December 05, 2006

The Bewildering World of Grocery Stores

Here's a question I thought I could Google, but apparently not. Down at Safeway the other day, buying frozen pizzas and other assorted goods, I noticed that, as has been going on for years, the supermarket carries all sorts of deals. For instance, I can walk away with ten cans of tuna for $10. Sweet! But it turns out that I can also buy just one can of tuna for a dollar--I don't have to buy all ten. Why don't they just make that readily obvious? Instead, to a casual onlooker, it really does seem as if you have to buy all ten. (Anecdotally, it seems I wasn't the only one who was confused about this.) Especially since you really do have to buy all ten at some stores.

Why the confusion? My first guess was that Safeway wants to "trick" shoppers into buying all ten cans of tuna, even though they don't have to. Stock up! And savvier shoppers can buy just one if that's what they need. But the store also runs the risk of scaring off people who would buy just one or two cans at the reduced price, but are afraid they have to buy all ten to get the deal and don't bother. Maybe one outweighs the other. Maybe the latter isn't a problem. Or maybe the store just wants to put all people in the mindset of buying in bulk. Does this work? Can a store really convince people to think, "Hmm... maybe I should buy lots and lots of tuna or whatever." Maybe so. A natural disaster could strike anytime. Can't have enough tuna.

Oh, and while we're on this, Governing magazine has an interesting piece this month asking why there's such a dearth of supermarkets in urban areas, especially in some of the poorer neighborhoods. This is pretty true in my neck of Columbia Heights, so I'd like to know what's going on, too. The article appears to blame zoning regulations and "bureaucratic slowness," which seems plausible--one might also note that, according to one recent poll, a majority of Americans oppose commercial development in their neighborhoods, and that includes grocery stores (although I'd be curious to see how this poll breaks down by urban and suburban folks)--and that earned the piece some applause from libertarians.

But when the piece gets around to talking about potential solutions to the "grocery gap," the author talks primarily about the Fresh Food Financing Initiative pushed by Representative Dwight Evans in Pennsylvania. The FFFI, in turn, seems to have little to do with clearing away "bureaucratic slowness" and everything to do with creating a "joint public-private economic development partnership" and using government money to finance the creation of new supermarkets. And it does seem to have led to a slew of new supermarkets opening up in inner-city Philadelphia. That doesn't sound terribly libertarian, although maybe there are details here I'm just not grasping.
-- Brad Plumer 2:14 PM || ||