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A Shift to Smaller Grocery Stores?

August 13, 2009 Big Box, Retail, STL Region, Suburban Sprawl 12 Comments

The new Culinaria grocery store downtown is a delight.  It is stocked with everything one needs all in 20,000SF of space — a third the size of a typical new suburban big box grocery store.  But it has been the big box suburban store we’ve been getting in urban neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County.  These chains knew only one thing — bigger is better.

Loughborough Commons Schnucks Grand Opening, August 2006
Schnuck's Grand Opening at Loughborough Commons, August 2006

Finally, a different model, a smaller new store.  I’ve enjoyed smaller stores for years: Straub’s, Aldi’s, Trader Joe’s, Wild Oats/Whole Foods, Local Harvest, City Grocers, etc.  Some of these are now approaching the size of the big box stores while others are still too small to get everything you need.

The trick is being big enough to have all the items for a meal but without an motor oil, clothing or patio furniture.  The fact is the race to have the biggest store in town didn’t always mean the best place to shop for groceries.  With everything inside a third the size of a big box has me wondering if we’ll see a return to the well stocked smaller store?

Schnuck’s, family owned & privately held, got it’s start in the City of St. Louis:

Founded in north St. Louis in 1939, the family-owned grocery company has grown to include more than 100 stores in seven states: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Tennessee and Mississippi.  (Source: Schnuck’s)

The early stores were the traditional corner store that was common in walkable urban neighborhoods.  But as people left walkable urban areas to driveable suburban areas the concept of a market changed.  Refrigeration made it possible to keep food longer.

In my hometown of Oklahoma City the dominate grocery chain is now Walmart Neighborhood Market.  I’m not talking about a giant Walmart with a grocery section but a dedicated grocery store selling groceries.  These stores, at 40,000SF, are between the typical new Schnuck’s (60,000+SF) and Culinaria (20,000SF).  These Walmart markets are everywhere.

I’m a foodie.  My Facebook friends can confirm the many pictures I’ve posted of meals out as well as meals I’ve prepared at home.  If you’ve seen Julie & Julia you know Julia Child’s love of eating got her interested in cooking.  As someone that enjoys cooking, I’ve visited many grocery stores in many cities.

Bring out the “foodie” in you!

Culinaria is using the term foodie in their marketing.  With a growing emphasis on fresh and local I think we will see a shift away from the massive stores pushing groceries for a month.  I like going to the grocery store but I don’t like walking through unnecessarily large stores.  With a few exceptions, since my stroke a year and a half ago, I have avoided big box grocers.

Toronto, July 2006
Toronto, July 2006

Loblaws is a big chain in Toronto.  The store above is located in their suburbs along their subway line.  You exit the subway and the grocery store is right there so you can pick up items for dinner on your way home.

New York City, 2001
New York City, 2001

A right sized market, such as the above Whole Foods, can be located in older buildings.  You need high density to eliminate the need for parking.

Under NYCs Queensboro Bridge, 2001
Under NYC's Queensboro Bridge, 2001

In New York City wasted space under the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge was put to use for a nice market.

Vancouver market in walkable neighborhood, 2003
Vancouver market in walkable neighborhood, 2003

The above market was in new construction in a new walkable dense area of Vancouver.  I do not recall seeing any parking although it may have had a garage.  I was a pedestrian.

Seattles international district, March 2009
Seattle's international district, March 2009

These stores don’t have their own parking.  But I’ve been to plenty that do — a Whole Foods in San Diego with parking on the roof to Safeway & Trader Joe’s in Seattle with structured garage parking just for their store – in neighborhoods — not just downtown.  The idea of driving into a parking garage to go grocery shopping is not that odd.  I’d like to see it become commonplace in the core of our region.

Many of Culinara’s customers will walk there.  Others will use MetroLink which is only 2 blocks away (8th & Pine).  Many, however, will drive from within downtown or from nearby neighborhoods.  Those that do will get 1 or 2 hours of free parking, depending upon the day & time of the visit.

I’ll have to drive there one day to see how it works.  The unmetered 15-minute parking on 9th Street seems like it will become an issue with cars parked longer than 15 minutes.  Doesn’t seem right that this business would get free street parking for it’s customers.  I say put in meters and make the limit 30 minutes.

The new Culinaria is the grocery store we need not just downtown but throughout the core of the region.  A smaller footprint store for walkable neighborhoods where a big box and surface parking are out of character.  Hopefully we will see more of Culinaria here and in the other states where Schnuck’s has stores.

The above was written Tuesday after the grand opening of Culinaria.  Yesterday (Wednesday) I made a second visit.  This time I drove my car  – I wanted to see how the whole parking garage experience worked. They have a few issues to address.

