Read an interesting article from ULI last week about the economic forces on and by grocery stores. With the rise of delivery services, it is possible that the supermarket will be undergoing its greatest change since America left the farm and needed to get their food from a store. That became a trend when we changed from a majority agrarian to a majority professional economy, in the 1920s. The first self serve supermarkets were started in the late 1910s early 1920s, to feed the appetite of a public newly unrooted from farms. This was also the decade when country music became a hit, for much the same reason.
To satisfy my curiosity about the locations of these grocery stores, here’s a map of all the supermarkets in the US, give or take a few dozen*.
This closely follows the density of the US, with about 30,000 grocery stores for 320,000,000 people. Some groceries, like Wal-Mart or Kroger, are so ubiquitous that they wash out the map, obscuring regional differences. So I minimized he icons of all grocery chains with over a thousand location, like Safeway or the Albertson’s group. The only local chain I had to minimize was Publix, a Florida chain that is established in the Southeast but unknown in the rest of the US.
The place where I got all this point data classed some markets as Asian, Filipino, or Japanese, even while including 99 Ranch, Lotte, or H-Mart as separate classes. This did result in some double counting, but gives us an overall pattern of Asian supermarkets in the US. These markets are pretty widespread across the US, but not numerous.
The most distinct map compared specialty discounters like Aldi or Trader Joe’s, offering mostly store-brand or off brand items at discount. You can tell where these two started, and how they are spreading. Even though they are present in the East, Trader Joe’s is not as numerous as the smaller, cheaper Aldi.
Also distinct, but not as widespread are the “event” grocers, like HEB and Wegman’s. These are macro grocers, with multiple zones and experiences to pull from a wider area. They remain regional, but are quasi-destinations in their catchments.
As I was collecting data for this, it occurred to me that Target and Wal-Mart, even bigger and full service department stores, also sold groceries. As far as I know, every Wal-Mart sells groceries in its warehouse footprint. Its the first thing you see to your left when you enter. Many Targets offer groceries at the far wall from the entrance, the better to expose customers to all the non-clothing, non-durable gods merchandise on the way. The attributes for Target indicated if they sold groceries,
The attributes for Wal-Mart did not specify whether the places old groceries or not. You can see why I had to shrink the icons for Wal-Mart in these maps. Wal-Mart is often the only store in town, serving markets that were formerly claimed by a desperate collection of local specialty stores. They both opened these towns to the global marketplace of affordable goods and foreclosed on their local commerce. Amazon will probably turn many of them to dark boxes within a decade.
I had been interested since childhood in the distribution of these chains since noticing that the grocery stores my grandma went to in Louisiana were nothing like the ones her daughter took me to in Georgia. Google Maps will let you generate a measles maps of these things, but they cut off access to the locations in text formats over 5 years ago. I discovered this community of travelers devoted to educating the GPS in their RVs about the specific locations of everything in the US and Canada. These Point of Interest (POI) files are a godsend for someone like me, with a habit of collecting national data.
This also allows us to look at food deserts, casually. A full explanation of food deserts would have to index smaller and more ad-hoc markets, along with fast food chains. There are POI files for some of those, but not all. The classic quarter mile walk circle is not as useful when a standard supermarket is surrounded by an eighth of mile of parking lot for customers arriving in cars. Not on this map are the corner stores, bodegas, convenience stores, and small groceries that serve markets deemed unprofitable for supermarkets like the ones shown on these maps. Those places offer amuck more limited stock of groceries, at a much higher price, as they cannot use economies of scale in purchasing or delivery. It is all well and good to show a map of locations, but the real story is in prices.
I wonder where I can get that data.
* I had to work up the Piggly Wiggly coverage for this. Time to pay it forward.