Whole Foods, delivery is still not the way most people get groceries. But it could be.


“Grocery is the largest category within U.S. retail and it is also one of the least penetrated online,” said D1 Capital’s Daniel Sundheim, after the firm led a $600 million round of funding for Instacart, an online grocery delivery service. “The industry is at a tipping point and there will likely be a significant acceleration in the adoption of online ordering for grocery delivery over the next few years.” And while they would say that, it’s not exactly a radical proposition: The Food Marketing Institute and Nielsen predict that by 2024, 70 percent of consumers will be grocery shopping online, accounting for 20 percent of total grocery sales.


(Anecdotally: Last month, I bought my first online groceries because I got a promotion in the mail and also wanted several cans of diced tomatoes. I had never done that before, and now I have, so I think we can all agree the acceleration is real.)


That means the race is on, to lure customers into the stores in the first place and to boost sales once they’re there. This is the promise of the grocerbar.


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