In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I got married in a grocery store. My local grocer, Potsothy “Pots” Sallapa, upon hearing of my engagement, insisted that we hold the wedding in his shop. My fiancée thought it sounded crazy at first—I remember her saying something about not wanting our photos to feature a stack of cereal boxes. But the store was a cozy place and near the apartment we shared at the time, and she agreed to at least give it a look with fresh eyes. As we toured the high-ceilinged, wood-beamed store, among Saturday-morning crowds stocking up on grapes and granola, I could see on her face that this wasn’t just a place people went to acquire toilet paper: it was a community hub. A few months later, we walked down the store’s central aisle and got married between the cash register, the root-vegetable table, a group of our friends and family, and a display of maple syrup.
Granted, this is the kind of experience that was available to us because we lived, back then, in a neighbourhood full of such places: Kensington Market, a part of Toronto that, in spite of gentrification’s constant momentum, exists today as a place where people can shop for food the same way they did 100 years ago. In the course of an ordinary week, I would pop into separate stores for my meat, fish, bread, cheese, dried goods, and vegetables. In every shop, I knew someone by name.
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Not everyone holds their wedding in a grocery store, or can, but it’s not an unusual desire: a spokesperson for Sobeys told me the company gets a few requests a year from customers who want to get married in one of its locations. At the very least, the supermarket is a formative place. It’s where most of us first experience the collision of personal independence and financial responsibility: that initial grocery shop after moving out of our parents’ home, the sticker shock of how much cheese and cookies cost leaving us rattled and unsure of how prepared we were for adulthood. It’s where, perhaps, we think about the ethics of how we shop, or decide what we want to teach our kids about healthy eating, or try to reconstruct an old family recipe. You don’t have to hold a major life event in a grocery store to appreciate the profound role such places can have in our lives.
The way Canadians get their food is changing. Our grocery industry—which currently employs over 300,000 people and is valued at $97.5 billion according to Canadian Grocer—is in an arms race to modernize for a digital era. More and more customers expect the convenience of needing to think far less about their groceries, and work less to get them, than they ever have before. What’s less clear is the ripple effects this will have on our daily lives, our communities, our health, and our workforces.
The first front in this campaign is online ordering and delivery. This is, for the moment, only a small slice of the market: about 1.5 percent in Canada and 3 percent in the US. But industry analysts expect it to grow rapidly, possibly quadrupling by 2023—a conservative estimate, according to the Food Marketing Institute, which predicts that 70 percent of US consumers will do at least some grocery shopping online within four years. Even the more modest growth projections represent billions of dollars in sales for Canada’s 24,000 grocery stores. And this trajectory leaves the big three supermarket chains—Loblaws, Sobeys, and Metro, which share 63.4 percent of the market between them—in a tough place, facing existential threats from Walmart, which they can’t beat for price, and Amazon, which they can’t beat for convenience.
Amazon’s 2017 purchase of upscale supermarket chain Whole Foods, for $13.7 billion (US), was possibly the biggest industry news of the last decade, signalling that the online behemoth was embarking on a major push into groceries. As of last October, some Amazon Prime members in the United States get free grocery delivery, and last November, the company announced plans for its first branded, physical grocery store.
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This was hardly the only recent development in supermarket shopping. Also this past fall, PC Express, which already has hundreds of grocery-pickup points across the country, opened its first stand-alone “store,” which contains no aisles of food; parent company Loblaws announced the construction of a 12,000-square-foot “automatic picking facility” to harness robotics in the quest for efficiency; and Sobeys started test driving “the first intelligent shopping cart [in] Canadian grocery stores,” which scans, weighs, and tallies your purchases as you go. And, in October, Uber announced it was acquiring a majority stake in Cornershop, a leading grocery platform in Mexico and Chile, which currently serves fourteen Toronto-area stores and promises delivery “in as quick as 60 minutes”—upping the ante on the next-day and same-day delivery services Canadians are still getting used to.
The rate of change is only increasing. Amazon’s Chinese counterpart, Alibaba, already has 150 locations of Hema, a supermarket that features facial-recognition software, real-time pricing (digital price tags that adjust based on factors like supply and demand), automated checkout, app payment, and thirty-minute delivery. The service is so efficient that 60 percent of the company’s customers are already ordering online. Then there is the host of other experimental efforts to streamline the shopping experience for consumers: 7Fresh (no cash), Amazon Go (no staff), and a horde of delivery meal-kit companies (no shopping). In the US, Walgreens and Kroger are experimenting with facial-recognition software that can target in-store ads at customers based on age, gender, or mood.
