Commodity and convenience services like curbside pickup and grocery delivery thrived during the height of the pandemic, and there are no signs of these online options going away. Even still, as e-grocery transactions grow, a majority of Americans continue to shop for their groceries in-store. Grocery brands have noticed and, in a category with historically tight margins, many are working to be more than a quick stop while also solidifying their role in the community. Enter third spaces.
More Than Nutritional Nourishment
The idea behind third spaces, or dedicated places where people can gather and socialize, is not new. The term was first coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, referring to places where people spend time between home (first place) and work (second place)—a place where the public can meet to share ideas and build relationships.
That sort of community responsibility is also not new to the grocery category. Grocery stores are an obvious destination for nutritional needs, but they were also once a place for social nourishment—a place to get what you need for the pantry, small talk with a friendly cashier, maybe run into (or hide from) a neighbor in the frozen food section. Could anyone imagine Stars Hollow without Doose’s Market?
But, as supermarket chains have expanded to serve the growing population, in some cases replacing the local market, many of the community aspects of the grocery store have been lost. The average grocery store footprint has increased to accommodate volume and selection, with rows of checkouts and self-checkouts ready to move swarms of customers out the door. That is if the customers even enter the store at all.
Thanks in part to a global pandemic, most grocery retailers have become curbside pickup and delivery hub. For many customers, it was, and still is, a much-appreciated service. But the last two years have rapidly shifted the grocery store experience, already swiftly moving in the direction of convenience. Whereas convenience stores have started to shift in the opposite direction, adding more fresh and prepared food options, even places to sit, stay, and work.
“When you build a community hub dedicated for community gatherings, it’s an incredible signal to shoppers and to that community that you’re more involved,” Barry Thomas, senior thought leader at consulting firm Kantar told Modern Retail. “Because some people still continue to spend more time at home following the pandemic,” he said, they’ve become more in tune with all things local.”
Get Thyme, Spend Time
Whole Foods could be considered a pioneer of grocery third places, having long offered a variety of spaces to hang out—from well-known wine nights to casual breakfast and lunch cafes to full-service craft cocktail bar to sit-down restaurant where you can order high-end menu items like a 20-spice bird or black truffle prime rib.
Whole Foods certainly isn’t alone when it comes to in-store eateries. Hy-Vee supermarkets have partnered with Wahlburgers, the burger joint founded by actors Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, to open in-store restaurant locations, while Sprouts Farmers Market recently announced it is debuting its first in-store coffee bar. Earlier this year, supermarket chain H-E-B began construction on a new store in Austin, Texas, which will include an in-house True Texas BBQ restaurant and an outdoor stage for live music.
Most people may not expect this level of food service next to the bakery or just down the aisle from their favorite morning cereals, but it’s a logical extension of in-store food retail and prepared foods, and it’s another way to grow the customer base. Creating gathering spaces that invite customers to slow down and spend time provides opportunities to plug into the local community and offer moments for families, friends, and strangers alike.
Creative Possibilities & Partnerships
While eating a chef-prepared meal based on grocery inventory makes sense, so does a focus on health in relation to dietary needs. Heinen’s, a regional grocery chain in Ohio and Illinois has added health and wellness partner to its repertoire by offering a space centered around using food as fuel—even medicine. The beloved brand recently opened a nutrition center next to one of its stores to help shoppers change their diets based on real personal health stats.
A simple health panel at the nutrition center provides customers with a comprehensive look at digestive, immune, and cardiovascular health. Armed with this information, the customer meets with a Heinen’s doctor and dietitian, who then make recommendations on what the customer should eat to improve their individual health. It’s reinforcing the connection between food and health in a way that few grocers, pharmacies, or even general physicians do.
“Why can’t a grocery store be the pharmacy of the future? So, we started down this path to try and help educate our customers about food and health and how they’re connected.”- Jeff Heinen, Co-Owner.
Leveraging food for better health often starts with an understanding of how to prepare food for nutrition and flavor. Publix Aprons® Cooking School, from Florida-based Publix Super Markets, is a place where customers can embark upon a culinary adventure using the kitchen staples they purchase at the store. Organic grocery store Natural Grocers regularly hosts seminars, cooking demonstrations, and health fairs throughout the year.
And then there are brands going deeper if you will. Gotham Greens, an urban agriculture company that operates sustainable greenhouses across the U.S., opened its second greenhouse on the roof of Whole Foods’ Brooklyn Flagship store in 2013. The innovative urban greenhouses not only provide fresh produce to markets nearby but also offer a place for local chefs to gather, socialize, and shop.
As described by Gotham Greens, the two brands have been able to “exhibit and educate the public regarding the latest technologies in local food production, sustainable energy, water conservation, and urban land re-use. It is perhaps the most ecologically-advanced supermarket development in the country.”
Rebuilding the Experience
In a global economy, grocers can only compete so much on price. And when the brand experience is reduced to commodity and convenience services (order online + curbside pickup or delivery), how do grocers begin to rebuild the experience? What will bring the customers back to the store? Spoiler alert, it won’t be rows upon rows of metal shelves and more self-service kiosks than the store down the street. Thoughtful third spaces, though not a cure-all, just might be part of the answer.