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Everything new in the supermarket is not so good

Realising this, shoppers are shunning processed, packaged products

Stephanie Strom 

Supermarkets are stocking more organic products, keeping with rising demand among customers. Photo: iSTOCK

“We’ve come in the back door,” the writer Michael Ruhlman said as we entered the chill of the ShopRite here. “We should be over there, in produce.”

Apologising to trying to steer carts toward the exit we had just entered, we made our way to the produce section, where the first thing that caught our attention was the floor. While the middle of the store was carpeted in a grayish linoleum, here was a warm-coloured fake wood: our initial clue that fruit and carried a special cachet.

“They have a surprising amount of interesting things here,” Ruhlman said as he prowled the bins, picking up an aloe leaf. The section also had prickly pears, cherimoyas and delicate zucchini blossoms that caught his eye on the way to a pile of green bananas.

“This I always find fascinating, that people will actually buy green bananas,” Ruhlman said, noting that consumers who make one big food-shopping trip each week prefer greener bananas that keep longer.

Ruhlman is the author of several books, most of them about cooking and chefs. He loves grocery stores and rarely passes up the chance to check out an unfamiliar one. It’s a predilection he ascribes to his father, Rip Ruhlman, who did the food shopping for the family and who makes frequent appearances in his son’s latest book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America (Abrams).

“He would gladly deposit a few Rock Cornish game hens (a new offering, bred by Donald Tyson in 1965) into the metal shopping cart, with its one wobbly wheel, and eventually, a box of Uncle Ben’s wild rice for my mother, who loved to roast the hens stuffed with it,” Ruhlman writes of his father’s voracious appetite for anything new in the grocery store.

But while the ever-expanding supermarkets that his father shopped still exist — this suburban ShopRite 13 miles from Manhattan is a prime example, selling a wide array of items, from deli cuts and 11 varieties of Cheerios to mops and ironing board covers — they are in the midst of an existential crisis.

are increasingly shunning the processed, that fill most of the shelves in the centre of the store. Instead, they are hunting the perimeter for fresh and vegetables, yogurts and cheeses, and prepared foods that go way beyond the traditional rotisserie chicken.

Competition is fierce, as retailers like Walmart, Target and 7-Eleven sell groceries, and Amazon and Fresh Direct deliver to the doorstep. Many of the hottest brands sell directly to consumers through websites and subscription services, cutting out stores altogether.

Walmart, long the lowest-price grocery option, recently announced that it would offer even lower prices, a response to the growth of sharp-pencilled European competitors like Aldi and Lidl. And Whole Foods Market, once the darling of the industry, has struggled over the past few years as traditional grocers like Kroger and Safeway have added organic products and upgraded their produce departments.

© 2017 New York Times News Service