None of which begins to address the lived, day-to-day experience of shopping for food, which is so ordinary as to barely register as an experience and so ubiquitous as to be nearly universal. Is the act of gathering food—seeing it and smelling it and touching it, adjusting your shopping list as you go because the apples look particularly nice or the celery disappointingly wilted—an essential aspect of human life? Or are supermarkets, where we make physical and social contact with food and people—a quaint twentieth-century anachronism, like vinyl or democracy?
Supermarkets were invented less than 100 years ago. As with the current proliferation of digital shopping tools, they were massive industry disruptors at the time—the Amazons and Ubers of their day.
In the early twentieth century, there was no such thing as a one-stop shop for food. “You’d go out in the morning to the grocery store, for canned goods and bulk stuff,” explains David Gwynn, a librarian at the University of North Carolina and a supermarket historian. While there, you would speak with a shopkeeper to obtain your items; they filled your order behind the counter, weighing out dried goods from barrels. Customers would know the shopkeepers by name—and, often, vice versa. Other kinds of foodstuffs required trips to separate shops as part of this daily ritual: butchers and fishmongers, greengrocers and bakeries. These stores were much smaller than the ones we’re used to—maybe 1,000 square feet or less, says Gwynn—and were everywhere in our cities.
Transformed by a childhood visit to an old A&P, Gwynn is a grocery obsessive who maintains groceteria.com, a database of US and Canadian supermarkets past and present. Want to know the years that the Piggly Wiggly at 384 Academy Road in Winnipeg became a Shop-Easy (1950) and then a Tom Boy (1961)? Gwynn has answers. His vacations always include visits to older stores, ancient outlets like Pay’n Takit treated like houses of worship.
The company that would become Sobeys was launched in 1907, when J. W. Sobey started a business delivering meat by horse-drawn wagon; the first Sobeys store opened in 1912, in Stellarton, Nova Scotia. Kroger, the Loblaws of the US, also began as a small venture: it started out with four grocery stores in 1883. By 1902, founder Bernard Kroger had opened forty locations and had added a bakery, enabling him to supply bread to his stores at cost and merging what had previously been two altogether separate kinds of businesses. Sobeys helped develop this trend in Canada, selling produce, dairy, and fish and gradually adding animal feed and other food products. Over time, smaller shops adapted to this diversification of products—a little bread at the greengrocer, a little produce at the butcher shop—diminishing each store’s specialty or expertise.
The next innovation was self-service, with store owners stocking items on shelves in the front of their shops instead of storing them in the back, so customers could help themselves. This shift, pioneered on a large scale by Piggly Wiggly in the US and here by the first Loblaws Groceterias in 1919, was a big convenience, as customers didn’t have to wait for a shopkeeper to fill someone else’s order before obtaining their own items. This also removed the need to form a direct relationship with shopkeepers—the first step down a long road of depersonalization.
As regional chains expanded, gradually carrying a wider variety of goods, they were able to buy related businesses such as bakeries and canneries, effectively becoming their own suppliers. This allowed them to lower their prices, giving them a competitive edge over smaller grocers.
For a short while, the growth of stores was incremental, one product added at a time. It wasn’t until 1930 that someone had the bright idea of putting all these developments together. During the 1920s, when most food shops were still just making small additions to their offerings, Michael Cullen was a regional manager for Kroger, overseeing ninety-four small stores in Illinois. Cullen had a vision for retailing all food products under one large roof surrounded by ample parking space. He pitched this idea—of a monstrously sized store with lots of parking and 80 percent self-service—in a letter to his bosses. “Can you imagine how the public would respond to a store of this kind? . . . I would have to call out the police and let the public in so many at a time,” his proposal boasted. “I would lead the public out of the high-priced houses of bondage into the low prices of the house of the promised land.”