Parking starts on level 3 of the garage. It seems like the first parking you get to is reserved for monthly parking permit holders who are assigned a numbered space.  When I got to 5 I crossed the middle point and headed downward to find disabled parking near the elevator.  I’m still not clear how far up the able bodied would need to go to find non-reserved parking.  I’m not sure how people will feel, on the weekend say,  about passing 2-5 levels of empty reserved parking before reaching spaces where they can park.

After I bought my 3 items I discovered the other problem, the shopping carts can’t leave the store.  So even if you drive to the store it is purchase what you can carry.  An associate got another associate to carry my canvas bag for me.  I had only 3 items but it weighed 7 pounds — 5 lb bag of flour plus two pound bags of dried beans.  It was too much for me.  I can understand not allowing the carts out onto the sidewalk but they really need to allow the carts into the garage.

The customer base for a store this size is larger than downtown dwellers & office workers.  Residents from nearby neighborhoods will be driving here to stock up.  And with the huge selection of items it would be very easy to purchase more than you can carry.  The carts have the sensor that locks a wheel if it goes too far.  They need to move the sensor to the outside door so that someone can get to the elevators.

When the associate and I got off the elevator at level 3 I realized that floor doubles as the employee smoking lounge.  Two employees were smoking in the semi-enclosed area off the elevators while three more were smoking adjacent to the disabled spaces.

When I left I handed the parking attendant the ticket I got when I entered the garage as well as the voucher portion from my receipt.  The $2 fee was covered by Culinaria.

As has been pointed out on other posts, this Culinaria store has been heavily subsidized.  It does not represent the free market at work.  What I hope will happen is that it will perform well to the point the Schnuck’s family will question the logic of building bigger & bigger suburban box stores.  We need more frequent stores that are easier to walk to and through.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "12 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jimmy Z says:

    An even smaller Walmart concept is Marketside (http://www.marketside.com/). And to their credit, Walmart does seem to be on the forefront of minimizing energy use in their grocery operations.

    I was wondering how Culinaria would deal with carts “wandering off”. Much like the paper/plastic/bring-your-own question, not everyone who isn’t driving remembers to bring their own means to get their purchases home. The wheel locks are a logical, albeit unintentional, consequence of an urban environment and a lack of respect for the merchant’s property by a minority of the customer base.

    One problem I’ve seen in many urban groceries is the challenge they present for people with disabilities, since they tend to have narrower aisles and product stacked higher on their shelves. I’ve yet to check out to Culinaria to see how they’ve balanced density with accessibility.

    It’s also interesting that you haven’t mentioned another local grocery operation, Save-A-Lot, that is both focused on smaller (±12,000 sq. ft.) stores and in locating in established, many-times walkable, urban areas. According to Wikipedia, they’re the “thirteenth-largest retail chain and sixth-largest chain under a single banner with more than 1200 stores in the United States with over $4 billion in sales.” They obviously don’t have the same cache as a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s, but they are supporting many urban neighborhoods that don’t aspire to be yuppie!

  2. Thanks for such an inspiring post. In Fairfax County, Virginia, a Harris Teeter recently left allegedly because the two-story space near a relatively urban, walkable area was too small. It has been replaced by a Walgreens, and the shopping center it once anchored is distinctly underperforming. Meanwhile, a 125,000 square foot Wegmans opened — also in an relatively dense, mixed use part of the county — with almost no pedestrian or bicycle accommodations.

    But at least we have grocery stores — way too many, in fact. Washington, DC has extremely few, especially in neighborhoods with low average household incomes. Baltimore has done a good job of attracting smaller retail groceries that are well integrated in the neighborhood fabric. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation did a good report a couple years ago on urban food markets and what some cities are doing to attract healthy food retailers.

  3. I loved shopping in smaller markets when I lived in Portland and I’m looking forward to using the Culinaria downtown. One thing you might consider, Steve, is getting a shopping trolley of your own. Europeans and big-city-dwellers use them everywhere and you can purchase them online as a fairly cheap investment. Start a trend downtown! CityMouseShop.com has several cute models to choose from (I’m not affiliated, I just like the site), along with reusable bags and other city-dweller paraphernalia.

  4. Tom Shrout says:

    Steve, glad to know someone else likes to visit grocery stores when out of town. On my agenda for next week is the grocery store in basement of Harrods in London. I have visited twice. This time I will be in a position to actually shop since we are staying in a flat and will be doing some cooking.

    Also visited the grocery store in the basement of the Bon Marche in Paris. It was outstanding.

