I am fluent in the language of grocery. I speak POS and SOP, FIFO and EDLP*. I believe Doose’s Market is the true star of Gilmore Girls and deserves its own mention in the opening credits. My favorite Christmas song is Dan Fogelberg’s "Same Old Auld Lang Syne," because unrequited love in a grocery store parking lot is the best kind of love. And I can’t help but feel that East of Eden is as much a story about the advent of the modern grocery as it is a biblical allegory. I mean, how can you have a produce department without a cold supply chain? (Admittedly, the phrase "cold supply chain" rarely, if ever, appears in Steinbeck's work.)
- POS: Point of sale
- SOP: Standard operating procedure
- FIFO: First in first out
- EDLP: Everyday low price
An Early Crush
My first grocery love, certainly, was Meijer. Every summer, I’d exchange my father's home in Columbus, Ohio for my mother's in Holland, Michigan. The first thing we would do would be to visit the aforementioned regional supermarket and pick up food for my stay. We’d stroll down each clean-smelling, fluorescent-lit aisle, perusing brightly colored, message-laden boxes in search of the favorites I wasn’t allowed to eat back home. Sugar cereals. Dinosaur-shaped Kraft Dinner. So, so many cans of Cherry Coke. (Later on, the aluminum-can redemption center at the back of the store would become my first personal revenue stream.)
My stepfather (a former Procter & Gamble guy) would run to the store in the middle of the night, returning with a banana slicer, ten pounds of hot dogs (they were a great buy), and giant cans of baked beans. For our makeshift summer family, grocery shopping was an event — a good one.
Though I started my adult career in advertising, I could not resist the grocer's siren song. What began as freelance design work for The Hills Market’s wine department became a full-time 13-year gig doing marketing for a group of stores.
Tucked away in a windowless office behind the meat counter, I dreamed up ideas to make our little grocery store popular. Bike rides. Pop-up restaurants. Market days.
It took me a minute or two to realize that all the best stories came to me on the perimeter of the store, and at least a year after to start to think about what seasonality truly meant to the business. In my childhood, peaches came swimming in a bath of syrup, not fresh from Georgia fields and for a limited time only.
A Growing Affair
My obsession did not diminish with time. My vacations included visits to grocery stores and producers, first across the country and then around the world. I used my coveted Grocery Store Marketing Director status as a pass into places that otherwise wouldn’t have been available. On a trip to San Francisco, I dragged my friend Maya to the Niman Ranch meat-processing plant. We ate burgers prior to our visit, just in case the experience turned us into vegetarians. (It didn’t.) Road trips anywhere meant a high probability of hairnets and booties. Breweries, goat farms, banana-ripening rooms, and slaughterhouses all required them. On a trip to the Philippines, I demanded to see a fish farm, only to learn, upon arrival, that the "farm" was merely a desiccated field in the dry season.
And oh, the store and market visits. Long before the advent of Instagram and food porn, I’d arrive back at the office with pictures from Woodland’s Market in Marin County and Union Market in Brooklyn, and any grocery, stall, or stand in between.
For one shining moment in my life, I even owned a grocery store. As a gift from my employer, I became a 5% shareholder of a traditional grocery store in rural Ohio. (The investment took a financial nosedive when a competitor opened nearby, but I got a nice tax write-off.)
Two years ago, my not-so-secret crush on one of the store’s vendors, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, became a full-fledged romance. They hired me on as Wholesale Marketing Director, and on my first day, I attended the Summer Fancy Food Show. My job? To work with grocery stores across the country and come up with unconventional ways to tell Jeni’s story in all manner of stores. Dreamy.
Introducing The Grocery Insider
You see, food brings people together. And in the supermarket, it’s a lot of people huddling together en masse. Browsing through piles of grapefruits and displays of sausages. Planning meals, aisle by aisle, to the tune of register beeps and "cheese department, line one."
In this column, I’ll share a little of the knowledge I’ve accrued throughout the years, and it’s my hope that this industry insight will make your weekly shopping a pleasure. We’re changing the way we shop, and grocery stores are paying attention.
I'll try to keep the acronyms to a minimum, and I’ll arm you with a tool or two. Bring ‘em along on your next trip, and don’t forget your reusable bag.