How to change the world: grocery stores.

My mind wanders.  Lately, I’ve been pondering a grocery store concept that I want to see.  I won’t start a grocery store.  I love to shop in them, but I wouldn’t want to run one.  So: aether, here’s your sign…

Name: Cornercopia.

Concept: Small grocery stores sized to fit in strip malls; the general idea being an ethnic grocery store that people not of that ethnicity would be comfortable going into.

Market: Gen X and younger.


What goes into a Cornercopia would fit into one of three categories:

1. Stuff that you need to cook healthful 10-minute meals from around the globe.

2. Curious snacks.

3. Local favorites (wait for it).

So you could walk in, pick up fresh produce, bread, and proteins,  plus the one or two dry goods you needed to make something for supper, plus a weird-sounding milk soda that tastes quite delicious.  Recipe cards provided; a small fridge next to the door with “What’s for supper tonight” including all the fixings (and cooking instructions), prepackaged for two servings each: two hamburger patties (raw), two buns, two sets of sliced onion, tomato, lettuce; packages of catsup and mayo to the side (all 10 minutes or less recipes).

The secret heart of the business, though, would be a set of instructions on how to find out #3.

What is McDonald’s?  What is fast food?  It’s a set of instructions that tell each store how to make everything the same.  It’s a set of policies on how uniform food gets delivered and prepared across a planet.

So what would Cornercopia be?  The corner grocery store where, for about as much brain power as you use to obtain fast food, you can eat non-uniform food.  Local food, global food – a variety of food.  Food that you will probably like, because someone bothered to find out what you’d probably like.


1.  Find out who your market is and how far it goes.

Start with a definition of the range of the market.  Say walking distance is about a mile (primary customers).  Locate all public transportation stops within walking distance (secondary customers).  Define easy driving distance as about five miles (tertiary customers).

Locate all competition: bars and restaurants (including fast food), grocery stores (supermarket, ethnic, hippie food, etc.), health food stores, gas stations, convenience stores, big box stores (with and without groceries), bargain stores that sell dry goods (Ross’s, bargain grocery stores), meat and other specialty markets, liquor stores, vitamin stores, street food/food carts, soup kitchens, plus anything odd, like hardware stores that sell weird sodas (there’s a place in SoDak that Lee ran into–Mac Tools?).  Any place that sells groceries, food, meals, drinks, or even just snacks in a case by the checkout counter.

Identify demographics: income, age, number of children, education, ethnicity, how many people per household, religion, orientation, subculture, etc.  How to gather this information is something I’m pondering, because what’s obvious to a local isn’t obvious to a newcomer (and even vice versa), and it needs to be quantifiable.  I need to work out methods that can be done easily, biannually.  Define demographics separately by primary customers, etc.

Identify when demographics will change: is a college nearby? A tourist spot? Is there nightlife (and therefore different tertiary customers coming into the area at night)?

I’d want the Cornercopias to be adaptable enough to plunk down anywhere there’s a strip mall – but part of the point would be to serve people who can’t get decent food within walking distance, which, ironically, includes large sections of suburbia.


2.  Find out what  your market wants.

There’s a difference between what people eat out of convenience and what they would eat, if it were as convenient as the convenient food.

How do people eat?  (Convenience food, restaurants, cooking at home.)

When do they eat? (Shift work, during a commute, everyone sits down at six, children and parents together or separately.)

How much time do they spend eating? (Five minutes, several hours.)

How many people do they eat with? (An entire family, alone, in couples, in dining areas at work/school.)

When do large groups of people get together to eat, and what do they eat when they do? (Church potlucks, fish fries, pancake fundrasiers, wine tastings, fairs, birthdays.)

What are considered special occasions, and what is/is not eaten? (Birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Ramadan, Lunar New Year, retirement, housewarming.)

What are the boundaries of gift-giving? Should you bring gifts when visiting? On special occasions?  What kind of food gifts are acceptable/traditional?

