Thursday, December 29, 2011

Blog Post No. 2011-21: Rounding out the year...

...with some thoughts on urban supermarkets and the swinging of the proverbial pendulum

Herewith, ladies and gentlemen, this weblog's final post for 2011 and another installment from our wide-ranging search of the available media for interesting articles about the urban fabric and its condition (a.k.a., "They report it, we give it the once over..."). RTUF's intrepid research efforts found an article in yesterday's Boston Globe about certain national supermarket chains discovering urban markets and what that does and doesn't do to their typical store formats and models. The article, entitled "City supermarkets shrink to fit, Whole Foods in Jamaica Plain is latest to try a smaller space," is not comprehensive, but it does introduce a couple of key aspects of the pendulum that is currently swinging toward walkable neighborhoods and tightly-knit urban fabric.

The first aspect is that the suburbs are, generally speaking, already "over-retailed" (i.e., there are already enough outlets of all kinds to serve the needs of the existing population for years to come). As a result, national retail chains of all kinds, including supermarkets, are seeking growth and expansion opportunities in other places, especially urban areas. The second aspect is that national supermarket chains - ranging from prototypical big-boxers like WalMart and Wegmans down to Whole Foods - are experiencing some trepidation and adjustment anxiety as they scale down their standard 100,000 SF+ formats to fit tighter, more centrally-located footprints. The Whole Foods example used is the new location in Jamaica Plain, right next door to God's Country (a.k.a., Roslindale), where they replaced the former "Hi-Lo" foods, a locally-owned outlet that catered especially to that neighborhood's Latino community. Having recently been in that store, I will say that it was a bit different to be in a Whole Foods and not see their typically phenomenal butcher counter out in the open. That said, Whole Foods is certainly no stranger to central Boston locations, as they've been operating near Symphony Hall and in the West End for some time. I'm not too worried that they're going to do OK in JP too.

The article's hand-wringing over how supermarket outfits normally geared to large footprints and suburban parking standards can  possibly fit into - gasp - less than 40,000 SF of floor area put me in mind of my own high school days on the East Side of Manhattan. Now, I'll stipulate that New York is an outlier here as it is in many things. But there is little doubt that supermarkets in the big city of broken dreams and shattered romances have survived and thrived for decades in footprints far smaller than 40,000 SF. As a result, there is a part of me that is just astounded to hear people who ought to know better speak about any store that is less than an acre in floor area as if it were a pushcart. Our apartment on 86th Street between 1st Avenue and York Avenue had three supermarkets less than block away -- a D'Agostino's on First Avenue, a Gristede's on York, and a Grand Union across First Avenue on 86th Street. None of these stores had parking and none could have topped 20,000 SF, yet they had everything a supermarket could be reasonably expected to have. If someone really wants to know how to do profitable urban supermarket operations, the smartest thing to do is walk into a D'Agostino's in Manhattan and take notes. It is hardly as exotic as the article makes it sound.

PS Best wishes on a happy and healthy 2012 to everyone from RTUF. LOVE YOUR PLACE!

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see the mention of Gristedes, Matt. They seemed to be ubiquitous in Manhattan. In Astoria, where I grew up, we had a little A&P on the corner that was tiny as hell, was always packed, and had everything one could want. Best wishes for the New Year.