The New Supermarket: Not Your Mother's Grocery Store

Today's markets emphasize quality, variety, and convenience.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Where can you get freshly prepared salmon cakes, coconut-crusted mahimahi, and grilled corn on the cob with cilantro butter? I'm not talking about a fancy restaurant; this is just a typical day's fare at a supermarket near my house (Whole Foods). Life has changed dramatically in so many ways since my mom's generation was raising kids. So I suppose it's only natural that the grocery shopping experience reflects those changes.

Basically, you can sum up the new supermarket in three words:

  • Quality
  • Variety
  • Convenience

Quality at the New Supermarket

People today demand quality in their groceries, from the freshness of their meat to the flavor and beauty of the fruit they buy. Many are looking for organic foods, or foods free of artificial ingredients or hormones. And today there are more and more products and stores that specialize in bringing this type of food to you. (I don't think the word "organic" was even in my mother's vocabulary 40 years ago.)

I admit to being especially picky about my meat, fish, and produce. I buy my meat at only two places:

  • A smaller chain grocery store that still has an old-fashioned butcher department where they do the carving every day. That's also where I buy seafood.
  • Whole Foods, where I buy grass-fed beef selections.

For produce, I go into a variety of stores, not knowing what I'm going to buy. That's because I buy only the fruits or vegetables that look fresh and are in the best shape. Frankly, if they aren't firm and fresh, I'd rather buy my fruits and vegetables frozen.

Variety at the New Supermarket

One of the biggest changes since my mom toted me around as a toddler is that today's supermarket gives shoppers so many choices.

When you reach for a jar of bottled spaghetti sauce, you have to decide between brands -- and between the flavor selections within each brand. The cake mix section now includes mixes for bars, brownies, cookies, tortes, nut breads, and muffins. Instead of a couple of brands of peanut butter and a few types of jelly, you have jams and preserves in an assortment of flavors and degrees of sugar. And you can choose peanut butter that's crunchy or smooth, reduced fat, swirled with another flavor, or natural-style.

There are all sorts of choices in the bread aisle, too. "Light" bread, white bread, white bread with added fiber and nutrients, whole-wheat bread that looks white, whole-wheat bread that looks brown, multi-grain bread, French bread, gourmet bread -- you can even find whole-wheat hot dog and hamburger buns.

Convenience at the New Supermarket

There are lots of double-income families and single-parent households out there. And stay-at-home parents are often busy shuttling kids to and from various activities. The bottom line is that most people today are either pressed for time, or simply not interested in spending lots of time in the kitchen.

Supermarkets and food companies have answered this call for convenience by selling ready-to-eat items, like rotisserie chickens, deli salads, salad-in-a-bag (many even include the croutons and dressing), presliced apples, ready-to-bake or ready-to-eat pizzas, and prepared gourmet dishes. Many markets have help-yourself salad bars, fruit bars, olive bars, sandwich bars, and hot entree bars.

Need to pack bag lunches in the morning? It's a snap with individually wrapped items like presliced fruit, cut-up veggies with dip, snack bars, and preportioned cookies and crackers.

Of course, the ultimate in convenience is one-stop shopping. And if you think about it, the modern grocery store is really 10 stores in one. When you enter a supermarket in most any city in America, it's like going to a sandwich shop, a Starbucks, a pharmacy, a restaurant, a bank, a bookstore, a bakery, a florist, a liquor store, and a movie rental store -- all in one place.

Prices at the New Supermarket

While all this quality, variety, and convenience often comes at a price, bargain shoppers don't have to be left out.

Some of the big supermarket chains now offer offering "premium" house brand items, with exotic flavors or organic ingredients.

And there's at least one supermarket chain whose focus is offering unusual gourmet food items at bargain prices. At Trader Joe's, $50 will buy you bags full of groceries. But you won't find many of the items sold there at other stores -- the vast majority are the Trader Joe's store brand.

This is a dream supermarket for college students or young adults, because it has lots of "hip" convenience items like Middle-Eastern-flavored veggie burgers and frozen Thai appetizers -- but with an eye on cost. Although the company is based in California, you can find Trader Joe's stores all over the United States.