Cullen was ignored, possibly due to his biblical writing style. But he was determined. In 1930, after quitting his job with Kroger, Cullen opened King Kullen, a 6,000-square-foot grocery store in Queens, in New York City. When you went to King Kullen, there was no need for a trip to a different store for a missed item. The proto-supermarket didn’t just carry a little of this and that. It sold everything, and at cheaper prices, thanks to the scope of its buying power—a huge advantage for a retailer at any time, but especially as the Depression made customers ever more price conscious. Those early supermarkets—a term first used by Cincinnati’s Albers Supermarket in 1933—offered another perk that presaged a seismic shift in North American culture: parking. For customers, all of this amounted to a major innovation, no less radical than online shopping or dating apps seemed at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Further innovations soon followed. Larger stores with many items required a new way of collecting your purchases—not a subject that had much preoccupied sellers previously. The shopping cart, created by Sylvan Goldman for his Oklahoma City chain of stores, Humpty Dumpty, in 1937, was at first rejected by men as too effeminate. But, after the company hired models to walk around the store pushing them, the carts took off and became a standard part of the shopping experience. And the shopping cart did just what it was intended to: it allowed customers to buy more than they could carry.
But perhaps the biggest technological innovation that encouraged people to embrace supermarkets was the fridge. Developed and patented in the nineteenth century, early commercial refrigerators used toxic gases—methyl chloride, ammonia, and sulphur dioxide—as coolants. Accidents pushed fridge companies to develop chlorofluorocarbons and facilitated the creation of larger, safer, and cheaper fridges. In 1911, General Electric sold a wooden model for home use for $1,000 (US)—twice the cost of a car. The all-steel Monitor Top refrigerator, introduced in 1927, was priced by the company at $525. By the late 1920s, the majority of Americans owned a fridge; they became much more common in Canadian kitchens after the Second World War.
Until this era, most people had still used iceboxes, which were essentially large, wooden coolers, the interiors lined with zinc and filled with ice. These were small, had to be washed out regularly, and were not conducive to long-term food storage; there had simply been no point in filling the icebox with a week’s worth of meat or fish. The prevalence of electric refrigerators meant that people could safely store food for the week, ending the need for daily shopping.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, as grocery chains grew larger, popular and legal opposition to them mounted. Much of this stemmed from what were seen as the new chains’ monopolistic practices. “As the grocery chains got bigger, they bought directly from manufacturers, often demanding volume discounts, rather than through wholesalers,” explains Marc Levinson, author of The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. Wholesalers did not appreciate this vertical integration, and their opposition to the new supermarkets culminated in a victorious 1946 antitrust suit against A&P; the case succeeded in partially breaking the company up. As the economy rebounded after the war, however, public pressure waned. Under the more business-friendly Eisenhower administration, in the 1950s, the US Department of Justice dropped the campaign to dismantle the growing power of chain supermarkets.
With no legal impediments in the way, the rise of car culture enabled supermarkets to dominate our food shopping. Across North America in the 1950s, fuelled by a postwar boom in the economy and population, we built suburbs with bigger houses and highways leading to them, and people transitioned to the habit of driving everywhere. Cars and their spacious trunks additionally favoured the weekly shop at the supermarket over daily trips to multiple stores. The suburban supermarket, with its ample parking, variety, and discounts, took precedence over the old-fashioned, smaller shop’s quality, expertise, and personalized service. The trend perpetuated itself, with chains like Loblaws building ever-bigger stores and ever-bigger parking lots to accommodate them.
This was billed as a time saver, a boon for shoppers—which, at the time, primarily meant women. But, while it might seem that purchasing all of our food in one location would reduce domestic labour, it had the opposite effect. “The advent of supermarkets changed household purchasing habits, but not in the direction advertisers would like us to think they did,” explains Ruth Schwartz Cowan,
a historian and the author of More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. The new supermarkets provided everything under one roof and a parking spot to help you haul it home. But, in one key regard, they offloaded the work of buying food to individual shoppers. “After World War II, the spread of automobile ownership and the growth of the suburbs led to the cessation of retail-delivery services,” she adds. Those smaller local shops had required you to make multiple stops, but those stops were all in your neighbourhood, and much of the time, the shops had delivered.
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As supermarkets continued to develop, they found technologies to save on in-store labour as well. In June 1964, inside a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum passed over a glass plate, exposing the bar code on the package to a helium-neon laser beam. The beam, detected by a photodiode, relayed the data to a computerized cash register. And that gum, with the aid of a Spectra Physics–model price scanner that now lives in the Smithsonian museum, became the Neil Armstrong of groceries, the first item to be scanned and sold, transforming the analog systems of inventory control until then managed by paper, pencils, and human memory. Before then, packages each needed a price sticker, which would have to be changed if the price changed. The bar code eliminated this drudgery. It also laid the groundwork for the automated checkout options we see today—the ones free of human cashiers entirely.
