Grocery Store Swapping

Earlier this week my wife and I decided to consider switching grocery stores. She had recently taken a field trip with our oldest son to a local northeast Ohio grocer, Heinen’s, and was impressed with the “behind the scenes” tour. We had shopped there before, but never really for a full trip so to speak. This past Tuesday morning was our first comprehensive visit to our local store.

Probably more so than any other retail outlet, where one buys groceries garners the highest degree of shopper loyalty I suspect. You go there every week, list in hand, and you learn the layout. The art of navigating the grocery store waters is refined over the course of years. You learn where your bread is at, where the Kalamata olives are…how best to request the week’s cold cuts from the surly deli lady. So switching stores is not to be taken lightly. One year at Thanksgiving I could remember hunting several different stores for specific ingredients that couldn’t be found in our regular store, only to be frustrated by the various layouts. Ultimately, when life is hectic, getting in and out at fast as humanly possible is just as important as quality and pricing.

Having been to our local Heinen’s several times previously we sort of knew what to expect, but we made sure to take our time and visit every part of the store to learn the layout and see how we liked it compared to our regular grocery shopping retailer. Size is the biggest physical difference between old and new. Everything at the other store is bigger….parking lot, product offering, number of checkout stations.

“We could have been shopping in our home, save for the fact that Heinen’s is infinitely cleaner than our home.”

I grabbed a shopping cart that was decidedly smaller than what we were used to, and we started in the produce department. The perceived quality of the produce is higher in my mind at Heinen’s than most other grocery stores. The food is displayed artfully and the saturated colors make you want to start making exotic salads and side dishes. Navigating the area was a challenge, because when you’re new to a store you just don’t know where anything is. We spent probably twice the normal amount of time there, but ultimately got everything we needed. One note, we asked the same produce associate where something was about a half-dozen times and each time instead of just saying “oh, it’s over there” he would walk over and physically show us. I had to ask the wife to ask the last time because I was too embarrassed to ask.

Fresh produce lined up at Heinen's. We like that they make the effort to stack up the apples in real life like you'd expect to see in a magazine. No need for some sort of excessive display components when a deft hand can leverage the fruits natural stackable shape.

Fresh produce lined up at Heinen’s. We like that they make the effort to stack up the apples in real life like you’d expect to see in a magazine. No need for some sort of excessive display components when a deft hand can leverage the fruits natural stackable shape.

Produce, both in quality and display, is an area where Heinen's excels in our opinion.

Produce, both in quality and display, is an area where Heinen’s excels in our opinion.

As we passed down the dairy aisle we were loving the wide open aisles. Grocery shopping was no longer a stressful battle with humanity for nature’s bare essentials. It was a relaxing stroll through wood (patterned vinyl) floors with bright lighting overhead. We could have been shopping in our home, save for the fact that Heinen’s is infinitely cleaner than our home. Granted traffic was light on a Tuesday morning, but I would imagine that even with a Summer weekend or holiday rush the store would be manageable, as opposed to most grocery stores that appear to be selling aisle displays in lieu of food. Just as in the produce department, products throughout the store were arranged in an orderly fashion. Packaging designers should rejoice, for the time taken to organize the product on shelves made good packaging design shout out to guests. In a world where retail designers and marketers spout off about making the product “king“, only to have the system delegate product to an afterthought, saddled with promotional signage and overwrought merchandising schemes; it was refreshing to see restraint and product focused merchandising.

Orderly end caps are a pleasant sight for many a weary grocery shopper.

Orderly end caps are a pleasant sight for many a weary grocery shopper.

Wide, uncluttered aisles that benefit guests and enhance the shopping experience, stand in the face of the status quo for grocery merchandising.

Wide, uncluttered aisles that benefit guests and enhance the shopping experience, stand in the face of the status quo for grocery merchandising.

We spent a majority of our time in the perimeter of the store, moving through baked goods, frozen foods, and meat departments. We were pleased to see options for sustainably and humanely raised meat and eggs. Adjacent to the meat department is probably our favorite superfluous “lifestyle” department; a whole area dedicated to cheese, beer, wine and hors d’oeuvre meats.  This area alone pushed our grocery bill well beyond what we would have spent at another outlet, but how can you resist artisan cheeses from Washington state and the joy of hunting for “cheap” wine. The wine selection was a bit pricy for our undiscriminating palate, but we can stock up elsewhere for our kind of wine elsewhere. Regardless, once again the shopping experience was delightful and experiential without being gimmicky.

Artisan sausages displayed in an inviting way, just begging you to buy them and call your friends for an impromptu happy hour at your place.

Artisan sausages displayed in an inviting way, just begging you to buy them and call your friends for an impromptu happy hour at your place.

Worn out from spending so much time in the perimeter, and with a small cart already overflowing, we made a quick dash to the center of the store to pick up various pantry provisions. The shopping experience in the core was every bit as delightful as the edges. Products were in order, offering exotic (to us at least) varieties and old standbys in equal measure. Wide aisles made it easy to park the cart, hunt and gather without hindering other guests.

As a small store in an affluent area, the store’s smallness caters to higher income guest who most likely eat out quite a bit and don’t load up on groceries as much as, say, maybe our hectic family would in a typical trip. Checkout was a challenge as we unloaded our overstuffed little cart. In fact I had to get a second cart, and that’s when I discovered they offered larger carts up front; chalk that up to the learning experience. One other difference, that is probably common in settings where parking lots are smaller, is that the store loads your car up for you. I had to restrain the independently minded part of me and gracefully pull up to loading door. I darted back and forth, the control freak in me making sure the gentleman could fit everything in the back of our Rabbit, which already had two car seats in the back, limiting grocery getting space to just the hatch area. With some planning though everything fit and I showed great restraint.

So are we switching? We’ll keep visiting, learning where everything is at the new store. Nearly every grocery chain has their advantages. Ultimately it comes down to cost, convenience (experience) and quality. Both grocery chains we’ve been using hit on all three in different ways. I could see leveraging each, and others, for their strengths. They are good at what they set out to do, who they set out to be.

When we talk specifically about Heinen’s, from a design perspective I think their strength is providing great quality and great shopping experience. Their brand message plays out in their store, by displaying quality products in an orderly manner without being overwrought. Food is a very personal necessity. Maybe shopping for it shouldn’t always border on being work and something we try to get over with. By fostering that relationship we have with food, Heinen’s helps guests slow down and really appreciate shopping for sustenance. It’s not only our pantry that is renewed after shopping there.

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