Are children/elders fed different foods?

How conscious are people about eating healthful, organic, or local foods?

How conscious are people about trying new foods?  Is trying a new food seen as positive or negative?

What foods are not allowed to be eaten, and when?

What is the best way for the market to provide individual feedback (Internet, survey cards, talking to someone)?


5. Find out what local food is being produced in the area and assess producers.

Contact farmers, meat/fish/produce markets, farmers’ markets, competition (to check for products).

Determine how much they produce and when.

Determine the quality/safety of the products.

Determine how much the products fit with what the customer wants (this won’t be the sole factor in getting it on the shelves; a high quality might be worth offsetting a low “want”).

–This will have to be repeated on a business-wide level, too.  Plus shipping.  It might be a good idea to have procedures in place to assess local sources of items and cost to transport, too, but that wouldn’t be a store-level thing.


6. Find out what is/is not being provided, that your market wants.

I would love to have about a year to work on a way to do this at a company-wide level.   Like, “If people report that they like to eat Italian food to celebrate a first date, but there are no stable, well-known Italian restaurants in the area, then add Italian night to the ‘What’s for dinner’ rotation +1 per month.”

“If a college/university is in the primary customer area, stock hot plates and provide microwave instructions on recipe cards.”

“If a Wal-Mart is within the primary customer area, reduce stock of major-brand sodas.”

There’s probably a nice way to set up an algorithm to pick products, too, that combines price, quality, and reliability (including ethics), with weight towards local producers and weight against sheer bad-for-you-ness.  The stores would send in their data, and the head office would send back a suggested order sheet for the manager to check.  When I worked at Panera, one of the big annoyances was being told just to guess on the ordering, or to copy last week’s order.  This resulted in shortages and angry customers at least once a week – over a loaf of bread dough that it would have taken us $.35 to order, and that we donated if it didn’t sell.


There would be things that I’d like to have as core items that would be the same from store to store.  I’m guesstimating 50% of the store would be core items; 40% would be locally-adjusted items, and 10% would be test items, to see if they go viral.  For an example of a viral item – Korean cookies.   There’s a bajillion types.  They’re tasty, cheap, and just different enough to be new without being challenging.  Like sesame cookies.  Delicious, delicious sesame cookies.  Give me a week of passing out free sesame cookies with coffee for people to pick up for their commute in the morning, and I’ll have a nation of people with sudden cravings for sesame cookies.

And something wider that I’d want to check out:  these are all great ideas, but what would the larger impact be?  I’d want to see more variety in what we eat, and less dependence on prepared, unhealthy, and tasteless foods.  But will that cause problems on a large scale?  We have a lot of people to feed.  If you’re trying to get a culture change to go viral, you need to take into account how that culture change will affect the globe, in a best-case scenario.  Will it cause people to spend too much money on food (a la Whole Paycheck)?  Should people spend more money on food?  Should a nutritionist be on staff at the head office to assess the diet we’re pushing on people?  (Hm…probably.)  Will fast food/big agra come after us?  What if policies encourage complete jerkwad nutcases to become our employees, in a culture of self-righteousness instead of good eatin’?  What if the standards set for local producers force them to jump through unnecessary hoops?  And so on.

It’s a good idea, with plenty of extra ponder to it.

4 thoughts on “How to change the world: grocery stores.”

  1. This would rock. I’m always looking for new things I can eat on a fifteen-minute break — oh, retail — that will fill me up but won’t require any preparation. I know how to make a handful or two of meals at this point; I’m shoving McDonald’s fries into my mouth as I type this. When I’m at work, though, all bets are off. There’s nothing close by, and although we have microwaves, it’s way too expensive to buy X amount of frozen meals each week (never mind the fact that they take 1-5 minutes to cook thoroughly — five minutes of your break time, gone).

    I hope someone does this. I’d love to shop there, but would hate to run any kind of store.

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