Correspondent Tyler Mathisen and his producers do an excellent survey of the state of the "new town square where people want to come and spend time" -- at least that's the aspiration of behemoths such as the Giant Eagle outside Pittsburgh that has 65,000 products including 400 varieties of cheeses, 250 beer brands, rattlesnake meat and a full-time olive oil specialist among its 650 employees, two of whom perform a song-and-dance routine in the aisles.
My favorite segment is a look at a fisherman in Sitka, Alaska, who trolls for wild salmon with single lines and lures. Within 48 hours, his catch is displayed on the ice at a Whole Foods Market in Chicago at $14 a pound. So, you don't think a fish without bruises or net marks is worth $14 a pound?
Any devoted reader of MediaPost's cadre of newsletters will not be surprised by the segments on how supermarkets track their customers with everything from heat maps to Stop & Shop's handheld devices that buzz with deals when you pass by products you're prone to buy.
And Interbrand Design Forum CEO Bruce Dybvad is savvy about presentation and the allure of freshly baked bread and rotisserie chickens, but you've probably read about it, or even done it yourself, before. Innovations here are quickly duplicated there, after all -- it's the wily craft of "search and reapply," as one executive puts it.
But there's always something to learn. Stew Leonard's, for example, should heed the message about providing escape routes in their claustrophobic, maze-like aisles. And Costco could give the attention to detail that Henkel does when it's designing and prototyping its packaging. The detergent presumably flows a lot easier from Henkel's Purex containers, thanks to all that scalp-scratching and product testing, than the milk does from Costco's boxy plastic cartons. (There's a Facebook group for that, of course: Costco's Milk Jugs Suck.)
You can catch excerpts from the show here, or, if you don't want to miss the commercials for the likes of Pasta Boat, Pajama Jeans and Promises Treatment Center, watch it on CNBC at 8 p.m. ET tonight or at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday, Feb. 10.
"Supermarkets Inc." did get me thinking about some bigger-picture ideas. Literally.
The ubiquitous Martin Lindstrom tells the camera that despite all the information at consumers' disposal today, we're actually getting worse at what we do. We buy more than we need; spend more than we have to. He suggests that we leave the wheeled carts behind when we enter the supermarket and shop with a basket in our hands. Savvy retailers have bumped up the size of the carts even as studies show that shoppers will readily fill them with more stuff than they need.
Lindstrom also suggests shopping with freshly scented Benjamins rather than a credit card. You'll discover, he maintains, that breaking a $100 bill will "hurt like hell." Breaking a $200 bill, as I'd have to do if I followed his direction on my weekly jaunts to Costco, would presumably hurt like hell twice as much. But then I'd miss out on those American Express cash-back checks that seem to arrive willy-nilly in course of the year. Brilliant. On their part, not mine.
"The better we think we are [as shopper]," Lindstrom says, "the more we let our guards down, and the more vulnerable we are." That really hit home. Who among us has not returned from the grocery store triumphantly waving a cash register receipt that documents our sagacity and cunning to our spouses and partners?
"Congratulations!" it proclaims, as if you had just been awarded a Ph.D. in Epistemological Acquisition. "You saved $3.11, or 21%, on your order today!" And you've also got ten cans of off-brand black beans instead of one, and you know that they'll be staring at you for years from the shelving you've built in the basement to accommodate them and their brethren. Anybody need a bottle of ketchup?
I also pondered a paradox as I watch the report. As a boy growing up in metro New York, my family basically shopped at one store, once a week. Our allegiance to Food Fair or Daitch Shopwell or Waldbaum's or Bohacks may have changed from time to time for reasons that probably had something to do with current prices (or the sighting of a cockroach in the aisles), but there was none of this skittering around from grocer to grocer all the time. The stores were much smaller then -- probably not much bigger than the quaint 7,500-square-foot Kaune's in Sante Fe that Mathisen profiles -- but they seemed to contain everything we needed.
Obviously things have changed. Most of those chains have been gobbled up by larger fish, all of which are "second fiddles" to Walmart, which controls 25% of the market. (Gristedes remains in parts of New York City, but you think of them the way you think of the old couple in the rent-controlled apartment. Time is not on its side.)
Anyway, why is it that with all this abundance available at these huge emporiums, I find myself buying Goya Manjo Juice and America's Choice Seltzer at the A&P, Bounty paper towels and Earthbound Farm Organic Spring Mix at Costco, Italian parsley and fresh ginger at Hastings Prime Meats, whatever ice cream is on sale at Stop & Shop, organic maple syrup and butternut squash soup at Trader's Joes, wasabi nuts and a fresh quinoa salad at Mrs. Green's Natural Market and Kitchens of India Red Kindney Beans Curry from Amazon.com? And that's just in the last couple of weeks. I'm leaving out occasional excursions to Whole Foods, DeCicco Food Market and other establishments casually familiar with my credit card number. Do we all shop like this nowadays? Do we all carry more loyalty cards than keys on our key rings?
I don't have time this morning, but I'm sure there's a case to be made that things have not been the same in the grocery aisles since the demise of S&H Green Stamps.