This was followed by another wave of innovation, in the 1970s, when economic inflation and price wars pushed supermarkets to open discount branches under different names to distinguish them from their parent companies; this was the period that saw parent company Loblaws open No Frills, for instance. As larger chains bought up smaller regional players, this rebranding and shift to franchising allowed supermarket companies to lower labour costs by eliminating unionized jobs. “A lot of the big chains in the US and Canada started these discount chains in the ’70s and ’80s because they were officially subsidiaries,” says Gwynn. “They could start from the ground up, without union workers.”
This focus on price led to the next big shift, into the era of the superstore (technical name: hypermarket). These huge, big-box stores sell food, often in wholesale-sized packages, as well as clothing, furniture, and electronics in ever-larger volumes—and leverage their purchasing power into ever-lower prices. Walmart expanded from its origins as discount department store to add groceries, while Loblaws adapted its Real Canadian Superstores in the opposite direction.
Soon afterward came another kind of unshackling from the constraints of traditional stores: the self-checkout kiosk, first introduced in the 1990s. Now ubiquitous, these upload the labour of scanning product codes and bagging groceries to the customer—in the process, eliminating the job of cashier. In Canada, Loblaws and Metro are promising more self-checkouts to help counter minimum-wage increases and resulting pressure on their bottom lines. Selecting items on a screen from the comfort of our homes came quickly after that. It’s a straight line from Kroger’s shops starting to bake their own bread to the superstore and, beyond, to e-commerce.
One problem with all this progress is that, while other human beings can be annoying—clipping our nails on the subway, calling instead of texting, disrespecting the unwritten rule that the middle seat on a plane gets armrest preference—we need one another. Research suggests that even low-level social interactions—the kinds we have with our neighbours and mail carriers and local storeowners—form bonds known as “weak ties.” These connections have been shown to improve physical and mental health and to help reduce loneliness. “Even social interactions with the more peripheral members of our social networks contribute to our well-being,” concludes one 2014 study of weak ties—an important finding as rates of self-reported loneliness grow. More than a third of Americans over forty-five feel lonely, a 2018 study found. While some of this has been attributed to changing family dynamics (we get married later and less often than we used to, and we have fewer children), casual opportunities for social interaction, like those found when buying food, are a part of preventing isolation as well.
Sociologists studying weak ties in China have found that these types of interactions protect against memory decline and have suggested that more attention on weak ties may generate nonpharmacological treatments for dementia. A 2018 study of social integration on lung health, which is a marker of longevity, concluded that low-intimacy interactions help stave off age-related declines in lung function.
It isn’t just a question of grocery shopping being good for us: it turns out that many of us just plain like it too. Delivery services may save us the bother of a trip, and over time, algorithms might be able to recommend products that suit our needs—a peanut butter that matches our preference for creaminess, a breaded fish stick that aligns with our commitment to sustainability but falls within the parameters of our budget. The obstacle in the face of this optimization and cold logic is that many of us appreciate the distinguishing features of analog shopping: getting out of the house; the freedom of choice; being in a large, expansive space; the visual stimulation of all that abundance on the shelves; the discovery of new foods; even the game of choosing the right checkout aisle, the one with the fastest cashier. A 2017 Morgan Stanley study found that 85 percent of consumers cited the need to see and choose food as the reason for their preference for physical rather than digital shopping.
“People . . . often have a lot of pleasure in the food-shopping process. They get a lot of pleasure from choice,” says Josée Johnston, a University of Toronto professor who studies the sociology of food and its intersection with culture and gender. Historically, she says, “women’s identity as providers and carers, through food, is really wrapped up in that process of selecting food. Caring for people through food involves doing research. It involves reading labels, turning things over, having a tactile sense of whether it’s a good product. People . . . are invested in that process.” The gender dynamics may have shifted, but that basic relationship has not.
Sarah Fessenden, an anthropologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, in BC, says that we need to look back further than a mere century to see how we have become removed from our sources of food: the current tech innovations in supermarkets, she suggests, are just the latest microdevelopment in a much longer history that goes back at least 10,000 years to the twin advents of agriculture and exchange, when some humans stopped being foragers.