  5. toby says:

    My development dreams include bringing back to life at least half of the old corner storefronts all over South and North City neighborhoods AS the corner grocery stores they once were. Any time one gets re-used – even as a private residence – I feel better. But the potential for a renaissance of community, retail and transportation by reviving them makes for great day dreams.

  6. Jimmy Z says:

    I had a chance to make it down for the end of the lunch rush today, and my first impressions are very positive: Busy, especially in the deli. 15 minute parking – worked for me. Limited selection – seems to be well-selected for the target audience. The only negatives area a somewhat discontinuous circulation path (a function of maximizing fixtures and minimizing aisles), the front doors (as you noted earlier) and figuring out the “bookstore-style” checkout for the first time – one line feeding a dozen registers, instead of multiple individual lines (I liked it – avoids the Murphy’s Law of always picking the slowest line). I also missed the self-service registers, but until I have to wait in line for one of the multiple small-order registers, I’m not going to complain.

    Given the volume the store is doing, and hopefully will continue to do, the yuck factor on the manual door pulls could become a real turn-off pretty quickly. If my wife is indicative of many shoppers, having to touch a groady door pull before and/or after handling food could become a deal breaker. So, besides for ADA compliance, figuring out how to do automatic doors and/or an air curtain seems like something that should be a near-term priority.

    The other positive I picked up was a real urban vibe, similar to the Capitol Hill King Soopers (aka Queen Soopers) near downtown Denver – I can see real posibilities for a significant singles scene developing here in the evenings, and it could be a real hoot on Halloween . . . Bottom line, off to a great start!

  7. megamike says:

    please please please
    bring a small grocery store (a decent one) to the north side, on Delmar
    thank you

  8. Andrew F. says:

    @Tom Shrout
    If you haven’t check out the premade food outlets. Particularly urban locations that come to mind are the Pret A Manger across from the Green Park tube station on Picadilly and the Marks and Spencer at Euston Station. Interestingly Pret A Manger is owned by McDonalds but they don’t see the market here.

  9. equals42 says:

    For the disabled it is obviously different, but when I lived downtown I had a simple rule: only buy what you can carry. With canvas bags, it is more comfortable to carry more but many downtown residents may be buying rolling baskets for grocery shopping soon. Wish this was there when I lived Downtown.

  10. theotherguy says:

    Was Loblaw’s in Toronto founded by attorney Bob Loblaw? Arrested Development joke.

    Living in Soulard, going to City Garden, the family decided to give Culinaria a try over the weekend. Selection was good, not great. Didn’t have some ‘family’ sizes of certain items, but did for others. For us, it will be more of a mid-week shopping destination, rather than load up the cart experience.

    Parking will be fine once we get the idea to park near the elevators. As it will only be for smaller trips, buying what we can carry should not be a problem even with milk and a child in tow.

  11. dwntwnresident1 says:

    I live downtown, right across the street from Culinaria in the Paul Brown Building. I love the new grocery store and I buy all of my groceries there….but what I don’t like is shoppers parking in my reserved parking spot. The author of the article wrote:

    “Parking starts on level 3 of the garage. It seems like the first parking you get to is reserved for monthly parking permit holders who are assigned a numbered space…I’m still not clear how far up the able bodied would need to go to find non-reserved parking. I’m not sure how people will feel, on the weekend say, about passing 2-5 levels of empty reserved parking before reaching spaces where they can park.”

    The 9th Street garage is where I park my car on a daily basis. And not for free. This garage was here long before Culinaria and downtown residents were using it before this store arrived. I pay a lot of money to park my car in this garage, in a ‘reserved’ space. It is very, very irritating when shoppers park in our ‘reserved’ spots. I’d say that the shoppers should be happy that they get 1 or 2 hours of free parking while they do their grocery shopping. Before Culinaria came along, there was no free parking in this garage at all. I don’t understand why shoppers would feel entitled to use these ‘reserved’ spots. That is absolutely absurd. It doesn’t make a bit of difference whether or not they are on the 3rd floor or the 10th floor if they park close to the elevator. I think it’s ridiculous for the author to imply that shoppers should feel slighted by passing up levels of empty ‘reserved’ parking spots. If they want to pay $100+ per month to reserve a parking spot in this garage, then they have the same option to do so as all of the other 9th Street garage renters. But for the time being, if a shopper chooses to park in MY paid for ‘reserved’ spot, then their car will just have to be towed.

    [slp — If most of the customers that drive to Culinaria think, as I did, that monthly holders are 9-5 weekday office types then they are not going to see the harm in parking there at other times. The point is the same, they needed to have clearly marked spaces for customers. Their literature all talks about the 3rd floor so by the 5th or 6th floor people must be getting frustrated. I feel your pain. They didn’t plan well.]


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