“What we know is central are the myriad relationships that are built around and attached to . . . food-getting strategies. So social relationships, political relationships, economic relationships, religious relationships—those are all built in and around food.” As foragers, we tended to share the food we collected. That changed as we started planting and harvesting crops. “When we get agricultural societies, they’re producing so much food that not everyone has to produce food anymore,” says Fessenden, pointing out that social hierarchies began to emerge at the same time as early agriculture did. “We’re not building relationships around food with one another. We’re not spending time with people. We’re not learning from them. When you buy food at supermarkets, it’s often already packaged and processed. It increases our situation of feeling isolated, alienated, and distanced. From an anthropological perspective, it’s clear how important food is. So, when you start losing it, it’s kind of like losing a language.”
While Canada lags behind other countries in the e-grocery game, the country’s largest grocers are betting on major change—and investing in it. Loblaws, anticipating developments in artificial intelligence and automation, is promising a $250 million investment over the next five years in retraining its workforce. In 2017, the company announced plans to close twenty-two underperforming stores in order to focus on online sales and delivery. Sobeys is building customer-fulfillment centres (CFCs) in Montreal and Toronto to compete with Amazon’s efficiency. Expected to be operational this year, the CFCs are a partnership with UK online grocer Ocado (which is doing the same thing with Kroger in the US) and will be similar to one in Andover, England, where 1,100 robots fill customer orders in just a few minutes. Metro is offering online sales and same-day delivery, in Toronto and Quebec to start.
Part of this change, however, involves trying to find new ways to preserve the kinds of stores we grew up with. Walter Robb, the former co-CEO of Whole Foods, helped launch the grocery chain in Canada; in industry circles, he is a bit of a celebrity. Speaking at a trade-show hall near Toronto’s Pearson airport last spring, he assured a crowd of retail executives that “physical stores still matter” and gave a buzzword-filled presentation—and, perhaps, some indications of where we’re headed. Robb says that the sale of Whole Foods to Amazon was necessary in order to pursue the two-tiered shopping experience of the future: competitive digital services bolstered by an enriched retail experience, like the in-store dining options known as “grocerants.”
Economists and technologists usually argue that innovations free our time for other, better tasks. That makes sense on the page. But who do you know who has more time for friends and family than even a decade ago? Yes, most of us have more leisure time than we did in the nineteenth century, when we had to go to a well to gather water and light a fire to boil it. But we have less time than we did fifty years ago, when our employers couldn’t reach us at all hours by phone, text, or Slack. We don’t shop online today so we can spend more time with our families. We do it so we can spend more time working. Because our jobs are unstable, our family lives are overscheduled, our housing costs require greater percentages of our incomes, and our futures are uncertain.
The trend in food retail over the last century has matched these broader social and economic developments: depersonalization, a steady march toward speed and convenience, and a shift away from the human relationships built around food. It’s only now, when the large, old supermarket chains feel threatened by new, digital competition, that they are motivated to invest more in the personal experience of shopping; cooking classes and in-store cafés provide us a reason to visit a physical store.
Last year, my wife and I moved from our condo to a house, and I’ve swapped my local independent stores for bigger shops in a supermarket. By foot, we’re probably twenty minutes from the old neighbourhood. Culturally, I often feel like Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas, dropped into suburbia by the federal witness-protection program. I have come up with all sorts of reasons why I need to get to know employees at the nearby supermarket: it would grant me access to the better produce or inside information on the timing of deliveries. (I’m a food writer; I’m a little obsessed with such things.) But these were a subterfuge for my real goal—forging a connection with the people who sell me food.
Before marriage and fatherhood, I enjoyed a mostly solitary existence. I probably would have claimed that I was alone but not lonely. If that’s true, it was due to the weak-tie social interactions I engaged in every day, hopping from a quick hello at the bakery to the fishmonger’s explanation of whether or not skate is considered sustainable to a five-minute conversation with Frankie about his ex-wife at the cheese shop. (Not all social interactions are created equal.)
“Food, along with shelter, is one of our most basic needs,” says Fessenden. “How we get our food is most definitely important. And the connections that we build are important. What we keep losing are those social relationships that we built on food being so central. And, if we’re not building those connections, then we’re losing a part of being human.”